Miami commissioners enthusiastically agreed Thursday to turn over sections of three downtown streets to the developers of the multi-block Miami Worldcenter project, brushing aside objections from critics who called the move a giveaway and raised concerns over its effects on traffic.
By a 4-0 vote, with Commissioner Frank Carollo absent from the dais, the commission agreed to Miami Worldcenter’s plan to permanently close sections of Northeast Seventh and Ninth streets between Northeast Second and North Miami avenues. The streets would be converted into public pedestrian promenades lined with shops and restaurants.
Under the plan, a block of the third street, Northeast Eighth Street, would be reopened to vehicular traffic with broader sidewalks when the project’s first phase, a massive retail complex, is completed. A portion of a building would span the street, a principal east-west connector between Biscayne Boulevard and Interstate 95.
Commissioner Keon Hardemon, whose district includes the project’s Park West site, said that granting the developers’ request was a “no-brainer’’ because the benefits to the public from the project, which seeks to revitalize a long-desolate and largely vacant swath of land, easily justify vacating the streets.
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Only Commissioner Francis Suarez directly addressed critics’ concerns — that permanently closing off Seventh and Ninth streets would lead to increased congestion on surrounding blocks, and that the city should receive compensation, whether in cash or in the form of a large park, for surrendering control of valuable real estate.
Suarez said he had “trust” that Miami Worldcenter developers would not create a traffic problem for themselves. And he noted the city could not ask for compensation for the streets because it doesn’t legally own them. The streets were dedicated to public use when the area was platted, but ownership of the right-of-way technically remains with property owners.
“We cannot sell our streets,’’ Suarez said. “We don’t own them.’’
Miami Worldcenter representatives said the street closures are necessary to create a coherent and pedestrian-friendly development that significantly improves the area, an old warehouse district that was once the city’s Skid Row.
Miami Worldcenter principal Nitin Motwani pledged that his group would return more square footage to public use than it is taking once the new pedestrian promenades and the reconfigured Northeast Eighth Street are opened to the public. Motwani said the street closure plan had drawn support from numerous property and business owners in the area as well as residents in nearby Biscayne Boulevard condo towers.
But testimony during the hearing suggested the developers’s street-closure plan might still face some hurdles.
Leoncio de la Peña, an attorney for an adjacent planned development north of the Freedom Tower on Biscayne Boulevard, laid out a series of “grave concerns’’ over the impact of the street closures. He called Miami Worldcenter’s traffic analysis “deficient’’ and hinted his client, Chateau Group, might seek to challenge the closures.
Hardemon, meanwhile, raised questions about how Miami Worldcenter plans to finance the promised street improvements. The developers are seeking creation of a special taxing district in which a portion of property taxes generated by the project would go to pay for street and other infrastructure improvements.
But Miami-Dade County, which would have to approve the taxing district, has been reluctant to expand such schemes, which are authorized by state law, because they can draw revenue away from its coffers. Because the properties lie within the existing boundaries of Miami’s Overtown community redevelopment agency, they could also draw tax money for Miami WorldCenter that could otherwise flow to other redevelopment projects in the area.
Hardemon suggested that matter would be harder to decide.
“Is it in the public interest to vacate these streets? I have no trouble answering that question,’’ Hardemon said, before adding: “Although [the plan] is beautiful, it is quite costly. Then the discussion becomes about the [tax] revenue to pay for this. There will come a time when you will request some type of assistance from the CRA.’’
During the public hearing, several critics, including members of the Urban Environment League, which passed a resolution against the street transfers, asked commissioners to put off a decision while the effects of the closures could be studied.
Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes adjacent portions of downtown, roundly rejected the idea.
“We all know what goes on Seventh and Ninth streets. It’s where the homeless gather,’’ he said. “This is Miami’s chance to fill in the downtown. This is the time for Miami to act.”
The Miami Worldcenter project, which nearly foundered during the real estate collapse, 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.
Though embroiled in lawsuits by some former participants in the project, Miami Worldcenter principals Art Falcone and Motwani attracted new investors, Centurion Partners from California, and have expanded their holdings by purchasing several adjacent properties, including the old Miami Arena site.
In the past several months, the group announced deals with other developers to build a large hotel and conference center on the arena site and a multi-block commercial center anchored by Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. Residential towers are also in the works, Motwani says.