He's set to vote Thursday on whether to bring America's largest mall to undeveloped land on the western edge of Miami-Dade's urban core. On Monday, Commissioner Xavier Suarez floated a complex new transit plan for the proposed American Dream Miami site, using elevated automated cars to ferry workers and visitors to and from the retail theme park.
"Without something like this," Suarez said convening a public meeting with two fellow commissioners about his transit plan, "I can't vote for a major development."
Suarez's hastily arranged public meeting with Commission Chairman Esteban "Steve" Bovo and Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz, whose district includes the 175-acre American Dream site, captures some last-minute maneuvering on the most sensitive topic surrounding plans for a $4 billion shopping destination so large it would dwarf Minnesota's Mall of America.
Planned where two of South Florida's busiest highways converge, and where it would be served by east-west roadways that connect with nearby Miami Lakes, the shopping and entertainment complex expecting 30 million visitors a year has raised fears of traffic swamping already overburdened roads.
Developer Triple Five's traffic study, which Miami-Dade planners endorse, predicts I-75 and the Florida Turnpike will serve the bulk of the roughly 70,000 vehicle trips a day coming in and out of the park, with widened roads and new interchanges allowing traffic to flow into the park.
Triple Five, a Canadian developer that already owns the Mall of America, has been in negotiations for about three years with the administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez about the development, including requirements to address traffic. Triple Five agreed to purchase county buses that would serve the retail theme park, which is large enough to include an indoor lake with submarine rides and a ski mountain covered in artificial snow.
While the administration has been in the thick of the American Dream plan, the 13-member County Commission has held only one meeting on it. That was in January 2017, when the commission voted 10 to 1 to grant preliminary approval to the development. A final vote was expected later that year, but extended negotiations on a development agreement — which lays out Triple Five requirements on transit, traffic, stormwater runoff, wetlands mitigation and other impacts from the 6-million-square-foot complex — delayed the second hearing before the commission.
Audrey Edmonson, a county commissioner who wasn't at the Monday meeting on transit, said she's concerned about a threatened lawsuit from Broward County over Miami-Dade's assertion that American Dream won't cause "significant" traffic problems on roadways just miles to the north.
"I'll have to look into that more," she said. "I'll see how the meeting goes."
Bovo, whose district starts just east of the mall site and includes Miami Lakes, said he hasn't even seen the project's traffic plan.
"I haven't seen the plan to get a good understanding of how they're going to move people in and out," he said. "Nobody has laid it out in front of me."
He cited concerns about whether Miami Gardens Drive — a main road connecting Miami Lakes with the mega-mall area — will end up being overwhelmed by the project.
"Is Miami Gardens Drive going to be the thoroughfare coming from the east side of our county?" he said. "If that's the case, I'm going to have a substantial problem with it."
Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, the lawyer and lobbyist representing Triple Five, noted the project has been discussed at public meetings for about two years — including appearances before a regional planning board and various zoning panels in Miami-Dade.
"Additional details have been fine-tuned with county staff over the last few months" and included in the agenda materials for Thursday's meeting, he said. "I have no doubt that all commissioners will review the agenda package in detail."
Diaz de la Portilla pointed to more than $200 million in roadway improvements that have to be completed — funded with a mix of developer and public dollars — before the project could open, even with a favorable vote Thursday.
Bovo said it's possible commissioners "may now receive a lot of information that could require a deferral." He also said he could get up to speed on the traffic situation Thursday and be ready for a vote.
For his last-minute transit meeting, Suarez invited his son, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, to attend. The younger Suarez, who attended the meeting, serves as vice chairman under Bovo on a countywide transportation board.
Xavier Suarez said he's hoping to introduce legislation Thursday to require that the estimated $60 million in developer impact fees from Triple Five be directed to rapid transit instead of roads. His plan would create a "personal rapid transit" line connecting Metrorail's Palmetto station to American Dream Miami, with mini train pods running on an elevated track for about eight miles up the Palmetto Expressway and I-75. His proposal includes a summary of a proposal from a Mexican company for a South Carolina airport that cost about $23 million per mile, suggesting a price tag approaching $200 million in Miami-Dade.
Suarez said he expected to save significant dollars by having American Dream purchase train pods for its own workforce at a complex estimated to employ about 14,000 people full-time. The vehicles have wheels and can transition to the roadway, allowing workers to leave the elevated rail line and be dropped off at work.
"It's almost a win-win proposition," Suarez said. "I think the numbers are there."