Miami-Dade County

County rejects rent increase on waterfront lot for Heat

The view of Parcel B from AmericanAirlines Arena. The county-owned waterfront lot is used by the Miami Heat for valet parking during games. On Tuesday, the Miami-Dade Commission rejected a plan to increase the Heat’s fees for using the lot. A consultant had said the fees are far below market value.
The view of Parcel B from AmericanAirlines Arena. The county-owned waterfront lot is used by the Miami Heat for valet parking during games. On Tuesday, the Miami-Dade Commission rejected a plan to increase the Heat’s fees for using the lot. A consultant had said the fees are far below market value. DOUGLAS HANKS

The Miami Heat won’t face a rent increase on a county-owned waterfront lot the team uses for valet parking, with Miami-Dade commissioners rejecting a plan Tuesday to increase fees that a consultant said are far below market value.

Originally promised as a park during the 1996 referendum campaign needed to build the tax-subsidized AmericanAirlines Arena, the five-acre wedge of land known as Parcel B has been a source of controversy for nearly two decades. The park plan stalled and now the downtown Miami property is mostly used as a spare lot by the Heat, which manages the county-owned arena.

A September appraisal of what the lot could bring on the open market recommended nearly tripling the fees Miami-Dade charges the Heat for Parcel B, a shift that would have generated about $150,000 extra per year. Annual revenues were predicted to grow from $80,000 to $230,000, according to a county summary.

While other groups occasionally rent the land, almost all of the money comes from the Heat. Team representatives pushed back against the recommendation, and a majority of commissioners on Tuesday voted against the new fee schedule.

“I don’t know if I can call this spot pricing,” Chairman Jean Monestime said, citing criticism that Miami-Dade was singling out Parcel B for its own fee schedule rather than raising prices for all county lots. “This is not broad enough.”

Tuesday’s vote treads on the always sensitive topic of sports subsidies. Last June, the Heat successfully renegotiated their arena deal to essentially reduce Miami-Dade’s yearly operating subsidy from $6.4 million to $5.4 million. The county also ended a profit-sharing agreement at the arena that had yielded virtually nothing for taxpayers, and agreed to an additional five years of subsidies through 2035 at $8.5 million a year.

Juan C. Zapata, the commissioner whose district includes West Kendall, sponsored the Parcel B resolution and blamed the Heat for its defeat on Tuesday.

“They’re insatiable, the Miami Heat,” he said after bolting from the commission chambers following the vote count. “They got millions of our dollars, and they continue to try and get more and more.”

A Heat spokeswoman said the team would have no comment on the vote. No team representatives spoke at Tuesday’s meeting.

The Parcel B discussion produced what may been the tensest debate of the year for the 13-member commission, as Zapata clashed with Audrey Edmonson, the commissioner whose district includes the arena. Edmonson said she was offended that Zapata pushed a plan impacting county property within her district, saying the hometown commissioner should be given deference on matters that aren’t countywide.

“If this goes through, then I think every single one of us will now have to worry about each other crossing the lines and coming in and just doing what they want to do in everybody’s district,” Edmonson said. “Because this is disrespectful.”

Zapata replied: “I’m more than happy to get along. What I’m not going to do is neglect my duties... We were elected to serve collectively, not parochially.” When Zapata started to tick off Edmonson iniatitives he said involved his district, Monestime interrupted to say: “Commissioner, we’re going to stop this.” But Zapata continued, saying “I was attacked, and I need to defend myself.”

Monestime did not hold a roll call for Zapata’s Parcel B resolution, and instead asked for a show of hands for those voting no. While there was no doubt of the resolution’s defeat, there was some confusion as to the actual vote count Tuesday.

The preliminary clerk’s office tally recorded it as losing 2 to 9, with commissioners Jose “Pepe” Diaz and Xavier Suarez missing the vote. Diaz had left County Hall by the time the vote took place, but Suarez said in an interview he ducked back to the dais to cast a yes vote. Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, recorded as a no vote on the count, said she voted yes.

Based on interviews, the resolution seemed to lose on a 4 to 8 vote, with Esteban “Steve” Bovo joining Levine Cava, Suarez and Zapata in voting yes. The count won’t be finalized until commissioners approve the minutes at a later meeting.

The Parcel B proposal had the backing of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration, and was based on a market study that attempted to estimate what the county could charge for Parcel B’s use if it were a commercial lot. Prepared by the CBRE real-estate firm, the study said the Heat should pay $4,000 a day to use the lot for valet parking, rather than the daily $1,100 fee Miami-Dade says it charges the team.

Heat lobbyists countered that Miami-Dade shouldn’t treat Parcel B as a generic piece of land, since it’s a crucial appendage to the county-owned arena but otherwise isolated from the rest of downtown. Along with overflow parking for games, the AmericanAirlines Arena uses the lot for truck storage during parking and even elephant grazing when the circus comes to town.

A larger drama over Parcel B helped ratchet up the controversy, with open-space activists demanding Miami-Dade fufill its promise to build a park there as part of the original arena deal. The hard-fought referendum appeared to be in trouble, and the Heat’s political team began touting a soccer field and park on Parcel B in part to woo over skeptical white voters, according to a 2004 essay by Mike Murphy, then a rising political consultant working for the Heat effort. He’s now a Meet the Press panelist and key advisor for Jeb Bush.

“In Dade County, Cuban-Americans saw the arena as a symbol of pride and local achievement. African-Americans saw an economic project bringing new jobs and had pride in the local NBA team,” Murphy wrote in the 2004 essay for the Sports Business Journal. “White voters were most excited about a new family-friendly park on Miami's waterfront, including soccer fields and a new arena, which would bring in concerts and other entertainment events. Recasting the arena as a waterfront park and arena was to be key to our campaign.”

Commissioners last year approved preliminary plans to build a Cuban Exile museum on Parcel B, and now there’s talk of adding a proposed Black History museum to the site, as well. The Heat has warned developing the lot would cause the arena problems, and activists are still calling for Miami-Dade to follow its original plan for recreational space there.

“We should make it a real park, as was promised,” Levine Cava said in a statement after. “But in the meantime, we’re undercharging, per the market analysis.”