Miami-Dade commissioners gave resounding approval Tuesday to a land deal needed to bring the nation’s largest mall to the northwestern part of the county near Miami Lakes and Hialeah.
The four-million-square-foot American Dream Miami complex, a shopping and entertainment theme park big enough to have a ski slope and submarine tours, is now cleared to buy, for $12 million, state land that Miami-Dade would obtain using the developer’s money. Developer Triple Five, which owns the Mall of America in Minnesota, needs the 82-acre parcel to complete a 200-acre assemblage where Interstate 75 meets Florida’s Turnpike.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez urged commissioners to give a speedy OK to the request, since it involved no county funds. Once completed, the deal allows Triple Five to begin the arduous process of winning regulatory approval for a $4 billion complex that would include a water park, an indoor beach, a lake with real submarines, a sea-lion show and a mini Legoland theme park.
“What an opportunity this is for so many people in our community who would like to have a job,” Commission Chairman Jean Monestime said at the start of the debate that ended with an 11-2 vote.
Commissioners Daniella Levine Cava and Xavier Suarez cast the dissenting votes, saying there wasn’t enough time to consider a project that was only made public about two weeks ago. Administration officials and county lawyers circulated revised deal documents in the hours leading up to the meeting.
“This was negotiated in secrecy beyond public scrutiny, and there is insufficient time for the public to express its concerns,” Levine Cava said. “We have not provided the neighbors enough time to weigh in.”
The project would rise on the western edge of Miami-Dade’s development boundary, on vacant land that’s currently covered by trees and cow pastures. American Dream does not plan to hook into the county’s water system, and instead will rely on water from nearby Hialeah and its new water plant, county and company officials said. (The county’s sewer director, Lester Sola, later told commissioners that the project could tap into Miami-Dade’s water system if it wanted to. )
Tuesday’s proceedings marked the local debut of Triple Five and the feisty head of its family-owned conglomerate, Eskandar Ghermezian. While most speakers make a show of accommodating commissioners’ inquiries, the developer behind two of North America’s largest shopping destinations made clear he wasn’t there to entertain demands.
“Members of the council, I do not need to build here. … We are a family that is very well off,” said Ghermezian, whose family also owns a shopping theme park in Edmonton, Canada, that’s even larger than the Mall of America. As commissioners began pressing him on local hiring requirements in the proposed land deal, the developer questioned why he would need to offer more than the American Dream itself. “Please don’t create any problems for me,” he said.
Commissioner Barbara Jordan noted Ghermezian had agreed to pay for three people to monitor compliance with hiring and vendor targets mandated by the land package. Jordan asked whether such a large venture needed more oversight. “We really need to have at least six people,” Jordan said.
“I don’t want even those three people,” Ghermezian replied, his voice rising. Jordan laughed. “I don’t understand it,” he continued.
The developer’s remarks struck a chord for some supporters on the dais, who noted Miami-Dade was mostly acting as a conduit for Triple Five to purchase state land that it wants to house a theme park big enough to be the county’s largest private employer.
Commissioner Rebeca Sosa said trying to put more obstacles in front of Ghermezian helps explain why large businesses steer clear of Miami-Dade. “When people out there say they go to other counties, it’s because of how hard we make it for them,” she said. “We should welcome whoever comes here and invests without using taxpayer dollars.”
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he turned down Triple Five inquiries on county subsidies, but that he expects the company to seek state help. He also said Miami-Dade will hold at least five public hearings on the American Dream project as it works through the county’s regulatory process, which includes the zoning change needed to approve the complex.
Triple Five still has some minor hurdles to clear for the land deal. The county’s school board takes up the matter Wednesday, but it is expected to approve surrendering its lease on about half of the state land in exchange for a $7 million payment from Triple Five. State officials also must approve the transaction. Miami-Dade would use its right of first refusal to buy state surplus land to obtain the 82-acre parcel from Florida, then sell it to Triple Five.
Triple Five predicts 25,000 jobs at the American Dream complex, but the land deal approved Tuesday included a requirement that it create just 7,500 full- or part-time positions within 15 years. If the hiring goals aren’t met, the company must pay Miami-Dade $5 million. Gimenez said the lower figure reflected the chance that Triple Five couldn’t clear regulatory hurdles for building the 200-acre complex.
Gimenez’s 2016 challenger, school board member Raquel Regalado, has criticized him for championing the mall project, saying Miami-Dade needs more than low-wage retail jobs. Gimenez pointed to high-wage engineering and computer positions that would come with such a large enterprise, but defended the need for positions on the lower pay scales, too.
“Rather than demean those positions, and the people who occupy them, I welcome them,” Gimenez told commissioners. “As a teenager, I began parking cars. I didn’t start off as mayor. I pumped gas.”
Commissioner Dennis Moss said later: “I would certainly love to have 7,500 high-paying, high-tech jobs in Miami-Dade County. Where are they?”
Triple Five has not released any specifics tied to its proposal; a development brochure given to the county uses interior renderings from a similar project under way in New Jersey. In his comments, Ghermezian said Florida’s Turnpike is an ideal artery for the project, and that there should be no worries about traffic.
“Traffic, traffic, traffic, traffic,” he said. “Not one day have I had a traffic jam at the Mall of America.”
Esteban “Steve” Bovo, the commissioner representing Miami Lakes, said Ghermezian should expect scrutiny on his traffic plan once it is made public.
“I have a serious transportation concern,” he said. “Not today, but we’re going to need to address the transportation concerns.”
Also on Tuesday, commissioners:
Rejected a proposal to end free rides on the county’s Metromover transit system in Miami. In 2002, Miami-Dade ended 25-cent fares for the automated cars after promising free rides to voters if they approved a half-percent sales tax dedicated to transit projects. With most of the other promises tied to the tax campaign still on the to-do list, including expansion of Metrorail to the western suburbs, proponents argued it was time to make Metromover passengers pay for rides, too. The measure failed 10-2.
Unanimously approved a $10 million settlement for a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by a fired Miami-Dade transit official who raised objections to mishandled transportation grants several years ago.
Proceeds from the $9.9 million payout go to both Marjan Mazza and the federal government itself. In 2010, Mazza filed a lawsuit against Miami-Dade on behalf of the United States. The lawsuit claimed that she was fired as assistant director of financial services after raising the alarm over county misconduct involving millions of dollars in federal grants. Her inquiries came amid a well-publicized scandal over federal transit funds, which led the U.S. Transportation Department to briefly freeze payouts to Miami-Dade. The scandal reached a head in 2010, a year before Gimenez took office after the 2011 recall of then-mayor Carlos Alvarez.
A memo to commissioners for Tuesday’s vote said the settlement will pay $6 million to the federal government and $3 million to Mazza.