Developer wants to take control of three Miami streets

Developers of downtown’s massive Miami Worldcenter project want to assume control over some city streets, drawing loud objections from business owners and activists.

04/22/2014 7:47 PM

09/08/2014 7:16 PM

The developers of the massive, multiblock Miami Worldcenter complex are asking the city to turn over sections of three downtown streets for inclusion in the project, raising sharp objections from some nearby business owners and activists who call the proposed deal a giveway.

Miami Worldcenter representatives say they need control of the streets to create their promised pedestrian-friendly city-within-a-city in what is now a desolate stretch north of downtown, the city’s former Skid Row. All three street sections, they say, would be returned to public use once the project’s first phase is finished — two of them as urban pedestrian promenades lined with shops and restaurants à la Lincoln Road Mall.

The third, a block of Northeast Eighth Street, a principal east-west connector, would reopen as a vehicular street with wider sidewalks after construction of a building that would span over the roadway.

The street-closure plan, which has been endorsed by the city planning department and in a unanimous vote of the Miami planning and zoning board, goes to the Miami commission on Thursday.

Critics of the proposal complain the city would get little in return beyond a $185,000 administrative fee for transferring control of 90,000 square feet of valuable downtown real estate. With land sales downtown now surpassing $150 a square foot, the dirt under those streets is potentially worth millions of dollars, they say.

“I’m not against the project, but I’m against giving the streets away for free,” said downtown activist and entrepreneur Brad Knoefler, who has tangled repeatedly with Miami Worldcenter even as he sold his Grand Central Lofts building to the developer. “We’re not talking about closing down some little alley in Little Havana here.”

Opponents also say they don’t trust Miami Worldcenter’s developers to make good on their promises, noting that they have yet to turn a shovel nearly a decade after the city first approved the project.

“The city has been bending over backwards for this group for 10 years, and what have we seen from them?” asked Chris MacLeod, who operates The Corner bar, owns some small properties and co-founded the Cannonball artists’ residency program a block from the Worldcenter site. “They almost went under. Their lots are unkempt. So at what point does the city stop accommodating this group?”

The Miami Worldcenter project dates back to the last downtown development boom, when the city approved a special zoning plan for a dense mix of commercial and residential development on half a dozen mostly vacant city blocks controlled by the developers. The plan, compared to Rockefeller Center, was hailed as a harbinger of transformation for the long-squalid former warehouse district sandwiched between Biscayne Boulevard and Overtown.

Miami Worldcenter, which is embroiled in lawsuits by some former participants in the project, nearly foundered in the recession. But its principals brought in new investors and have since expanded their holdings, acquiring the old Miami Arena site, the former site of the Camillus House homeless shelter, and adjacent properties like Knoefler’s.

In recent months, Miami Worldcenter has announced deals with other developers to build a hotel and convention center on the arena site and a mammoth urban retail complex on its other properties, to be anchored by Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s.

Its principals say the city will gain more than it’s giving up in closing the streets.

The total amount of right-of-way that Miami Worldcenter would eventually give over to public use along the streets and pedestrian promenades will be greater than the amount of land now occupied by the existing streets and sidewalks, said Worldcenter principal Nitin Motwani.

To provide widened sidewalks along Eighth Street, for instance, Worldcenter will encroach into its own property, he said. The net gain in public right-of-way will be more than 10,000 square feet, he said.

Motwani said that taking control of what are now crumbling, deserted streets is essential to converting them into active east-west connectors that would weave together new condo towers along Biscayne Boulevard, the Worldcenter project — which would eventually include residential, as well as retail components — and the planned hotel and convention center to the west, on the old Miami Arena site.

In addition, as a condition requested by the city as part of previous project approvals, Worldcenter must build two public plazas on its property consisting of a combined 34,000 square feet.

“We’re giving more than we’re taking. And we’re giving it back for pedestrian-friendly use. These guys are talking about having a more pedestrian- and bike-friendly neighborhood, and that’s what we’re trying to do here,” Motwani said, referring to Knoefler and other critics of the deal. “We’re trying to create a neighborhood. We’re trying to create a livable area.”

The debate over the disposition of the street sections hinges in part on complex rules over ownership of streets in the area.

Miami Worldcenter’s attorneys at Greenberg Traurig say the city doesn’t own the streets to begin with, and thus cannot sell them to the developers. The streets were dedicated to public use when the area was originally platted a century ago, but ownership of the right-of-way technically remains with adjacent property owners, said attorney Iris Escarra.

So while the city’s community redevelopment agency recently sold off sections of a nearby alleyway for more than $10 million to a Miami Worldcenter affiliate and another developer, it cannot do so with the streets now being sought by Motwani’s group, Escarra said.

If not cash, the deal’s critics say, the city should extract other public benefits, like green space or a park, in return for the land.

“They should pay a price for it,” said activist Peter Ehrlich, a one-time city commission aide. “The city should get some value, whether it’s money or a park. Instead, they’re saying, ‘Give us 90,000 square feet and we’ll build you something nice,’ if we’re lucky.”

Some opponents also question why Worldcenter needs to retain ownership of the streets. Under the group’s proposal, Worldcenter would cede them to public use through a legal device known as an easement.

They also note that adding on new real estate to its site would allow Worldcenter to expand its project by several thousand square feet, although Motwani said the developers don’t intend to.

And some also question the wisdom of permanently shutting down sections of Northeast 9th Street and Northeast 7th streets. The streets help to dissipate traffic congestion by giving motorists alternate routes to and from Biscayne Boulevard and the State Road 836 ramps, especially when Miami Heat games at nearby AmericanAirlines Arena clog up the area.

“It can become a bottleneck,” MacLeod said. “It’s going to end up being a significant problem.”

Motwani says the critics represent a minority viewpoint in the area. Groups and individuals ranging from Miami Dade College to All Aboard Florida and the Park West Overtown Community Redevelopment Agency have written letters of support for the street closings.

Ted Weitzel, developer of nearby Poinciana Village, was one of several people who signed petitions in favor of the street closures Tuesday night at a public meeting held by Miami Worldcenter to explain its rationale. Weitzel said he favors the street closings so long as Eighth Street remains open to cars.

“That was my main concern,” he said. “It helps their project and whatever helps their project helps us. You figure with the taxes and with the jobs from this project this will really help downtown.”

There are also built-in guarantees to ensure Miami Worldcenter builds the public street and promenades it’s promising: The development could not get an occupancy permit if those are not ready, Motwani said. And if nothing is built within four years, the streets would remain under city control, he said.

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