The backers of a plan to bring America’s largest mall to Northwest Miami-Dade touted the project as a second chance to give Miami the kind of tourist attraction it lost when Disney opened its theme park near Orlando 45 years ago.
“We have a great hole in Miami-Dade’s economy,” said Joe Goldstein, a lawyer for the Graham Companies, the local development firm partnering with the owner of the Mall of America to bring a larger version of the retail theme park near Miami Lakes. “Now is the time to fix the loss of Disney.”
Armed with jumbo placards showing the indoor ski slope and domed water park that would be the top draws of the proposed American Dream Miami, Goldstein and other advocates made their case before the Community Council zoning board that oversees the area.
It was the first hearing of its kind for the six-million-square-foot complex, and one that set the stage for a larger fight as the project inches toward a final vote before the Miami-Dade County Commission next year. The council recommended the commission accept planning staff’s recommendation that the application be forwarded to state agencies for review — the vote that American Dream Miami and Graham Cos. sought.
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American Dream Miami claims it will draw about 30 million visitors a year and would transform vacant land between I-75 and the Florida Turnpike into a massive mall and amusement park. An industrial complex to be built by the Graham Cos. would be built just south of American Dream Miami, and the two projects are pursuing approval together.
The proposal has raised concerns about an influx of shoppers and tourists adding to an already congested highway system in the area, which is near Miami Lakes and Hialeah.
Eskandar Ghermezian, head of the Alberta-based company behind the project, issued a blistering condemnation of other mall operators on hand at the Lawton Chiles Middle School for the Community Council meeting on Tuesday night.
“If you are a homeowner, you have all the rights to be here,” said Ghermezian, whose family-owned company, Triple Five, owns the Mall of America and Alberta’s West Edmonton Mall. “But if you are a developer, or a shopping-center owner,” he said, his voice rising to a shout, “standing in the back there, to oppose me, they have no right to be here!”
He was referring to a group backed by some of Miami-Dade’s largest mall operators, including owners of Miami International Mall, the Dolphin Mall and Bayside Marketplace, that later spoke against the project before the council members. Jeff Bercow, representing the South Florida Taxpayers Alliance, said the more than 500 acres needed by the two projects constituted far too large a footprint to be manageable. “That’s larger than eight of the cities in Miami-Dade County,” he said.
Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a former state senator and lobbyist representing American Dream Miami, said the size of the project brings with it an historic influx of nearly 15,000 jobs, enough to make it Miami-Dade’s largest private employer. “American Dream Miami is an economic-development project, first and foremost,” he said. “You get to create an engine that can drive Miami-Dade County.”
Early speakers in the public hearing endorsed the project, and struck a theme similar to the developer’s paid lobbyists and consultants: give local residents an alternative to Orlando’s theme parks.
Debbie Weiss, who described herself as a Miami Lakes homeowner and a mother of nine, said she was thrilled at the prospect of a retail theme park near her neighborhood.
“We need to take two Tahoes to Orlando,” she said. “I don’t like schlepping to Orlando. We need something here.”
Backers of the project say planned improvements, including a new interchange at 170th Street, will accommodate the traffic. They also argue the theme park will be less of a burden on highways than the warehouses and offices that would go up in that area eventually if not for American Dream Miami.
Critics at Tuesday’s hearing spoke last and focused on the project’s size, arguing that anything grand enough to have an indoor ski slope was bound to turn traffic upside down in surrounding areas.
“This mall,” said Glenn Marcos, a resident of the nearby Palm Springs North community, “will be our American nightmare.”