Downtown Miami

All theater, no suspense: Miami commission votes for Worldcenter (again)

A rendering of the Miami Worldcenter
A rendering of the Miami Worldcenter courtesy of Miami Worldcenter

With a crucial decision on the massive Miami Worldcenter project before them, dozens showed up to speak to Miami Commissioners Thursday.

For more than an hour, they heard pleas from critics to push harder for better job commitments in order to allow the long-awaited, polarizing project to build what developers desire. Supporters urged them to move forward a momentous project that will bring thousands of jobs to the area and boost a blighted neighborhood and a poor, African American community.

It was almost as if they hadn’t done this before.

Miami commissioners back in September approved the Worldcenter development agreement that gives some special privileges for a mixed-use development that includes residential towers, and a 765,000-square-foot mall in its first phase alone. But concerns about whether the city improperly neglected to inform property owners of those first two votes led the developers to request Thursday’s re-hearing.

Much like September’s votes, there were plenty arguing for the deal and against it. But since then, the project has only drawn more attention thanks to a deal approved in December by the Southeast Overtown/Park West Redevelopment Agency to grant Worldcenter $88 million in property tax rebates.

That package, negotiated by Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon, approved property tax subsidies in exchange for wage and local workforce commitments under threat of financial penalties. But many have criticized the deal, saying it didn’t bring Overtown enough -- or even secure what has been a reality at Brickell City Centre, which is being built without any city subsidies.

That project, according to the developer’s representations to the city, has paid $13 an hour to unskilled workers and hired 40 percent of its workers from the city of Miami. Worldcenter’s commitments, on the other hand, must pay $12.83 to unskilled workers (without health benefits) and employ 30 percent of its unskilled workforce from around the county.

“You have a chance to do a do-over, please negotiate better terms,” said Juan Cuba, a former head of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party turned union strategist.

But, as expected, Thursday’s hearing ended up being all theater and no suspense. City commissioners approved – once again – the amended development agreement. A second hearing is set for Feb. 26. Worldcenter principal Nitin Motwani said after the hearing that the project is on schedule for vertical development in the second quarter of the year.

Given that the commissioners hearing the issue had already voted three times in favor of the project and subsidies, another approval seemed like a given Thursday. But the hearing gave critics an extra shot at the deal, and afforded Commissioner Hardemon a chance to defend himself publicly after receiving much heat over his handling of subsidy negotiations.

Hardemon responded to Brickell City Centre comparisons, saying that developer would have sought financial incentives had its project been located in a community redevelopment area. He also said there’s no comparing building in one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods to building in a high-poverty, high-crime area.

“When people tell me Brickell City Centre is building in Brickell and they didn’t need a tax incentive, I laugh,” he said. “If they were in a CRA … they would be before us asking for dollars.”

More Hardemon: “People don’t build in Overtown, not because the land isn’t there, [but] because it’s an untested market where people are dying in the street and no one feels safe in that community ... “This is bigger than 80-something, $90 million over 14 years.”

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