Miami’s top administrator this week met with David Beckham partner Jorge Mas about building a Major League Soccer stadium on the city-owned Melreese golf course, floating a 180-acre alternative near Miami International Airport as Mas is raising doubts about long-standing plans to build the stadium on nine acres in Overtown.
Mas and brother José met with Miami City Manager Emilio González on Monday afternoon and discussed how the Melreese park could mesh with the Mas ambitions for a sprawling soccer complex, with room for a youth academy, restaurant and retail and an adjoining “tech village” office complex, González said.
“I suggested that perhaps Melreese could be an interesting place to consider, given what it provides,” González said. “They expressed an interest. We both agreed to continue a dialogue.”
The careful language from the new city manager hints at the delicate path ahead in the coming days as González floats the possibility of renting at least a sizable portion of Miami’s largest park and a public 18-hole golf course to a for-profit soccer stadium and commercial complex. If embraced by city commissioners and championed by Mayor Francis Suarez, Melreese could offer the Beckham group an exit route from the Overtown plan the Mas brothers inherited when they joined the partnership late last year.
Suarez, who appointed González in January and attended at least part of the Monday meeting, on Tuesday said Melreese could be a promising replacement for Overtown, which the mayor said looks problematic for a stadium, given opposition from some in the neighborhood and in nearby Spring Garden.
“I’ve expressed a lot of concern over the last few months about the Overtown site, based on resident concerns in Spring Garden and Overtown,” Suarez said. “The pushback definitely was a concern.”
Suarez, who had lunch with Jorge Mas and Beckham last week, said the partnership is set on a stadium plan that has outgrown the Overtown location. “I think the vision that they’ve demonstrated also is greater and grander than the capacity for that site,” he said.
Renting Melreese as a stadium site may rest with voters, with a referendum possible either in August or November, sources familiar with the talks said. Suarez said he suspected a referendum would be called before turning over the public land to the Beckham venture. The plan would be to lease a portion of Melreese to the Beckham group, with some areas of the existing park offerings remaining. That could include a reduced golf facility — such as a nine-hole course or a driving range.
Melreese is not a revenue generator for the city. With a $3.5 million budget in the current fiscal year, city administrators expect the golf course to break even.
The park is in Miami Commissioner Willy Gort’s district, but Gort declined to comment for this story.
Commissioner Joe Carollo said he pitched Melreese as an option during a phone conversation with José Mas days before the Jan. 29 event at the Adrienne Arsht Center in downtown Miami, where MLS Commissioner Don Garber officially welcomed Beckham’s Miami franchise into the league.
Though he supports the concept, Carollo said he’s already concerned about Miami giving Beckham too good of a deal at Melreese at the expense of taxpayers.
“I’m not going to give the land away,” he said. Citing public land and money for Miami’s other sports arenas, Marlins Park and AmericanAirlines Arena, Carollo cited past “sweetheart” stadium deals. “I’m not about to go for number three.”
Should Miami move to negotiate with the Beckham group over Melreese, the soccer venture could find some steep competition eager to make some money on the public land. Carollo said he wants to see Melreese opened to commercial development, with the possibility of a retail mall, a hotel and workforce housing.
“The real deal isn’t going to the stadium,” he said. “It’s going to be the other developments on the site.”
While listed as a city park, Melreese is managed by a private company and marketed as the Melreese Country Club. Members can play the 18-hole course at 1802 NW 37th Ave. for $49 during the winter, while Miami residents pay $79. The Grapeland Water Park sits next door, and it’s not known if that property or the adjoining baseball fields are part of the potential Beckham proposal.
The Mas brothers — leaders of the Miami-based infrastructure giant MasTec and Beckham’s first local partners in his five-year stadium quest — have been discussing alternative sites in private meetings. In the last week, Jorge Mas publicly confirmed meetings about other sites while citing challenges with the Overtown site.
In back-to-back interviews, Mas said that the site in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood isn’t large enough to fit his vision for what a soccer stadium should be, and that he is in talks with Miami-Dade County about how surrounding public housing complexes could be redeveloped in an effort to create an ideal “neighborhood experience” for residents and spectators. The Mas organization has also been polling Miami voters about the stadium issue, with a question testing the possibility of Melreese being used for something other than golf, Carollo said.
The Mas comments and the polling, combined with what González said was an hourlong meeting on Melreese at City Hall, magnify the uncertainty still hanging over Beckham’s Miami plans just weeks after the triumphant celebration in downtown Miami over MLS owners approving his expansion franchise.
The approval was held up by league disputes over the investment stake among Beckham partners, and the entry of the Mas brothers reportedly helped smooth the way to a final deal. Mas is chairman of MasTec and José is the CEO. They’re now pitching a far grander stadium plan than the one announced by his partners after purchasing a site near the Miami River in Overtown in 2016.
The announced plan was a 25,000-seat open-air stadium on nine acres, with no room for parking garages, restaurants and other non-soccer commercial spaces. Mas has publicly promised to reinvent the stadium experience in Miami, and to use the draw of soccer to fuel other uses. He has also privately voiced skepticism that an Overtown stadium could thrive without parking. Mas was not available for an interview.
Suarez shed some light on the Mas approach to affordable housing in Overtown. The Beckham partnership only owns six acres of the nine acres it needs for the stadium, with the purchase of an additional three acres from Miami-Dade set to close in June. Should the Beckham group head elsewhere for a stadium, Mas has talked of using six acres the partnership owns in a public-housing project, Suarez said.
“They’re talking about the possibility, if they do pivot away from the Overtown site, of being able to contribute — along with the county —more workforce housing and affordable housing,” Suarez said.
The previous partners — once led by sports mogul Tim Leiweke, who left the group at roughly the time the Mas brothers joined — touted plans in Overtown for riverboat ferries, pedestrian traffic from the nearby Culmer Metrorail station and soccer’s tradition of “marching to the match” in defense of a stadium without garages.
With far more real estate in Melreese, the Beckham group would have enough room for parking garages, practice soccer fields and possibly a stadium large enough to accommodate the University of Miami, an early potential partner in the Beckham venture before fading away as the soccer venture abandoned bids for roomier sites on the Miami waterfront and next to Marlins Park.
Melreese’s golf course entrance is about a 10-minute walk south from the Miami Intermodal Center, a transit hub that’s home to the Metrorail and Tri-Rail stations serving Miami International Airport. The public course sits minutes off of the 37th Avenue exit of the Dolphin Expressway, linking the property to one of the busiest highways in Miami.
That may be more appealing than the residential side streets needed to drive to the Overtown site, but also promises to make traffic a flashpoint in any Melreese proposal as Beckham and city leaders justify putting another 25,000 people on the already clogged toll road for games and concerts.
A Melreese stadium fight also could pit Beckham against the open-space activists and others that helped scuttle a brief plan to put the MLS stadium in Miami’s Museum Park after the soccer star’s initial bid for a PortMiami site failed in 2014. Suarez said the Mas brothers want to build some sort of park feature to surround their stadium, as a “central park” for Miami in the outer reaches of the city boundaries.
Golfers who play Melreese will also have something to say. A few Latin American PGA professionals who were practicing there Tuesday told the Miami Herald they would prefer to keep Melreese the way it is.
Rafael Becker, 26 and a professional golfer from Brazil, was practicing on the putting green Tuesday as he said he felt “it would be a shame” if part of Melreese was used for a soccer compound. He said Melreese is known for being a welcoming park for the pros.
Peruvian pro Joaquin Lolas, 26, said Melreese’s youth golf program is a valuable resource for up-and-coming talent.
“This is perhaps the club that is most committed to growing the game in this area,” he said.
Suarez said that while he’s interested in discussing Melreese, he’s realistic about the political challenges such a plan could face.
“It’s very preliminary at this point,” he said. “It’s obviously a heavy lift.”