Miami-Dade commissioners on Tuesday may take the first step toward bringing the nation’s largest mall to undeveloped land west of Miami Lakes, a $4 billion project that promises to reshape the county’s tourism industry and test how much traffic the area can handle.
The 4-million-square-foot American Dream Miami would be a larger version of Minnesota’s Mall of America, which reports 40 million visitors a year. Developer Triple Five is the company behind both ventures, and it needs commission approval for a land deal that has Triple Five paying nearly $20 million for 82 acres of state property where Interstate 75 meets the Florida Turnpike.
Triple Five already controls more than 120 acres around the government-owned site, and plans a massive shopping theme park that would be large enough to house both the Aventura Mall (2 million square feet) and Sawgrass Mills (1.97 million square feet), according to data from the International Council of Shopping Centers. A draft development brochure shows a sprawling and mostly air-conditioned attraction with an indoor ski slope, artificial beach, water park, submarine rides, condos, hotel rooms, a Legoland and a sea-lion show.
While regulatory approvals could take years, county commissioners on Tuesday are slated to consider the broader question of whether an accelerated land sale is justified by the “anticipated economic and community benefits” from the project. The vote comes 12 days after Mayor Carlos Gimenez first disclosed the project’s existence in a March 5 interview with The Miami Herald.
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Counties get first dibs on land within their boundaries that the state of Florida declares surplus, and Gimenez wants Miami-Dade to use its authority to buy the 82-acre site and then sell it to the developer. Triple Five would provide the cash for the $12 million purchase from Florida.
Triple Five would also pay another $7.3 million to compensate the county school system, which holds a long-term lease on about half of the property in case residential development ever required building schools there. School officials say they have no need for the land, and the school board is set to consider the lease issue on Wednesday.
The legislative package up for a commission vote bypassed the board’s committee system. It also waives a string of county rules governing land transfers, including that they be routed through Miami-Dade’s Planning Advisory Board, that two appraisals be conducted on the real estate in question, and that an actual sales contract be presented to commissioners rather than just the outlines of a deal. The legislation Gimenez proposed said the $12.3 million sales price is still being negotiated with Florida.
Gimenez, who has been in talks with Triple Five for about a year, said the quick decision is needed to scoop up the state-owned land at no cost once Florida declares it surplus. He’s characterizing the vote as a procedural step that will allow commissioners and other officials to eventually consider the project’s impact on land-use, the water supply, traffic and other quality-of-life issues.
“This is just the assemblage [of the land] right now,” Gimenez said in a recent interview. “If you cut it off there, you cut off the debate.
“We need to hear both sides. This community, sometimes, doesn’t want to even hear anything,” he continued. “I think this is a good project. Now, the devil is always in the details. We need to hear the details.”
The fast-track approach brought a blistering critique from Commissioner Juan C. Zapata, a frequent Gimenez critic who said he’s used to the administration demanding quick decisions on complicated deals.
“This is what I now call the Gimenez special,” said Zapata, whose western district does not include American Dream Miami. “Pop these things out of nowhere, and ram it down our throats.”
A key part of Tuesday’s vote involves how many permanent jobs Triple Five is willing to promise or risk paying a $5 million fine. While the developer’s proposal touts 25,000 jobs at American Dream Miami, the contract negotiated with the Gimenez administration requires just 7,500 jobs by 2030 in order to avoid the penalty.
The figure represents 75 percent of the low end of a county estimate of how many people might work at a 4-million-square-foot shopping complex, said Jack Osterholt, the Gimenez deputy mayor in charge of economic development. Osterholt said his original estimate was 10,000 to 20,000 jobs, but that he now accepts Triple Five’s forecast of 25,000 jobs. Gimenez said he denied Triple Five’s request for county subsidies for the project, but that he does expect the company to pursue state dollars.
Triple Five has yet to grant an interview on the project, and a spokeswoman declined to comment again Monday. Tuesday’s vote would be final, and commissioners may use the opportunity to make demands of the company in exchange for approval. On Monday, Commissioner Xavier Suarez released his proposal for Triple Five to help fund an extension of the county’s Metrorail system the 10 miles between the mall site and the Palmetto station.
Daniella Levine Cava, the county’s newest commissioner, who ran with union support, said Miami-Dade may be in a position to require higher wages for Triple Five employees. But she said her private briefing with Triple Five executives did not leave her ready to oppose the project.
“What I’ve learned has not raised any immediate alarm bells,” she said. “I’m going to be asking questions.”
IF YOU GO
Miami-Dade County Commission meeting
Stephen P. Clark Government Center
111 NW First St., Miami
Meeting starts at 9:30 a.m. Members of the public may speak for two minutes at the beginning on any topic before the commission.