A panel of South Florida mayors and commissioners on Wednesday took multiple swipes at a pair of controversial development projects, one a 175-acre retail theme park planned in Northwest Miami-Dade and the other a new toll expressway for West Kendall.
Votes declaring both projects out of step with regional growth plans are largely symbolic, since the Miami-Dade commission and Florida have authority over both ventures.
The thumbs-down for the American Dream Miami mega-mall comes weeks after the Miami-Dade County Commission granted the $4 billion venture final zoning approval.
But the pushback from the South Florida Regional Planning Council for the planned 14-mile extension of the 836 expressway into undeveloped land in western Miami-Dade comes less than two months before a planned final vote on a project championed by county Mayor Carlos Gimenez. On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from West Miami, scrambled the debate by issuing a statement saying he opposed the current 836 extension plan.
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At Wednesday’s meeting of the planning board, members questioned the rush to approve a $1 billion toll-funded project before the final route has been picked. Board member Greg Ross cited a Miami Herald article from June laying out last-minute changes to the northern part of the extension and two alternate corridors that are the current options for the southern end.
“Between the writing of that,” asked Ross, the mayor of Cooper City in Broward, “and now, have you detailed for us the exact route of the expansion?”
Juan Toledo, head of engineering for the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, which would build the expressway, said the final route will be coming soon but the options all fall within a fairly narrow corridor.
“We have that alignment pretty well defined,” he told Ross. “It will be solidified before the vote in September.”
Lourdes Gomez, deputy director of the county’s Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources, said the County Commission approved forwarding three potential alignments to state regulators for review before the final vote on Sept. 27.
“They are all in play,” she said.
The 836 debate has environmental groups and smart-growth advocates on one side arguing against Miami-Dade adding more highway miles in the western reaches of the county, near the Everglades and low-lying wetlands around underground water supplies. Kendall residents have packed town meetings on the plan, arguing they deserve traffic relief in an area cut off from the pricey rail options that they still have to help pay for.
Staff for the planning commission recommended a vote against the 836 project, which won preliminary support from the County Commission in a June 20 vote. A report from the council cited unanswered questions on “potential impacts to wetlands,” the sustainability of a proposed express bus route running on the shoulders of the extended toll road, and what it will mean for Miami-Dade to lose the farmland needed to build what’s been billed as the “Kendall Parkway.”
The expressway authority, an appointed board best known as the MDX, would build and manage the road, with all of the expenses covered by existing surplus tolls and new toll revenue collected on the expanded 836. Miami-Dade commissioners are involved because the extension would cross the county’s Urban Development Boundary, the imaginary line that separates rural areas from large residential subdivisions and commercial projects.
Allowing the expressway to cross the Urban Development Boundary requires the commission to change the county’s master development plan. Rather than the toll board asking for the change, Gimenez, who serves as chairman of the MDX, had his administration pursue the application with the county itself. That’s raised questions about whether the extension is getting the kind of strict regulatory review it should.
“It creates a real conflict of interest in my opinion,” said Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, a member of the planning council.
Levine Cava was one of only two no votes in the preliminary commission vote earlier this summer. Other commissioners warned they may switch sides by the time the final vote arrives.
Rubio’s statement on Tuesday struck to the heart of a compromise that Gimenez had helped forge to build support for the project by inching the alignment farther west, away from residential neighborhoods. Rubio said he would urge federal agencies to “oppose” the 836 extension “until it is aligned as far east as feasible and includes provisions that will guarantee an effective and enduring ‘West Kendall Everglades Buffer’ that prevents rather than encourages additional development in the project area.”
The senator hasn’t elaborated on how far west he would accept the route. But a push to the east from the current alignment could cost key votes for final approval. “It would be a dead project if it comes farther east,” said Commissioner Joe Martinez, who represents West Kendall.
Jack Osterholt, a Miami-Dade deputy mayor, urged the planning council to delay voting on the project if members felt they simply needed more information.
“If you vote no,” he said, “they’re not going to read four paragraphs down to see why you voted no.”
The planning council has no authority to reject a project, but its opinions can influence state and county decisions. They also can be fodder for lawsuits trying to overturn planning decisions.
Wednesday’s meeting touched on two projects that have received extra attention this week through the political sphere. Along with Rubio weighing in on a county road extension, Democratic candidates for governor have been sniping over the American Dream project because of its connections to frontrunner Gwen Graham.
The former congresswoman’s family business, the Graham Companies, partnered with American Dream developer Triple Five to pursue approvals of the mega-mall and a Graham Companies commercial and residential venture to the south.
With environmental groups leading the charge against American Dream, Graham is facing opposition ads accusing her of siding with big business over the Everglades. Graham, who owns a significant chunk of stock in her family’s company, has called the allegations baseless since she left the Graham Companies board in 2015 when she entered Congress.
This was the first vote on the 836 project by the council, but the second for the American Dream mega-mall. Members took the unusual step of voting to declare a project as inconsistent with a regional growth plan after voting to declare it consistent in 2017. American Dream representatives did not make a presentation at the meeting, and council members agreed to hold a second session to reconsider Wednesday’s vote after hearing from the developers.
American Dream’s agreement with Miami-Dade bars the six-million-square-foot complex from opening if several new interchanges aren’t finished around the property, which sits between the Florida Turnpike and I-75. Council members mocked the idea of Florida constructing major new highway interchanges in time for the complex’s planned opening in 2023, and questioned whether Miami-Dade would actually bar the massive project from opening due to delays.
“Who are we kidding?” Ross said. “It’s not happening in four years.”
A lobbyist for American Dream issued a statement Wednesday evening lashing out at the planning council and accusing it of favoring a large would-be competitor in Broward.
“Today’s vote is meaningless in that it has no impact whatsoever on our project going forward,” wrote Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a former state senator and a land-use lawyer for Triple Five. “Their vote provided further support for the claim by many that the [planning council] is nothing but a political body pandering to their special interests (i.e. the Sawgrass Mills Mall in Broward).”