The Canadian developers call it American Dream Miami.
The name fits only because the mega-sized project has received dreamy treatment by a county government that, on one hand, says traffic is the No. 1 problem to solve, and, on the other, fast-tracks what no one, not even supporters, doubt will be a traffic nightmare.
Hence the project has earned the nickname “American Nightmare Miami,” a riff on developers’ pitch that this is Miami’s answer to Disney World in the form of the largest mall in America and water theme park on a 200-acre tract in Northwest Miami-Dade.
The grandiosity, however, only delivers in size, thousands of low-wage jobs, and profit potential to developers — and hardly in real benefits to long-established area residents and commuters between Miami-Dade and southwest Broward.
Unlike largely undeveloped Orlando when Disney opened in 1971, the mega-mall land is bounded to the east by well-established communities — some tightly packed into zero-lot line developments that created the area’s original traffic jams. Two highways intersect here too, the Turnpike and I-75, both already at capacity.
The project was dreamed up by Canadian company Triple Five (owners of Mall of America in Minnesota) in collaboration with the local Graham Companies, which quietly sold them a big chunk of the land while the Miami Lakes company planned its own huge development of home, office and retail space next to the entertainment complex. The two also are teamed up for county approval. Quite the power play.
Like so much of the overdevelopment in Miami-Dade, the project’s passage through the approval process illustrates how government undermines community. While smaller projects that require zoning variances are the subject of plenty of county notices about hearings, not a single one about the megamall/theme park has been sent to the thousands of affected area residents.
Worse yet, county staff outright pushed the Miami-Dade Planning Advisory Board to send the project to the county commission for preliminary approval. The 1½-year time limit for the developer’s application to be approved or declined by the planning board was running out. Whose fault? The developers, whose plans are still incomplete.
What kind of a planning board sends to a county commission for approval incomplete plans for a life-altering megamall and theme park?
A rubber stamp one.
“Staff asked for us not to kill it… asked us to pass it on to the Metro Commission so they could continue negotiation,” board member Richard Tapia, a college professor, told me. The board didn’t recommend it, he and others said, just “transmitted it.” Tapia favors the project as a tourism and jobs booster even if he acknowledges “the traffic concern” and that retail jobs are low paying. He hopes the project will propel a Metrorail extension to the area (dream on) and that the developer will pay for dedicated ramps on the highways (keep the dream alive). But by voting to send to the commission, didn’t he and all the other members who voted for it just sabotage negotiating leverage? Anyone ever heard of a developer who voluntarily paid for something not in writing before a project gets the green light?
More likely, Triple Five and the Graham Companies will be asking for tax incentives. The state Department of Transportation has already spent taxpayer funds on the roads surrounding the mall. But special ramps, promised in the salespitch to quell area residents’ objections to the megamall, should be paid by the companies. It’s the least they can do.
The planning board had the opportunity to delay, set things back to square one and demand more committed and detailed plans — if not outright killing the boondoggle. But, predictably, the board — made up of people connected to the construction industry, real estate, and politics — passed it along to the county commission and washed its hands by diminishing the impact of its move.
The Disney World train left Miami in the 1970s.
Disney worked for Orlando because the city rose around a well-planned entertainment extravaganza — not the other way around. And, I should note since I travel there frequently, Orlando and its surrounding communities also have major traffic messes as a result. But at least the natives can find back roads around the Disney properties and the assorted mind-numbing entertainment industry that has risen around it.
American Dream Miami, on the other hand, is a giant intruding on established working-class and middle-class communities that stand to lose the real American Dream they achieved with homeownership in suburbia. In selling Triple Five the land and extending development around the megamall/theme park, the Graham Companies are only adding to the erosion of quality of life. I’m not exaggerating when I say the Grahams have sold out the once Rockwellian Miami Lakes, the master-planned community they so proudly built.
If county officials don’t stop fast-tracking every step of the American Dream Miami approval process, scale back and negotiate who pays for what — and if they don’t provide adequate mitigation to traffic woes — the better comparison will be found not in Disney, but in a painting at Madrid’s El Prado Museum: Goya’s famously dark depiction of Saturn eating his children.