Miami-Dade County

Miami Worldcenter development back on track

After getting unexpectedly stalled in June by Miami's planning board amid concerns over public access and the impact of proposed zoning changes, developers of the Miami Worldcenter mega-project now seem to have all their ducks neatly in a row as they head to three critical city commission votes next week.

Thursday’s commission votes, to approve certain new zoning rules and a development agreement between the city and the developer, follow the planning and zoning board’s unanimous approval this week of a final set of zoning amendments that had been sought by city planners and Miami Worldcenter’s principals.

The 9-0 vote on Wednesday came after the developers allayed board members’ concerns that the special zoning plan for the mixed commercial and residential project, which would occupy multiple city blocks and partly enclose some streets, might allow Miami Worldcenter to limit public access across the Park West district between mostly black Overtown to its west and rapidly gentrifying Biscayne Boulevard on the east.

But three east-west vehicular streets and one new pedestrian mall on Seventh Street, which would be closed to auto traffic, would remain open around the clock with no restrictions, the developers said. Several other access routes would be open during business hours with no other restrictions, they said.

The developers also pledged to recruit Overtown residents for construction and permanent jobs for the project, the first phase of which includes a massive shopping center anchored by Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s and three residential towers. Another piece of the overall plan, a major hotel and expo center on the adjacent site of the old Miami Arena, will be built by a separate developer.

The plan, Miami Worldcenter principal Nitin Motwani told board members, would result in “a true pedestrian-friendly environment’’ and an economic boost in an area now characterized by blight and vacant lots.

After the vote, Motwani said he felt optimistic that the city commission will approve the zoning amendments and the development agreement. He also said he was heartened by an “outpouring’’ of support from neighboring residents, business groups and property owners who testified at the hearing.

That helped Miami Worldcenter overcome continued objections from a smaller group of neighborhood property and business owners who contend the city has been too accommodating to the developers, who have yet to build anything nearly a decade after the project was originally proposed.

“We certainly don’t take anything for granted, but we spent a considerable amount of time in the community to listen to everyone’s concerns,’’ Motwani said. “We’re incredibly excited to get one step closer’’ to eventual approval, he added.

The project is still dogged by litigation, including a challenge by local entrepreneurs of a city decision to cede control of several streets to the developer, and long-running claims by prominent real estate agent Edie Laquer, who contends Worldcenter principal Art Falcone cut her out of fees and a partnership.

The developers won a victory Friday when a Miami-Dade circuit judge ruled against Laquer, who has been seeking a jury trial on the claims. Falcone’s attorney, Eugene Stearns, said that effectively ends her case. But Laquer’s attorney, Howard Srebnick, said they will appeal, noting that the appellate court has twice before ruled in her favor on the issue.

The upcoming city commission hearing won’t be the final word on the plan. But it could be the last consequential public hearing for a major piece of the commercial and residential project, which would occupy a broad swath of mostly vacant land north of downtown Miami.

If the commission approves, Worldcenter’s developers must then submit a detailed development plan for their piece of the project to the city. Final approval would then be up to planning director Francisco Garcia following a hearing by the city’s Urban Design Review Board, which advises him.

On Thursday, the commission will consider amendments to the previously approved special zoning plan governing Miami Worldcenter, which because of its size qualifies for specially tailored rules that provide developers and city planners the flexibility to craft a broad urban plan.

City planners say the amendments merely bring the rules in line with the Miami 21 zoning code, approved after the initial Miami Worldcenter plan. But the planning and zoning board initially balked at approving those in June amid questions about their impact, including whether they limited public scrutiny.

A second set of rule changes governing the proposed expo center, initially packaged with the Worldcenter amendments and stalled along with it, was endorsed by the planning board in July and will also go before the commission on Thursday. Those changes alter a section of Miami 21 to allow a 100,000-square foot meeting floor, something not contemplated in the code.