The question — and, even more so, his own answer — made Omar Olivera sigh heavily. But, yeah, he reluctantly admitted, having a giant shopping mall with a water park, a ski slope and a submarine ride in Northwest Miami-Dade County would be great. Even if it obliterates the pretty, winding canal in which he had just caught a fat bass with his fishing pole.
“If it does a good job of bringing in dollars, I’d say that mall is a net plus, even though it will be sad to lose all this,” Olivera said as he methodically plucked the hook from the fish’s mouth. “I understand people are worried about the traffic it will bring. But the biggest mall in America is bound to bring a lot of dollars, too.”
The canal where Olivera was fishing meanders through an unnamed and unincorporated residential area perched on the eastern edge of Interstate 75. It will be Ground Zero for any fallout if the plans announced earlier this month for the construction of the largest shopping mall in North America come to fruition.
American Dream Miami, as the $4 billion project is called, will include several amusement parks as well as hotels and condos on 200 acres tucked into a triangular area bounded roughly by I-75, Florida’s Turnpike and Northwest 170th Street.
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I-75 is currently the edge of civilization in that part of the county. To its west is the proposed mall site, a mostly empty tract of woods, scrub brush and drowsily grazing dairy cows. To its east lies the nameless suburban subdivision in which Olivera, a 31-year-old salesman who lives a couple of miles away in Hialeah, was fishing.
Many of the residents in the subdivision believe the mall will be a lively addition to a suburban neighborhood nestled along the highway between Northwest 170th and 181st streets — a neighborhood that is lovely and bucolic, but that in their estimation can also be a little dull.
And even those who hate the idea of a 200-acre shopping mall going up a stone’s throw away (provided the stone is thrown by Dan Marino) seem resigned to the idea that it’s futile to resist a project that will inject something between 7,500 and 20,000 jobs into an uncertain local economy.
“The county’s going ahead with it,” concedes Pat Collado, a paralegal who heads the Palm Springs North Civic Association, which includes the neighborhood. “There’s just too much money involved. … We hope they just don’t kill us with traffic so that we can’t move around our own neighborhood.”
If organized opposition to the mall should arise, it will almost certainly be due to traffic, because American Dream Miami will bring a lot of it. Triple Five, the multinational company behind the project, says American Dream Miami will be the biggest of its shopping properties, which include the Mall of America near Minneapolis (40 million annual visitors) and the West Edmonton Mall in Canada (30 million).
Right now, the site is served by only one highway exit: Northwest 183rd Street, off I-75 — which raises the specter of a dystopia in which the better part of 40-million-plus shoppers are careening through the surface streets of a neighborhood as they try to reach the mall.
“It’s going to be war!” exclaims day care center operator Angela Ortega, 52, a mall opponent who was standing in her front yard a few blocks from the mall site one recent afternoon, gesturing in frustration at the long line of vehicles exiting from one of the eight schools in the area.
“Look at the traffic we have now. And every day it’s worse.”
Public officials are sympathetic to her complaint. “That’s one of the things we’ve got to hear from the mall developer — how do you plan to get people into your property,” says Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, who represents the area. “Right now, 183rd Street is the only option. And if that’s the only way in on the final plan, this thing is dead on arrival as far as I’m concerned.”
Because I-75 and the Turnpike both run alongside the mall site (they intersect just north of it), the solution seems obvious: construction of new exits from those highways. And there’s apparently already been some discussion of just that between Triple Five and local authorities.
A spokesman for Triple Five, which has tried to keep a low profile since the plans for the mall were disclosed earlier this month, refused to comment about potential traffic problems and solutions. But Florida Department of Transportation spokesman Tom Martinelli confirmed that FDOT has been talking with Triple Five for about a year, and the developer has provided detailed estimates about the traffic it expects the mall to generate.
“So right now the department is in the process of evaluating those preliminary traffic projections,” Martinelli said. “Based on that, we will make some recommendations from an engineering angle.” He said it’s too early to provide any details.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a strong supporter of the mall, said “some kind of interchange” will be built. “But you’ve got to do it so people who want to get into the mall can do it without going east into the neighborhoods along I-75.”
Complicating the discussion is the locally infamous “bridge to nowhere” on 170th Street, long a point of contention in the neighborhood. Built in the mid-1980s for reasons nobody can exactly remember, the bridge extends 170th Street — a two-lane residential street running along a canal and a hiking path — over I-75 and into the area where the mall will be built. Once it passes over I-75, the street turns from pavement into a dirt road, then peters out altogether a couple of hundred yards before it reaches the Turnpike.
Vitriolic complaints from residents that road builders planned to link the road to the Turnpike and turn it into a major thoroughfare persuaded chastened officials to block it off years ago. Residents, however, routinely hop the fence to hike or bicycle on the other side — which is how they know that signs of development began to appear in the area last year.
Commercial-grade sewer pipes, fire hydrants and even street signs were being installed along the dirt roads inside the area, reviving ancient fears about hooking up 170th Street to the Turnpike. “It sure looks like they’re getting it ready for the freeway and the mall,” says Arasay Lopez, 39, an insurance agent who lives nearby. She supports the mall — “a waterpark we could walk to with the kids, that would be so cool” — but is worried that her street will be turned into what amounts to a freeway off-ramp.
Actually, the construction work going on inside the potential mall site has nothing to do with either the mall or the turnpike — it’s the start of preparations for an unrelated industrial park. But it does underline a central reality: Whether it’s American Dream Miami or something else, development is coming to the area.
“Regardless of this mall, development is already happening on the west side of I-75,” Gimenez notes. “That’s inevitable. What we’ve got to do is make sure it isn’t negative for the people who live on the east side.”
Nobody wants it to be negative for the traffic flows along the two busy highways, either. About 120,000 cars a day already pass the proposed mall site every day, according to FDOT studies, with that number projected to double in the near future even if American Dream Miami isn’t built.
One possibility is some form of mass transit. “What about shuttles?” wonders Bravo, who warily supports the mall if the traffic impact can be blunted. “At Disneyland, they send out vans to get visitors from hotels and whatnot. That might work pretty well. What about buses? Could we have a bus stop at the mall?”
Many of these questions will be aired in a series of at least five public meetings required for the land-use amendments and zoning changes necessary before construction on the mall can begin. Triple Five must also arrange financing for the project and do the massive design work on what it wants to build. Even if everything goes smoothly, officials believe it will be two to three years before ground is broken on American Dream Miami construction.
That’s a long time in which potential obstacles can appear, but there’s a relatively widespread consensus that the mall is nearly inevitable.
“It’s hard for me to doubt a guy who’s already done this twice and is on his third venture in New Jersey,” says Bravo, referring to Eskandar Ghermezian, the feisty head of the family-owned Triple Five conglomerate. “He’s not here just to entertain conversation. I think he wants to do this and he will do this.”
That will be fine with Joe Perez, a 52-year-old plumbing salesman who lives near the American Dream Miami site.
“I’m all for it,” he says. “I think we need some more activities around this area, especially for kids. It’s pretty rural back there.” And the traffic? “It’s already as bad as it can get,” Perez shrugs. “This is Miami.”