Miami-Dade County

Traffic? Toxic soil? Beckham plan for Miami soccer stadium spurs concerns before vote

David Beckham, center, and partners Marcelo Claure, left, and Jorge Mas, right, join Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber at a downtown Miami ceremony on Jan. 29 celebrating MLS awarding a franchise to the Miami partnership.
David Beckham, center, and partners Marcelo Claure, left, and Jorge Mas, right, join Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber at a downtown Miami ceremony on Jan. 29 celebrating MLS awarding a franchise to the Miami partnership.

David Beckham's five-year quest to establish a Major League Soccer team in Miami faces an important vote Thursday when Miami commissioners will consider asking voters if the city should change its laws to allow negotiations for a no-bid deal to replace Melreese Country Club with a stadium, retail, hotel, office and park complex.

But plenty of people are worried about how the sprawling complex would affect their lives: the traffic it would cause, the closure of the golf course, the hazards of digging up land that is laced with toxic waste, and the question of whether Miami's government is pursuing a good deal for taxpayers.

The Beckham group seemed nonplussed by these concerns going into Thursday's vote. The group is led locally by Jorge Mas, a partner and MasTec executive, who on Wednesday insisted traffic impact would be minimal and said he does not know the extent of the contamination at Melreese or how much it would cost to clean up.

Opposition is mounting from a diverse array of people with a variety of interests, from former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and former Miami Heat star Ray Allen to parents of the children who participate in the youth golf program housed at Melreese and folks who are simply worried about traffic.

"Aside from being a concerned golfer, my biggest concern is what this project will do to traffic around the airport. No one seems to be talking about that," Kay Jacobson, a Pinecrest resident, wrote to the Miami Herald on Wednesday. "How much time is all this development going to add on to the drive to the airport from all over Dade? It’s not just a city of Miami issue."

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The proposed “Miami Freedom Park” that would house a Major League Soccer stadium and a large new office and retail complex. David Beckham and partners, who include Jorge and Jose Mas, want to develop the project on Miami’s Melreese golf course. Miami Freedom LLC

The Beckham group's secretive dealings with City Hall have also left many questions unanswered. The ownership group kept details of its plan under wraps until it released one rendering and a one-page fact sheet Sunday. Both shed new light on the proposal in broad strokes, but other issues have still not been addressed publicly.

For one, there's the contamination of Melreese. The golf course sits on a tract of land that was once landfill and ash dump from an old municipal incinerator, a problem first reported in depth by the Miami New Times Wednesday. Tests in recent years show arsenic contamination at Melreese and adjacent Grapeland Heights Park, which had to haul away about 80,000 tons of soil in 2008 when the water park was built. That cost about $10 million. One location right on the boundary of Melreese and Grapeland, tested semi-annually, still has high levels of arsenic. Recent groundwater tests at Grapeland show there are still high arsenic levels.

The Beckham group wants to build an underground parking garage under several public soccer fields, which would require significant excavation — a large expense on its own that could be much more costly if remediation is needed, perhaps so costly it could derail the whole project.

Mas told the Miami Herald on Wednesday that his team has reviewed environmental reports and spoken with consultants, though it is still unclear how much remediation is required and at what cost.

"We have a reasonable expectation of dollars required but additional testing is needed," he said.

City Manager Emilio Gonzalez said he expects the Beckham group "will pay for reasonable remediation costs."

Mas and Gonzalez shared no information about a traffic study done for the plan, which Gonzalez publicly confirmed for the first time during a Wednesday morning radio appearance on Radio Mambi 710 AM. The city manager said Mas is expected to present the study at Thursday's commission meeting.

When asked for a copy of the traffic consultant's report, Mas demurred, calling the traffic impact "negligible" and saying it's the responsibility of Arquitectonica — the Miami architecture firm that designed the complex to handle the study.

"I don’t have anything," he said. "This is the design team's responsibility."

Then there’s the lost park land. Under city rules, the Beckham group would have to replace the acreage it develops with new park space elsewhere in the city so there is no net loss of park land in Miami.

"We have several options we are exploring, especially as it relates to activating soccer fields elsewhere around the city," Mas said.

David Beckham watches the England-Croatia World Cup semifinal match at The Wharf on Wednesday, July 11, 2018. Christian Colon

The future of a well-regarded youth golf program is also murky under the Beckham proposal. Melreese Country Club is home to First Tee Miami, the local chapter of a national network of not-for-profit programs that serve children of all backgrounds. Thousands of kids go through the First Tee Miami program each year, most at no cost.

An attorney who represents the Delucca family, which operates Melreese under a management agreement with the city, said the family has not been very involved in talks to redevelop the golf course.

"I think there were some discussions, but nothing has really come from it," said attorney Thomas Korge. "They're not included in the process, any of the city discussions regarding that."

This week, Mas publicly promised to keep First Tee at the Melreese site. He wants to house the program at a golf entertainment facility, a Top-Golf-like business that is planned for the soccer complex.

"First Tee program can/will be based in golf facility," Mas wrote in an email. "First tee of New York City is located at Chelsea Pier and very successful."

That First Tee program Mas is referring to is hosted on a Manhattan pier converted into a multi-level driving range — a far cry from the spacious golf course the First Tee kids use at Melreese.

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A scene from Miami's Melreese golf course, city land where David Beckham and partners want to build a soccer stadium and commercial complex. PATRICK FARRELL Miami Herald File

The Beckham debate has also attracted some big names to the fray. Allen, the former basketball star, came out against the proposal Tuesday, stating his support for First Tee in an Instagram post asking people to show their support at City Hall Thursday. Former Mayor Manny Diaz sent an email blast Sunday criticizing the concept of redeveloping a portion of a park in order for a private developer to make a profit.

"The issue is not whether we welcome MLS and soccer to Miami. Many of us do. The issue is not golf vs. soccer," Diaz wrote. "Plain and simple, the issue is whether we are prepared to accept the monetizing of our precious limited green space with massive, private real estate development projects. I, for one, am not prepared to accept such a fate and I ask that you join me in opposing this grave mistake."

Soccer supporters and opponents of the plan are expected to descend on Miami City Hall on Thursday, where commissioners will hear from Mas and Beckham at 2 p.m., which would be followed by what could be a lengthy public comment period. The pro-stadium crowd is expected to hold a tailgate party outside at noon, which would likely fall during the commission's lunch break.

Commissioners are not considering final approval of the proposal. They will decide if they should hold a November referendum on which voters in the city of Miami would decide if the city should waive its competitive bidding laws to negotiate a no-bid agreement with the Beckham group to build a soccer complex. If a referendum is held and voters approve, the negotiated agreement would still need to return to the City Commission for approval, which would require four of five commissioners to vote in favor.