Asked to pass judgment on building the nation’s largest mall, a South Florida planning council on Monday said it would need a little more time. And it agreed to take a vote late next week.
Members of the South Florida Regional Planning Council rejected their staff’s request that they declare the American Dream Miami project “generally consistent” with local development goals. With the recommendation distributed Friday evening, members complained they had only the weekend to review the recommendation for a six-million-square-foot project in Northwest Miami-Dade that’s large enough to have an indoor ski slope, submarine rides and more retail space than Minnesota’s Mall of America.
“I have to object to our even taking this item up right now,” said Steve Geller, a Broward commissioner and council member. “I’m not a Miami-Dade commissioner. I’m a Broward commissioner. Our [county] staff hasn’t had the chance to analyze this.”
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The back-and-forth of the obscure board headquartered in Hollywood captures a larger debate over the American Dream project, which sits about a mile south of the Broward line. Critics point to a steamrolling push for approval before Miami-Dade can extract deals from developer Triple Five on traffic, transit funding and other concessions. Representatives of the Canadian company, which owns Mall of America, say state law dictates the timetable and that the project has already been extensively vetted in the public for close to two years.
“We’ve been around for over a year and half,” said Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, the former state senator representing American Dream as a lawyer and lobbyist. “We’ve had two meetings in this very room.”
Council staff said they only received the paperwork from Miami-Dade last week and had to secure a speedy vote in order to inject the board’s verdict into a 30-day review of the project by Florida.
Miami-Dade had expected Florida to take an extra month to review American Dream, which would be the county’s largest development. But Mark Woerner, Miami-Dade’s planning director, said Florida opted to stick with the standard one-month process. The state review was triggered by Miami-Dade giving initial approval of the project on Jan. 25, and the Planning Council’s recommendation would head to Tallahassee, as well. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Economic Opportunity said the review schedule complies with state law.
With Florida’s review under way, the American Dream project faces a final vote before the County Commission in May or June, according to the most recent county schedule. Diaz de la Portilla said Monday the mall plans to open in 2022 and would be built in a single phase. Current plans call for the retail theme park, which expects to attract more than 40 million visitors a year, to be served by county buses and new highway overpasses.
While the planning council’s recommendation is new, the board — made up of elected officials from Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties — has already held hearings on the American Dream plan. And Broward County’s own planning staff has been analyzing the project for impacts to the northern county’s roads and transit system. In September, Broward’s planning division wrote Woerner with its own objections, including concerns more study is needed on traffic outside of Miami-Dade.
“I’d just like to express our concerns for the record,” Josie Sesodia, the Broward planning director, told members of the planning council Monday. “We should have the issues in Broward County adequately addressed.”
Geller’s objections on Broward’s behalf helped lead the Planning Council to agree to reconvene on Friday, March 10, at 2 p.m. to take up the $3 billion American Dream application. The stakes aren’t high: The state-chartered body mostly can offer commentary in an approval process that revolves around Florida and the Miami-Dade County Commission, and council members are already signaling the project’s likely endorsement .
“The traffic issue can probably be worked out,” said Michael Udine, another Broward commissioner. “Then we can all be kumbaya when it comes back to us, and move forward.”