Miami-Dade County

Beckham tours Overtown as new wrinkle emerges in stadium plan: affordable housing

David Beckham visited Overtown on Friday as his partners in a Miami soccer stadium continue talks with Miami-Dade about a major redevelopment of nearby affordable housing complexes to both improve residents’ homes and provide space for restaurants and shops to entertain fans.

“We want to create something that is a real fan experience on every level,” Beckham said during a brief interview by the six-acre parking lot he and partners purchased in 2016 for the planned 25,000-seat Major League Soccer stadium. “If we can achieve that, then it changes a lot of things for the neighborhood. … We want to be good neighbors.”

Beckham visited the Overtown site with new partner Jorge Mas, who has been spearheading talks with County Mayor Carlos Gimenez about a major redevelopment of the public housing complex that would sit across the street from the MLS stadium. Culmer Place, a cluster of nearly two dozen townhouse buildings that were constructed in the 1970s, would be rebuilt into a modern complex in the same way as Miami-Dade’s $307 million rebuild of the Liberty Square housing complex taking place to the north in the Liberty City neighborhood.

The previously undisclosed discussions pair Beckham’s stadium bid with the contentious, sensitive realm of affordable housing projects. Gimenez faced one of the fiercest battles of his tenure in awarding the Liberty Square bid to the Related Group in 2016.

In an interview, Gimenez confirmed the interest in redeveloping both Culmer Place and its sister complex, Culmer Gardens, as an offshoot of the county’s talks with Mas. But he said the proposed project would allow Miami-Dade to expand the size of the existing complex, making it a good plan for the neighborhood even if the Beckham group winds up building elsewhere.

“It’s good for the residents that live there,” Gimenez said, saying each current Culmer household would receive a modern unit that’s at least as large as the one they live in now. “We also can give 500 or 600 more families housing, too.”

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Planned site of the David Beckham soccer stadium in Overtown. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

Beckham arrived in Miami late this week, and the Overtown drop-by was part of a goodwill tour that saw him visiting state soccer champs in Miami on Friday morning and dining with Miami Mayor Francis Suarez on the Miami River just a few blocks from the stadium site. With Mas at the wheel of the Miami executive’s black Range Rover, Miami Heat plates on the back, Beckham arrived at the fenced-in parking lot on Northwest Sixth Street that the partnership bought for $19 million two years ago.

As the two spoke on the quiet street, Beckham paused to wave to passing motorists who recognized him. One driver of a county sewer truck tapped his brakes, leaned out of the window and told Beckham: “Welcome.”

The Overtown visit, witnessed by a Miami Herald reporter tipped off to Beckham’s arrival, served as a vote of confidence in the site by the partners at a time when Mas is privately discussing other potential locations.

Suarez and other Miami officials have talked with Mas about potentially building the stadium on the city’s Melreese golf course, a public course that’s part of a park near Miami International Airport, according to several sources familiar with the discussions. Suarez and City Manager Emilio González had no comment Friday.

Mas said Melreese had come up only in the context of earlier talks about the potential for putting the stadium on a privately owned boatyard nearby. Mas said during their lunch with Suarez at Garcia’s Seafood Grille on the River, the group mainly talked about the potential redevelopment of public housing near the stadium.

A county source said Miami-Dade would swap some real estate with Miami in order to expand the footprint at Culmer Place. Both Culmer Place and Culmer Gardens would be redeveloped, with Miami-Dade opening up the project to developers, who would compete for a mix of federal and local subsidies and incentives to build the new complex. Gimenez said that, like Liberty Square, there would be a requirement that current residents not be displaced during construction, with the project built in stages to allow households to move from an old unit to a new one.

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Jorge Mas and David Beckham during an interview at the proposed Overtown soccer stadium site on Friday, March 2, 2018. Doug Hanks dhanks@miamiherald.com

Opponents of the Beckham stadium have already used the prospects of a Culmer redevelopment in efforts to rally residents against the soccer venture. The opposition group used fake eviction notices in February to draw Culmer residents to a meeting about the soccer venture, where organizers warned that the county was determined to remake the housing complex into something more suitable for Beckham. Bishop James Adams, a local paster and leading foe of the Beckham stadium, said county leaders “don’t want to be embarrassed when the blimps fly overhead and see where you live.”

On Friday, Adams said he would welcome redeveloping Culmer as long as residents are respected. Vera Brownlee, a Culmer Gardens resident for 20 years, said her neighbors have gotten weary of promises of a better place to live. She said she would welcome redevelopment of the complex, provided it’s for the right reasons.

“My first thought is: Would it really be for us?” said Brownlee, a housekeeper in the hospitality industry. “Is it being redeveloped for us?”

Miami-Dade generally wants to redevelop as much public housing as it can, but has limited federal and county funds to offer developers as subsidies for the projects. At the Feb. 1 meeting organized by stadium opponents, a senior housing official with the county said Miami-Dade would like to demolish Culmer Place and rebuild it if it had the funds available.

“There is a limited number of properties that can be redeveloped,” said Jorge Cibran, development director with Miami-Dade. He said Culmer Gardens and nearby Culmer Place both were in the pipeline to be redeveloped, but Miami-Dade was not in a position to offer the money needed to attract developers. “They’ve been on that list for three years,” he said of the Culmer complexes. “It has nothing to do with soccer.”

The insertion of a complicated public-housing redevelopment into the soccer discussion captures the long road still ahead for Beckham and partners in a five-year quest for an MLS stadium in Miami. The city of Miami still must approve the zoning and street closures needed to approve construction of the privately funded open-air stadium where Northwest Sixth Avenue meets Sixth Street. The Beckham group already owns six acres in Overtown, but has until June to close on the three acres Miami-Dade is selling it for $9 million.

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A rendering of David Beckham’s proposed Major League Soccer stadium in Overtown. Miami Beckham United

“We’ve been in discussions with officials in the county about what can we do to try and make this the best neighborhood experience possible,” said Mas, chairman of Mastec, a national infrastructure and construction company based in Miami. “I’ve talked a lot about the public housing component, and what we have … How can that fit into an overall development here?”

Mas could be part of a development consortium that would bid on a Culmer redevelopment. But county sources said the talks with Mas have been more focused on how Miami-Dade could attract other developers to pursue the kind of project that could revitalize the neighborhood and bring retail options around the stadium.

Earlier this week, Mas said the nine-acre Overtown site wasn’t large enough for the kind of stadium complex he thinks would be ideal. On Friday, he said he wanted to show Beckham how the stadium could link not only to Culmer but also the new Brightline train depot — a commercial complex about a mile away in downtown Miami. Brightline is owned by an investment fund run by another Beckham partner, Masayoshi Son.

“We’d like to be part of a vision. It needs to fit for everyone,” Mas said.“When I look at this, what I’m trying to foresee is what this can be in four or five or six years. It obviously has a housing component. Because we don’t want disruption of the neighbors. We don’t want to have gentrification.”

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