Miami soccer fans were elated when retired star David Beckham was finally awarded a major-league franchise after four years of fits and starts. Their long-cherished dream was in sight: a gleaming new stadium packed with chanting hometown supporters.
But the battle may have only just begun.
For Beckham’s group, winning the needed approvals to build a proposed 25,000-seat soccer stadium on the western edge of Overtown will be nothing like a free kick. Given burgeoning neighborhood opposition, in fact, it could easily turn into a slog that might remind the former English national of his perennial struggle to win in soccer’s World Cup.
Assuming Beckham’s new majority partners, brothers Jorge and José Mas, stick with the Overtown site and close on the final remaining piece of property for their land assemblage, they will face some daunting regulatory hurdles. Those include land-use changes, rezonings and the permanent closure of a busy thoroughfare, Northwest Seventh Street, not to mention environmental review and potentially contentious public hearings before appointed boards and elected officials. The area is located in the City of Miami.
That means plenty of opportunity for opponents of the privately financed stadium to block or delay approvals. Some neighbors are already pledging to fight the plan, both in historically black Overtown and in the adjacent historic neighborhood of Spring Garden. They cite some of the usual flashpoints, such as noise from games and concerts and the impact on local traffic, but also some singular elements of the announced plan, including the lack of on-site parking.
In addition, wealthy activist Bruce Matheson, who owns property in Spring Garden, is suing Miami-Dade County over its decision to sell the Beckham group a 3-acre truck depot yard for $9 million without seeking competing bids for the land.
“Our motto is, it’s not a done deal,” said Amanda Hand, a Spring Garden resident who has helped spearhead neighborhood opposition to the stadium in collaboration with some Overtown residents. “That we will challenge it at every step is absolutely true. There is potentially nothing that will change our neighborhoods more than a 25,000-seat open-air stadium with 40 events a year, including lots of concerts.”
The Beckham group did not respond to requests for interviews.
Going up against Beckham and the Mas brothers may seem like a David-and-Goliath match-up for local residents. But recent experience in Miami shows that determined opponents willing to spend some money can significantly gum up the approval works for major projects by filing challenges, lawsuits and appeals. And, sometimes, they even prevail.
A single activist, Grant Stern, has managed to stall, if not kill, a planned Midtown Miami Walmart store for several years by persistently challenging planning and zoning approvals. A grassroots group has managed to hold up a Walmart-anchored mall in South Miami-Dade County over environmental concerns.
Residents of the historic Morningside neighborhood in Miami’s Upper East Side have defeated several development proposals along Biscayne Boulevard over the years — including a pair of high-rises — through a combination of litigation and pressure on elected officials.
Matheson effectively forced the Miami Open tennis tournament to move out of Key Biscayne by blocking a planned expansion of the county’s Crandon tennis center in court. And though Matheson’s initial suit on the Beckham stadium was dismissed, he has filed an appeal at the Third District Court of Appeal. Because the court can take months to rule, the appeal could potentially delay approvals for months.
Spring Garden residents, meanwhile, have earned a reputation for being fiercely protective of their riverside residential enclave, one of the oldest in Miami. They’re just coming off a small but surprising victory over the city and another developer who sought to open a restaurant at a marine industrial site across the Miami River from Spring Garden. In winning an 8-1 favorable vote from the city’s zoning board, Spring Garden residents argued the restaurant would bring unwanted noise to the area and violate protections for marine businesses.
Spring Garden has another not-so-secret weapon in Hand, a former assistant city attorney who specialized in zoning and land use law. Hand has helped forge an alliance with an influential pastor, Bishop James Adams of the St. John Institutional Missionary Baptist Church, who has raised concerns about plunking down the stadium in the middle of a mostly low-income residential neighborhood.
Adams, who said he’s been seeking a sit-down with the Mas brothers, hopes they decide to pursue a different site. Speculation has it that the new majority owners, who have been silent since celebrating the awarding of the franchise, dislike the Overtown site that was selected before they joined the Beckham group.
Adams and Spring Garden residents note the stadium, which would not be used most days, will not bring about the kind of economic development Overtown needs.
“I don’t know which way they will ultimately go, but I’m sure they are individuals of reason and will more than likely know that’s a poor location for a stadium,” Adams said of the Mas brothers. “Certainly there has to be sensitivity to the fact that that is a historic black neighborhood.”
Andrew Dickman, an attorney who represents the Miami River Marine Group, a business association, won a landmark case on behalf of river residents against the administration of Miami Mayor Manny Diaz a decade ago. The decision blocked rezonings of existing marine-dependent business along the waterway.
While he says the Beckham group could eventually win needed approvals, it won’t be easy. Dickman, who practices in Naples and Miami and is also city attorney for St. Pete Beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast, is not involved in opposition to the soccer stadium.
“I know getting the franchise was Round One,” Dickman said. “This is Part Two of the very difficult job they have in bringing soccer to Miami.”
The Beckham group does not yet own its chosen stadium site. While it purchased six acres of privately owned land for about $19 million in 2016, it has until June to close on its pending $9 million purchase of three acres of county land.
The properties are divided by Northwest Seventh Street. The Beckham group has said it would seek to close the street permanently to build the stadium facility over it.
But closing the street is an issue for both Overtown and Spring Garden residents because it would make it harder to get in and out of both neighborhoods. Because Spring Garden is bordered by the Miami River and a canal, there are few entry points into the historic enclave. Seventh Street leads into the only access point on the neighborhood’s east side, the quaint Humpback Bridge.
The stadium lots are classified as commercial and industrial and would likely require rezoning. The city says one approach would be to use a controversial zoning tool called a Special Area Plan, which gives owners of properties of more than nine acres and city planners considerable flexibility to go beyond the letter of the city’s zoning Miami 21 code.
“It would most likely need certain flexibilities where a Special Area Plan may be most appropriate and likely encouraged,” said assistant city planning director Luciana Gonzalez in an email.
But Miami city commissioners have grown leery of what some critics have claimed is the city’s overuse of SAPs, which are often unpopular with neighbors in residential areas. And the Beckham land is not quite nine acres, meaning it might not qualify for an SAP, which could make the planning and zoning approvals more difficult.
The extended city approval process also offers the kind of exit ramp the Beckham partnership may be looking for if it opts to bolt for another site. The Mas brothers, Beckham’s first local partners, have raised the possibility of other sites in private conversations and are said to have concerns about the lack of parking in the Overtown plan and whether that location is the best fit.
The word “Overtown” was not mentioned during the downtown Miami event on Jan. 29 when Beckham made his triumphant return to the city to celebrate Major League Soccer’s approval of his expansion franchise.
The speeches did not touch on the economic-development messages on jobs and local contracts that had been key in earlier messaging to Overtown residents and their elected leaders. Though Spring Garden residents have been openly concerned about noise from the stadium disrupting their lives, Mas promised the “most raucous, loudest, most fun” game experience he could provide.
And he also promised to redefine the stadium experience in Miami, with entertainment options before and after the games. But in Overtown, he’s facing a stadium site that’s particularly compressed. By contrast, Marlins Park sits on about 17 acres of land and features modest amounts of ground-level retail options.
Francis Suarez, Miami’s newly elected mayor, said in a recent interview that opposition from Matheson and others was enough for him to consider an alternative stadium site.
“I would be open to it,” Suarez said in January. “I think the current site has some issues that everybody has sort of acknowledged, related to the opposition from some members of the community.”