The Pentagon’s subsidiary in South Florida is quietly exploring whether to expand its office-style headquarters to function more like a traditional U.S. military base with a gated housing development across the street in a cow pasture in Doral. Call it Southcomville.
The commander of Southern Command, Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, briefly hinted at the housing ambitions in testimony last month at the Senate. And his military outpost that oversees U.S. military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean has been short on details.
But a series of sources contacted by the Miami Herald in recent weeks described the bid to have the first real base-style housing since Southcom quit the Panama Canal Zone in the mid-1990s and moved to South Florida.
That starts with his headquarters quietly negotiating through the Army for a portion of Federal Aviation Administration land even before obtaining Congressional approval for the building project.
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The goal is to provide cheaper housing in Doral at a time when Congress has cut troops’ housing allowances.
Donald “Andy” Bird, a retired Army infantry colonel responsible for troops’ quality-of-life programs as Southcom’s garrison manager, said the proposed gated community could range from 74 to 250 one- or two-story houses.
Troops could move in, in three to five years, he said, with Southcom using 50 to 75 acres of FAA land. Bird would not predict how much the new housing would cost.
The FAA said in a statement from its Atlanta offices Monday that the Army, which would handle Southcom’s base building projects, has asked to buy a portion of its 162 acres of land in Doral, which has a “functioning navigational aid” — a beacon 3 miles west of Miami International Airport.
That property is inside a pasture immediately across the street from the military headquarters between Northwest 33rd and 25th streets — west of Doral Central Park and not far from the current Miami Herald building. Miami-Dade County values the land at $56,790,300, which is about $350,000 per acre.
FAA officials would not elaborate on the proposed price of the land, why one federal agency would have to buy property from another, whether the agency would relocate the beacon or whether Southcom could build around it.
“Environmental issues would be evaluated before the property is sold,” the FAA statement said.
Cows currently graze there under an agricultural lease agreement with the FAA, which said it gets “$500 per year for use of the land for the livestock.”
It’s unclear why Southcom has been secretive about its real estate ambitions.
The majority of Southcom’s 1,300 or so troops and civilians live on the local economy, leasing or purchasing property between Broward and Miami-Dade counties, with troops using government housing allowances for their rent.
The Pentagon, however, rents five homes for senior officers. The commander’s gated 3,898-square-foot home on Granada Boulevard in Coral Gables, now occupied by Kelly, was highlighted in a June 2013 report to Congress as one of the most expensive leased by the Department of Defense — at $106,200 a year.
The report said a 2009 feasibility study considered whether to build 88 homes for Southcom troops, through a private-public partnership, but ruled it out because “there is an abundant supply of housing” in the local economy available to Southcom troops using their Pentagon housing allowances.
If the new housing complex is built, Southcom spokesmen said Thursday, the five senior officers would leave the rental properties and move in.
Former Coral Gables mayor Don Slesnick, who chaired a task force that helped lure Southcom to South Florida, said Thursday the Pentagon chose Miami for its unique location as the gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean understanding it could have located to a more traditional military base in the 1990s.
Bases in Biloxi, Mississippi; Atlanta; Norfolk, Virgnia; and New Orleans vied for the headquarters, he said. But Miami meant a new approach at a time of base closings. “If we put military into the middle of a civilian community and integrate them into a civilian community,” he said, “this was a way to keep touch with their military, to know their military.”
Building military housing was considered in the past, Slesnick said. But it was never part of the master plan for the first headquarters, a rental office building that is now the Herald’s headquarters. Nor was it part of the plan for the current $402 million campus that opened next door on former state land.
But with housing allowances being reduced by Congress, Southcom set its sights on the field across the street sometime last year.
A civilian command representative gave the City of Doral a courtesy briefing last year, according to Assistant City Manager Albert P. Childress.
The military has yet to brief, for example, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who has a district office within blocks of the proposed community and whose brother, Lincoln, as a Congressman was a champion of Southcom’s earlier expansion into its current headquarters. “He has not yet learned the details on this project,” said Katrina Valdes in Diaz-Balart’s office.
At City Hall, Childress said Southcom’s plan is to build on FAA property across the street on the most western portion, closest to NW 97th Ave. Because it’s federal land, he said, “they don’t need any permits and zoning.”
Left unclear is how much of the project can be started before Kelly is expected to leave the job in November after a three-year run as Southcom commander.
He first notified Congress in two lines inside a “posture statement” he submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 12 that expressed dissatisfaction with the cost-of-living allowances the Pentagon provides troops on assignment to his headquarters.
He announced that he was working on “a permanent military housing solution in Doral … to bring our service members and their families into a secure and affordable community close to our facility.”
Bird, who as an Army officer worked from more traditional sprawling U.S. military communities, said this week he would have a design for the community by mid-summer — suggesting Kelly’s sworn Senate testimony was spadework.
Formal notification of Congress would come later, Bird said. “We’re not ready to go to them yet. I’m a tactical person. When we’re ready to go tell Congress, my commander will do that.”
Bird would not predict how much new base housing would cost. He said potential residents could be drawn not just from the 850 U.S. service members working out of Southcom headquarters but also from some 1,900 active duty forces across South Florida, including Coast Guard members.
Private contractors, through agreements with the Army and the local headquarters, are building and maintaining military housing, according to a former Southcom engineer, retired Army Col. Steve Williamson of Coconut Grove, vice chair of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce’s Military Affairs Committee.
Rent equals a service member’s Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH, as the Defense Department calls it — meaning families that lease properties elsewhere could suddenly afford to live in single-family and townhomes in Doral.
Similarly, new troops to South Florida could move into single-family homes across the street from the headquarters, eliminating at least some of Southcom’s elaborate car-pooling arrangement from Broward County that strictly dictates employees’ working hours.
The proposed community has no name yet, said Southcom officials, but could be named for a dead Department of Defense employee under a program that lets people nominate the names of people it could memorialize.
Williamson said the “strategic value” of living in Miami continues but housing for some troops has become a problem because military allowances for housing haven’t kept pace with South Florida’s rental market.
He predicted that, if it gets built, less than 10 percent of Southcom’s 850 active duty troops could end up in a gated community opposite the command. “I don’t think the military wants to hide behind walls and not be part of the community,” he said.
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▪ September 1997: Southern Command opens shop in Doral in a two-story rental property now leased by the Miami Herald
▪ Dec. 20, 2010: Southern Command moves next door from its original headquarters to a sprawling, moat-protected $402 million campus that includes a conference center, offices, a child development center and a state of the art gym; it’s designed to accommodate more than 2,800 workers.
▪ March 12, 2015: Gen. John Kelly tells Congress he wants to secure a “permanent military housing solution in Doral … to bring our service members and their families into a secure and affordable community close to our facility.” A Southcom public affairs officer says about 1,313 troops and civilians work there.
▪ March 30, 2015: The Federal Aviation Administration statement: “The FAA is currently evaluating a request from the U.S. Army to purchase a portion of a 162-acre parcel of land owned by the agency located in Doral, FL. The land currently houses FAA navigational aids.”