A land deal at the heart of an ambitious plan to bring the largest mall in America to northwest Miami-Dade County got the green light Tuesday from Gov. Rick Scott and Cabinet members.
In a unanimous vote in Tallahassee, the four-member Cabinet approved 82 acres of state land to Miami-Dade for $12.3 million. The county will then sell it for the same amount to American Dream Miami developer Triple Five.
Some of South Florida’s largest malls urged the Cabinet to reject the American Dream deal, an early sign of the fight ahead for Triple Five as it pursues a shopping destination large enough to have its own indoor ski slope and sea-lion habitat.
“Government should not be deciding winners and losers,” said Shobi Khan, chief operating officer of General Growth Properties, which owns the nearby Pembroke Lakes Mall, as well as downtown Miami’s Bayside Marketplace. “This process has lacked transparency in terms of a formal bidding process. And for the Florida taxpayers, they’re not getting fair compensation for this land.”
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The approved transaction allows Triple Five to avoid potential competition in the state’s surplus-land protocols, which give local counties first shot at any spare real estate before it goes up for sale. It also marked an early win for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, whose administration spent the last year negotiating the American Dream deal in secret and then won quick approval for it last month from the county commission.
With American Dream projecting as many as 25,000 full-time jobs and a $4 billion construction project, Gimenez touts the project as a historic economic boon for Miami-Dade. Critics, including mayoral candidate Raquel Regalado, portray American Dream as bringing mostly low-paying retail jobs and traffic woes. Triple Five owns the Mall of America in Minnesota, and sees Miami able to support an even larger destination.
Gimenez flew to Tallahassee to advocate for the deal, and told Cabinet members the project’s location between Interstate 75 and the Florida Turnpike makes it “really the ideal site for transportation purposes.” He also emphasized the value of any employment for people trying to survive.
“The way out of poverty is a good-paying job,” he said.
Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho also spoke in favor of the deal. The school system held a 50-year lease on part of the state land, and Triple Five agreed to pay an additional $7 million for the school board to cancel the lease. “I think we negotiated a good deal,” he said.
Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting marked the first public sign of deep-pocketed opposition to American Dream Miami. Along with General Growth, Simon Property Group, owner of Broward’s popular Sawgrass Mills mall, also spoke against the deal.
Turnberry Associates, owner of Aventura Mall, the largest mall in Florida, did not address the Cabinet but also opposes American Dream.
“We don’t believe in it,” said Jackie Soffer, who runs the company with her brother, Jeff. “I don’t believe in the way the government is handling this.” Soffer, whose company is one of the largest contributors in local races, met with Gimenez on Monday on an unrelated project and but she said American Dream did not come up. “I don’t see it as competition to us,” Soffer said. “We’re much more high-end.”
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, one of four elected state officials on the Cabinet, made the motion to approve the deal, describing the undeveloped property as merely “82 acres of melaleuca.” Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater quickly endorsed Putnam’s motion, but expressed wariness about the state’s appraisal of the land’s value.
“I’m just going to question whether we’re getting the best possible return for the taxpayer,” Atwater said. “I really do question.” But he noted that no one else had offered to buy the property.
Triple Five is securing the rest of its 200-acre site from private owners, and most of it comes from developer Graham Companies. While it now has the needed footprint for its four-million-square-foot project, the company faces a long path of regulatory approvals involving transportation, zoning and land-use clearances.
When he won county commission approval last month for Miami-Dade’s role in the land sale, Triple Five head Eskandar Ghermezian emphasized he did not need another mall project, bristled at requests from the dais, and at one point told commissioners, “please don’t make any problems for me.” When he addressed the Cabinet on Tuesday, his voice rose as he responded to critics.
“Some of these developers are worried that — oh, if I build it, I take business from them,” he said. “When I built Mall of America, Simon [Property Group] built a center right beside me.”
“I don’t know,” Ghermezian added, “if I have the energy to put this project together.”