Miami-Dade County

Transit at center of brewing fight over American Dream Miami mega-mall

An artist’s rendering of the proposed American Dream Miami in Northwest Miami-Dade, as proposed by developer Triple Five.
An artist’s rendering of the proposed American Dream Miami in Northwest Miami-Dade, as proposed by developer Triple Five. Triple Five

If Miami-Dade wants the largest mall in America, its political leaders will have the chance to officially say so in the coming weeks.

The approval process for American Dream Miami, the 6-million-square-foot retail theme park proposed for Northwest Miami-Dade, is slated for its first public hearing Tuesday night before a local zoning panel. The schedule calls for a preliminary vote before the County Commission in 2017, setting up the next two months as a crucial testing ground for what’s proposed as an even larger version of Minnesota’s Mall of America.

Traffic promises to be a top concern. American Dream Miami claims it can attract some 30 million visitors a year, and bills itself as a regional tourist attraction with plans for an indoor ski slope, submarine rides and other theme-park offerings.

On Monday morning, Mayor Carlos Gimenez, an early advocate of the American Dream project, met with the developer behind the effort, Eskander Ghermizian, whose family-owned company, Triple Five, also operates the Mall of America. A spokesman for Gimenez said the mayor emphasized that winning public approval for the project depends on proving it won’t add to the county’s gridlock.

“The mayor made it very clear: there are issues with traffic you will need to address,” spokesman Michael Hernández said Gimenez told Ghermizian. Ghermizian family members and Triple Five representatives backed Gimenez in his successful 2016 reelection bid.

Representatives of Triple Five were not available for interviews Monday. They’ll get a chance to make their case at the Area 5 Community Council meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Lawton Chiles Middle School, 8190 NW 197th St., Hialeah. The appointed councils make local zoning decisions for areas outside city limits in Miami-Dade, and their recommendations head to the County Commission for final approval.

The mayor made it very clear: there are issues with traffic you will need to address

Michael Hernández, spokesman for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez

For American Dream Miami, the question for the 13-member commission will be whether to send along the application to a patchwork of state agencies for preliminary approval. The application would then get sent back to Miami-Dade for a final decision, probably in April.

Felix Lasarte, a land-use lawyer and lobbyist not involved in the American Dream project, said developing that area shouldn’t be too much of a zoning challenge since the county’s long-term growth plans already call for significant commercial construction there. But by proposing a tourist attraction, Triple Five has to deal with the transportation questions that a typical commercial developer doesn’t.

“It’s really just a matter of how much infrastructure you need to put out there so it doesn’t become a traffic nightmare,” Lasarte said.

Proposed for 150 acres of mostly undeveloped land between Interstate 75 and Florida’s Turnpike, the American Dream Miami site would attract up to 5,000 car trips an hour on a typical day. That’s more than double the planned ceiling of 1,800 trips an hour under current planning guidelines, which contemplate that area becoming a new office and industrial district. In all, about 70,000 vehicles are expected to visit American Dream Miami on a typical day.

The undeveloped land has no real access to Miami-Dade’s public-transportation system, and a county report estimates it would cost about $3 million a year just to extend bus service to the complex. Extending rail there would mean hundreds of millions of dollars in construction costs alone.

Jose “Pepe” Diaz, the county commissioner whose district includes the American Dream site, traveled this summer to the Mall of America and Triple Five’s other large retail complex, the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada. Diaz said the county trip in June left him mostly encouraged about Triple Five’s plans for Miami-Dade, though he noted both facilities enjoy easy access to rapid transit.

My concern — and it’s a big concern — is transit. I don’t know how they’re going to be able to do it without some kind of rail being put into it.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose ‘Pepe’ Diaz

“I had to go see it myself to make sure it is what the people say it is,” Diaz said. “Do I like it so far? Yes. But do I have some concerns? Yes, I do.”

He said American Dream will need a major transit system to reduce traffic on already congested roads, and said it’s a “good question” whether Triple Five or taxpayers would need to foot the bill.

“My concern — and it’s a big concern — is transit,” Diaz said. “I don’t know how they’re going to be able to do it without some kind of rail being put into it.”

So far, Triple Five has only offered to run shuttle buses between its property and major tourism hubs, including Miami International Airport and Port Everglades. A report by Miami-Dade’s Planning department noted the buses also could be discontinued if Triple Five determined the demand wasn’t strong enough to justify the shuttles.

Mark Woerner, the county’s planning chief, said transportation negotiations would continue if commissioners accept his office’s recommendation to send the application on for state approval. “Everybody has been looking at this long enough,” Woerner said. “I think we all know what the issues are.”

This version corrected one incorrect reference to Triple Five, the name of the company behind the American Dream Miami project