The Ground-Breaker

Albert Dotson Jr. reshapes landscapes—and young lives while he’s at it

Published in 2010 Florida Super Lawyers — June 2010

Albert Dotson Jr. could be forgiven if he looked out at the landscape from his 25th story offices overlooking Bayfront Park, with its sweeping panoramic vistas of the Miami skyline, and proclaimed, “And it was good.”

That’s because Dotson has played a key role in any number of big projects that have transformed Dade County and beyond. Projects like the Omni International Mall, Jungle Island, Overtown Transit Village and the Marquis Tower. 

But Dotson, 49, a top Bilzin Sumberg zoning and land use attorney, is happy to leave any grand pronouncements to others. Nattily attired, with gray-flecked hair, he comes off as affable, soft-spoken and self-effacing. And then there are his off-duty achievements, which include delivering the opening remarks at a 2008 Democratic presidential debate on behalf of 100 Black Men of America (an organization that mentors middle and high-school students), and landing an invitation to the White House for a speech by President Barack Obama on the importance of mentoring.

Dotson’s duties literally are all over the map. He represents developers seeking government approval for projects and businesses seeking to procure government contracts or comply with ones they’ve already landed. He negotiates economic incentives for corporate clients, deals with federal claims of eminent domain, and helps put together public/private project partnerships.

A typical example of a construction project that Dotson handled might be Marquis Tower, formerly the site of a Howard Johnson’s. Before the project was approved, a slew of issues arose. Should the garage be curved or open? How tall could it be? Could art be displayed around the building, and if so, what kind? Dotson steers his clients through such matters.

“It really is an opportunity to represent your client in fashioning a development that is compatible with the surrounding neighborhood,” he says. While ambitious developers might be focusing on the art of the possible, Dotson must balance that with the art of the practical. 

“There might not be anything in a zoning law that prevents a developer from erecting a 20-story building, but there might not be another 20-story building in the neighborhood. Neighbors could hold up that development for years. The last thing you want is to have these rights you can’t exercise, so we have to impress upon clients the practical nature of what can be done, as well as their legal rights.”

Having spent much time on civic activities, Dotson is able to see the project from the community’s perspective, which adds to his value and maximizes his clients’ chances of landing the contract. His litigation background becomes an added asset after the project is approved.

These days, yet another skill is required: dealing with wild Internet rumors about proposed development projects that can quickly surface and gain traction on blogs.

Dotson cites a local church that wanted to expand and was bedeviled by false rumors about its supposed size, adjacent parking lots, the staging of concerts, etc. “I suggested to the client that we could wait till the hearing and battle it out there, with, if you will, the angry mob, which is generally the worst thing you can do, or call several community meetings and combat the rumors head-on with the facts.” The church opted for the latter, and the meetings were a success.

“During the procurement process we have to be particularly careful about what noise there is on the Internet,” Dotson says. “Because, at the end of day, elected officials are going to make a decision on which vendor to go with, and their merits might be equal—except for some rumor in the media—and you have to be pro-active and go to the decision-makers and say, ‘You may have heard this and this, but here are the facts.’”

With a smile, he quips, “We like to say that we bring communities together: oftentimes against us, sometimes in support of us.”

Dotson grew up in a lower-income community in Detroit with four siblings. The family came to Miami, via Chicago and Atlanta, when Dotson was 17. His father was “the first African-American to achieve a number of executive positions at Sears,” which involved various transfers. He describes his mother as “the most brilliant and loving housekeeper one could have.”

For a while, Dotson wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do professionally. “I always said I wanted to be a lawyer. I believe my statements and my heart met each other along the road.” More specifically, they conjoined while he was at Dartmouth, which he had attended on the advice of his mentor, prominent Miami attorney Robert Josefsberg—“the reason I went to Dartmouth,” Dotson says—who later persuaded him to practice law in Miami. While a junior, Dotson interned under then-State Attorney Janet Reno. He went on to Vanderbilt University for his law degree. Shortly after returning to Miami, his father asked him to talk to a young woman who served on a board with him and was interested in attending law school. Dotson convinced her not only to enroll but also to marry him. Today, Gail Dotson is an assistant city attorney for Miami, and the couple have two children, ages 12 and 14.

Dotson’s first position after law school was with Fine Jacobson, where he handled real estate transactions. He then joined Jenner & Block, where he obtained litigation experience, and later re-joined Fine. Dotson believes this combination of skill sets makes him uniquely effective in his field.

For the past 15 years, Dotson has been an elected official of 100 Black Men of America, originally founded by, among others, Jackie Robinson and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, and which now has some 160 chapters worldwide. For the past five years he’s served as chairman of its board.

Sometimes he brings the students up to his 25th floor offices. “When I was in high school, I don’t think I went north of Coconut Grove more than once, and I was never in one of these buildings,” he says. “They just seemed like these massive, concrete structures where ‘things happen.’ It’s important to let them see an environment many of them thought only existed on TV or movies.”

For Dotson, it’s all about preparing the next generation of ground-breakers.

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