Miami-Dade County

American Dream Miami’s mega-mall plan: economic miracle or a mirage?

Rendering of the American Dream Miami retail theme park.
Rendering of the American Dream Miami retail theme park. Triple Five

American Dream Miami sees its plan for a massive retail theme park in Northwest Miami-Dade as a historic boost to the county’s economy, employing nearly 15,000 people and providing enough over-the-top attractions to rival Orlando.

But opponents call the pitch less of a dream and more of a mirage, arguing that the six-million-square-foot mall would swamp traffic while sapping jobs from existing retail centers.

“There’s no net economic benefit from this project for the county,” Robert Weissert, head of research for Florida Tax Watch, told a local zoning board this week. “The jobs that are created are being destroyed in other places. They’re being cannibalized, they’re being displaced. Jobs leave from one area and go to this project.”

There’s no net economic benefit from this project for the county

Robert Weissert, head of research for Florida Tax Watch, on American Dream Miami

Economics helped frame the opening skirmish Tuesday night between American Dream Miami and its would-be retail rivals in Miami-Dade, with the two sides facing off in the community council hearing held in a middle school auditorium less than two miles from the proposed project site.

“You get to create an engine that will drive this economy,” Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a land-use lawyer and lobbyist representing the project, told board members. “American Dream Miami is an economic-development project, first and foremost.”

On the one side: American Dream Miami developer Triple Five, the Canadian company that owns Minnesota’s Mall of America and Alberta’s West Edmonton Mall; and the Graham Cos., the Miami Lakes developer that provided land to the 200-acre project and wants to build residential and commercial on about 340 acres just south of the proposed retail theme park.

On the other side: the South Florida Taxpayers Alliance, a group backed by the owners of the Dolphin Mall (Taubman Centers), Miami International Mall (Simon Property Group) and Bayside Marketplace (General Growth Properties).

“What we’re talking about today is one gigantic project,” said Jeffrey Bercow, a land-use lawyer and lobbyist representing the Alliance.

The community council, a county zoning board, voted to forward American Dream’s proposal on to the county commission for a preliminary vote in January. A final decision is expected in May, provided the project survives the initial vote.

Tuesday’s hearing offered a glimpse at the bitter, behind-the-scenes confrontation under way between Triple Five and its would-be competitors in Miami. Before the vote, Triple Five head Eskandar Ghermezian lashed out at the idea of existing mall operators coming to the public hearing to oppose the $3 billion proposal.

“If you are a homeowner, you have all the rights to be here,” said Ghermezian. “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!”

From the start, Triple Five positioned its Miami venture as a milestone moment for Miami-Dade. It wants to build an even bigger version of the Mall of America near Miami Lakes and Hialeah, a 150-acre wedge of undeveloped land between I-75 and the Florida Turnpike.

Along with 3.5 million square feet of retail, American Dream would build a portfolio of rides and attractions unlike anything south of Central Florida. Those include a domed water park, a 16-story artificial ski slope, an indoor roller coaster and a lagoon with submarine rides.

Backers of the project say it could fill a void in the county’s tourism landscape, which lacks large, regional attractions.

“We have a great hole in Miami-Dade’s economy,” Joe Goldstein, a lawyer for the Graham Cos., told council members. “Now is the time to fix the loss of Disney.”

American Dream Miami is an economic-development project, first and foremost.

Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, lobbyist and land-use lawyer

While American Dream says its entertainment offerings make it more of an attraction than a shopping destination, the coalition of existing malls in Miami-Dade are trying to deflate that argument. Alex Heckler, a lawyer and lobbyist representing the Taxpayer Alliance in Miami-Dade, identified the retail companies backing the group. He also represents Turnberry, owner of the Aventura Mall, but said that firm is not part of the alliance.

The alliance hired Florida Tax Watch to study American Dream Miami’s economic claims and produced a critical study by the county’s former chief economist.

Robert Cruz, who lost his county job in 2015 and now is Tax Watch’s chief economist, wrote that department stores outside the Mall of America, Triple Five’s flagship property in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington, saw “paltry” employment growth after the massive facility opened in 1992.

Cruz wrote that department stores elsewhere in Minnesota saw stronger growth (1.2 percent versus 0.3 percent in Minneapolis), confirming the views of Mall of America critics “who worried that hiring at the mega-mall was almost assuredly displacing jobs” instead of creating new ones.

In his report, Cruz also noted that Miami-Dade already enjoys status as “a shopping ‘Mecca’ ” for tourists, particularly international travelers. He wrote American Dream Miami “would not likely have any unique economic benefits as the applicant’s analysis suggests.”

The report was a rebuttal to American Dream Miami’s own economic analysis, which predicts the project would add $1 billion worth of real-estate value to the county’s tax rolls and pay more than $35 million a year in local taxes. The study by Miami Economic Associates predicted 14,530 full-time jobs at the property, with about 60 percent earning less than $25,000 a year. Building the massive theme park would produce 23,000 jobs, with almost all of them earning more than $40,000 a year, according to the December 2015 study for the developers.

A study by Miami-Dade’s planning department found that American Dream Miami could add up to $1.7 billion to the region’s economy — roughly the size of South Florida’s production industry, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The report also said American Dream Miami could fulfill a longstanding county goal of creating a new entertainment district to help “solidify” Miami-Dade’s “place as a destination center.”

But the report also noted the American Dream site will eventually produce jobs, since the county’s growth plans already call for the land to be developed with warehouses and other industrial uses.

“There is no doubt that, when completed, the American Dream Mall will create jobs and infuse money in the economy of Miami-Dade,” the report stated. “Yet development of the same site for industrial acres would, most likely, provide higher-salary jobs…” The report noted that the industrial uses would take longer to materialize, while American Dream Miami wants to open in 2019.

Ghermezian declined to answer questions after Tuesday’s hearing, and Triple Five representatives were not available for interviews Wednesday.

Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida not involved in the project, backed Triple Five’s assertion that creating a theme park in Miami-Dade would boost the county’s retail and tourism sectors.

“This is not just the Gap and Banana Republic,” Snaith said in an interview. “If it becomes a destination, a Mall of America-type thing, that pulls people from outside of the area, that’s a bonus to the economy.”