Miami-Dade County

Plans submitted for Miami Worldcenter’s first phase

After eight years of planning and delays, developers of the Miami Worldcenter mega-development submitted detailed plans Monday for a massive shopping complex and three towers covering several city blocks for approval by planners.

The plan maps the first 10-acre phase of what would eventually be a 27-acre mixed-use urban redevelopment project, one of the largest in the country, in the long-forlorn Park West district just north of the downtown core. The project is valued at around $1.5 billion.

Highlights include the first publicly available details on three mostly residential towers that will crown the retail center and share a nine-acre amenity deck 13 stories up. The towers, at 56 stories, 47 stories and 34 stories, will have 1,200 units “in a range of sizes and prices,’’ though precise details are not yet decided, said Miami Worldcenter managing principal Nitin Motwani. One tower will also include a boutique hotel.

The three towers are positioned to interfere minimally with the western views of condo dwellers on Biscayne Boulevard, Motwani said. The tallest would face the NAP of the Americans server-farm building on Northeast First Avenue.

The urban layout of the complex, which follows existing streets and would create three open public plazas, is oriented to pedestrians and sidewalk life, said Motwani. All ground-level shops and retaurants in the multi-level complex, which would contain 765,000 square feet of retail space, including Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, would open to the sidewalks. Parking garages for 4,500 vehicles, truck bays and loading areas would be concealed within the complex.

Retail developers The Forbes Company and Taubman will jointly develop the shopping center. Nationally recognized architects Elkus/Manfredi of Boston are responsible for the master plan and the sleek contemporary design of the retail center and the tallest tower. The other high-rises were designed by ADD and Nichols Brosch Wurst Wolfe of Miami.

The development group has spent months negotiating with city planners, and the plan is likely to win approval. It must undergo design review by planners and at least one public hearing, but it’ unclear whether a city commission vote will be required.

But the project, which has been dogged by near-foreclosures and ongoing lawsuits by former participants, has run into new obstacles amid questions about public access and city oversight.

Last week, the city planning board unexpectedly delayed the project’s next phase, a massive convention center and hotel on the site of the old Miami Arena, after a majority of members balked at rewriting special zoning rules governing the project. The 2,000-hotel-room convention complex, which calls for over 200,000 square feet of meeting space, will be built by MDM Development Group, which bought the arena site from Miami Worldcenter.

At the board meeting, Motwani and MDM attorney Tony Recio extolled their plans as “transformative’’ for a broad swath of the city that has long been characterized by vacant lots, surface parking lots and urban blight.

MDM and All Aboard Florida, which is building a mammoth train-station project just to the west, are in talks to connect the station complex, which includes shops and commercial towers, to the convention center and the Overtown Metrorail station, they said.

But some planning board members questioned whether the layout of the Worldcenter retail and residential project, and operating rules that would shut some passageways after business hours, would effectively cut off the poor, mostly black Overtown neighborhood to its west from Biscayne Boulevard. The site footprint stretches from Northeast Sixth Street to 11th Street and straddles Northeast First Avenue.

And a group of neighborhood activists and business owners who have complained that the city has given Miami Worldcenter too much leeway have gone to court to challenge a recent city commission vote granting control over three city streets to the developers — a key project feature. Two of the streets, Northeast Seventh and Northeast Ninth, would be turned into shop-lined pedestrian malls under Miami Worldcenter’s plan, while Northeast Eighth Street would be widened and remain open to vehicular traffic.

Planning board member Ernest Martin objected after he found small print in the proposed Worldcenter revisions indicating that some internal paths, including Ninth Street and a set of interconnecting “paseos,’’ would be open only during shopping hours.

“We are talking in effect a suburban mall that would be closed to the public except during business hours, in spite of all the rhetoric about public accessibility,” Martin said. “Some of these streets are enclosed with a roof above it so you can’t even see the sky or the stars.’’

Motwani said in an interview that Martin’s fears are misplaced. The Seventh Street pedestrian mall will be open around the clock, and so will three vehicular streets that connect to Overtown -- Sixth, Eighth and 10th.

“Every single block of our project is accessible by pedestrians. Our entire design is about being porous,” he said.

Some board members also echoed concerns raised by an attorney for the Omni Park West Redevelopment Association, a neighborhood group that’s involved in litigation with the developers, over an extensive revision of zoning rules specifically written for Miami Worldcenter. Those rules predate the city’s Miami 21 zoning code.

City planning officials say the revisions are needed to add the old arena site to the Miami Worldcenter district and allow development of the convention center, which would have three massive meeting floors stacked atop one another — something not contemplated in the Miami 21 code.

The revisions would also bring the Worldcenter code in line with Miami 21 standards, definitions and permitting, said deputy planning director Cesar Garcia-Pons — including broad discretion given to the city planning director in approving certain development permits and minor alterations without public hearings.

But the neighborhood group’s attorney, Paul Savage, questioned the wisdom of giving planning director Francisco Garcia broad authority over a project of such scope while limiting what he referred to as “checks and balances’’ meant to protect the public.

“If there was ever a project so large that it invited additional public input, it would be this one,’’ Savage told the board.

The board narrowly voted to postpone consideration of the revisions until September over pleas from the developers’ attorneys and planning officials. Until they do, it’s unclear whether the procedural issues and street-closing concerns could significantly alter the project.

City planners and Motwani say the revised rules for the project are no different from the regulations that now apply under Miami 21 to special area plans such as Swire Properties’ multi-block Brickell City Centre, now under construction.

Miami Worldcenter’s plan also calls for significant streetscape improvements like wider sidewalks, shade trees, landscaping and street furniture around and within the complex, including the currently bleak Northeast First and Northeast Second Avenues.