Miami-Dade County

MLS doesn’t like land next to Marlins Park for David Beckham’s Miami soccer stadium

Major League Soccer says it doesn’t want David Beckham’s Miami expansion team to play at the site some politicians have started to promote for a new stadium: next to Marlins Park in Little Havana.

“No — we’re not considering that location,” MLS President Mark Abbott told the Miami Herald. “Our strong belief is that, to be successful, it needs to be downtown.”

That resistance, especially as elected leaders begin to coalesce around the Marlins site, could make it difficult for Beckham and his investors — who have eyed public land for their mostly privately funded stadium — to find another place they might deem suitable.

But MLS didn’t always scorn the Marlins location.

So close were MLS and the city of Miami to making a deal at the former Orange Bowl site that, in early 2008, they drafted a confidential agreement — never signed — to send to city commissioners for approval.

Before the contract was to be written, MLS Commissioner Don Garber praised then-Mayor Manny Diaz, who had included an adjacent soccer stadium into the plans for the new Miami Marlins ballpark.

“You’ve done an amazing job on this project,” Garber wrote in an email dated Dec. 12, 2007.

Architects sketched site plans. Attorneys included soccer provisions in ballpark agreements. Marcelo Claure, the billionaire telecommunications executive now partnering with Beckham, pitched a franchise — either at Marlins Park or Florida International University — jointly owned with Spanish club FC Barcelona.

“Throughout the baseball stadium negotiations, soccer was a part of that, to be a sister stadium,” Diaz said last week.

The stadium would have seated between 20,000 and 25,000 fans — the same size under consideration now — and would have cost about $100 million, with the county paying for half using hotel taxes. No county funds have been pledged this time, and Beckham’s group has estimated a $250 million price tag, though that number was for a waterfront stadium on property with limited pipes and roads.

Despite the progress of the talks in 2008, nothing was ever finalized. Diaz’s mayoral term expired later that year, and soccer wasn’t seriously mentioned again until now.

MLS says one of the reasons no deal was inked was because there were concerns about the Marlins site being too far from the city’s hub. Since 2008, the league says it has learned from young teams in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver — founded in 2009, 2011 and 2011 respectively — to launch new franchises in urban neighborhoods.

“One of the primary fan groups that is driving our growth has been Millenials,” Abbott said. “We find that we do very well with that demographic in those downtown locations.”

MLS also fears failing in South Florida again, after the Miami Fusion — which played in Fort Lauderdale — folded in 2001.

“If you can’t find the right place to play, it would be suicide for us to go anywhere,” Garber told reporters in Montreal last week. “And certainly down to Miami where we have failed once before.”

Miami-Dade rejected putting Beckham’s stadium on the southwest corner of the county-owned PortMiami, and Miami said no thanks to a proposal to fill the city-owned Florida East Coast Railway slip and take a portion of the newly opened Museum Park.

A Yahoo Sports report last week said that Beckham’s group could leave Miami and instead take over Chivas USA, an existing but troubled franchise in Los Angeles.

Abbott denied that, saying MLS has not spoken to Beckham about any deals with Chivas. But it’s possible that Miami Beckham United is having private discussions that have not yet involved the league.

“We don’t discuss specifics of proposals,” Tadd Schwartz, Beckham’s local publicist, said in a statement. “Miami is our preferred choice and we are working hard to give the people of the city what they want and deserve; however, we have always said that there are other cities that would welcome an MLS club owned by David and his partners.”

Beckham’s group, which is taking time to review its remaining options, hasn’t ruled out any locations. Private sites have been talked about in the past, but the Beckham investors have said that to finance a stadium on their own, they would like public land, which sports franchises often obtain at a discount. The group also prefers a location near public transportation that does not require building extensive parking.

Early on, the group considered a site north of the Miami-Dade School Board’s downtown headquarters and owned, at least in part, by the school district. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has asked companies to submit development and public-private partnership proposals for the land and surrounding school board parcels.

Beckham’s team didn’t respond to the district’s request. But Carvalho said Friday that vendors who didn’t respond to the initial inquiry could still bid on the district’s property — should the school board seek to sell it — or partner with the school board.

So Beckham could still submit a bid for the site. But, based on past discussions between Carvalho and the school board about a vision for the district’s land, sources say it’s unlikely the district would consider a stadium on its downtown property

There’s been no shortage of other places floated, but most haven’t been downtown — much less on the waterfront, the kind of dazzling, made-for-TV location the investors envisioned.

County Commissioner Juan C. Zapata, who represents Southwest Miami-Dade, has suggested Beckham consider the grounds of Florida International University. The Palm Beach County Sports Commission has said it would like to invite Beckham to Florida Atlantic University’s stadium in Boca Raton, according to The Palm Beach Post.

No location has garnered more political traction than west of Marlins Park, where the city owns three parcels used as green space and surface parking lots. Together with six privately owned residential and office properties that would have to be bought out, the land along Northwest 17th Avenue could amount to nearly 10 acres.

That might fit a soccer stadium, especially if the road is moved further west. But it would be tight — and an even bigger squeeze if Beckham’s group were to partner with the University of Miami’s college football team. UM has indicated it’s interested — proponents have called it an Orange Bowl homecoming — but the school would require about 40,000 seats.

The biggest obstacle for Beckham’s group may be the one they created themselves by dismissing the site as substandard.

Simon Fuller, Beckham’s longtime business partner and the creator of American Idol, said last month that the Marlins site is “spiritually tainted” by the unpopular public financing deal for the ballpark. A soccer stadium next to the larger, more imposing Marlins Park would be overshadowed, Fuller said.

Still, a group of county and city commissioners endorsed an online petition last week supporting a joint soccer and college football stadium.

“I think we have to roll out the red carpet for these guys,” Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez said. “They were twice led in the wrong direction, and I think that’s an ideal site.”

The others involved are former Mayor Diaz, City Commissioner Francis Suarez (the county commissioner’s son) and Coral Gables Commissioner Vince Lago. The Miami commission took a symbolic vote in Beckham’s favor last week, though the resolution made no mention of a specific site.

Diaz, who opposed a stadium on the Museum Park and FEC slip, said after the location was rejected that he would “be willing to help in any way I can” to find somewhere else for Beckham’s group. In February, the former mayor asked Populous, the Kansas City-based architecture firm formerly known as HOK Sport that designed Marlins Park, to draw a concept of what a soccer stadium could look like next to the ballpark.

The resulting site plan shows a stadium wedged onto the irregularly shaped property, right next to the ballpark and with little room for green space or any sort of buffer.

Nobody asked him for the drawing, but Diaz said he couldn’t pass up the opportunity, six years later, to help Miami secure a professional soccer team.

“This is something where I just couldn’t sit back,” he said.

Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.