On a tight deadline to begin construction of an enormous residential and retail complex near downtown, the developer behind the Miami Worldcenter is pushing aggressively for approval of the first phase of its 27-acre project.
Earlier this month, following close to a year of discussion and debate about conceptual designs, Miami’s Planning and Zoning Department received a proposed site plan that specifically lays out what would be built and how in the $1.2 billion eastern half of the 10-block project. The plans include a 765,000 mall anchored by Bloomingdales and Macy’s, a large park-like space atop the mall, and two residential towers between the Metromover and North Miami Avenue.
On Wednesday, the public got its first in-depth glimpse of those plans when they were vetted by a city advisory board whose members praised the project’s potential impact on a blighted chunk of town. But, in a familiar refrain, they were concerned enough about its imposing design and enclosing of city streets to recommend that Miami’s planning director reject the plans.
One member of the Urban Development Review Board, whose vote was not binding, warned that “the concept of the project is destructive to the urban grid of Miami.” But rather than try to rework the plans to net a favorable recommendation, an attorney for the developer asked the board to go ahead and vote against the project to at least allow the developer to move forward and pursue a groundbreaking early next year.
Worldcenter Managing Principal Nitin Motwani left City Hall quickly without answering questions, but issued a statement through a spokesman: “We respect the Board’s insight and will consider its recommendations as we review our plans for Miami Worldcenter’s first phase and prepare the site for construction beginning in early 2015.”
The plans laid out by Miami Worldcenter Associates held few surprises, but serve as another signal that the project is progressing despite skepticism bred by years of inactivity.
Worldcenter was first proposed years ago, only to be derailed when the economy tanked in 2008. At the end of last year, the project's master developers brought in major mall developers Forbes and Taubman to erect an upscale urban shopping center. They also sold the former Miami Arena site to a developer planning to break ground on a Marriott hotel and expo center on a similar schedule.
Approval of a new development agreement with the city allowed Worldcenter to submit its new plans. The latest designs include the 60-story luxe condo tower, Paramount. And now they include a second 500-foot residential building, called Tower 1, on the southeast section of the project.
On Wednesday, though, it was the project’s long-established details that drew concern from the board, which had only three of nine members in attendance. By incorporating city streets into the mall, master designer Elkus Manfredi created a building that stretches for several city blocks, which two board members worried would cut off pedestrian traffic.
Lead architect Michael Cohen stressed that the mall’s design includes widened streets and walkways that extend into the structure, plus outward facing shops to pull people in. He said the design was unique for Miami but planned in a way that would use the retail shops to connect downtown and Overtown. But some critics have warned that the complex-like structure will shut out Overtown, to the west, from downtown to the east.
“As important as it is for the city, I think the way we’re going about it today is a monumental mistake. I don’t feel it’s appropriate to close so many streets in the fashion it has been done,” said board chairman Robert Behar.
Meanwhile, Worldcenter continues to negotiate with Miami’s Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency for property tax rebates that would subsidize the massive project. Those talks had stirred concerns among a group of clergy last week about community benefits tied to the money, but a former Miami commissioner, the Rev. Richard Dunn, said a meeting with Commissioner Keon Hardemon’s staff eased those worries.
“We’re very optimistic about the direction it’s going,” said Dunn. “The pastors and commissioner Hardemon are on one accord.”