Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Megamall will harm Northwest Miami-Dade communities

An aerial view of the proposed American Dream Miami entertainment and retail complex, a massive attraction planned for Northwest Miami-Dade. Backed by the company behind the Mall of the America in Minnesota, it’s described as the largest mall in the United States
An aerial view of the proposed American Dream Miami entertainment and retail complex, a massive attraction planned for Northwest Miami-Dade. Backed by the company behind the Mall of the America in Minnesota, it’s described as the largest mall in the United States

There is no real estate peace in this town, where every sliver of land seems to be up for development and too many political gatekeepers are cheerleaders for growth, no matter the cost to the community.

The latest assault is the proposal by a Canadian company to build a megamall and theme park in a 200-acre tract near the intersection of Interstate 75 and Florida’s Turnpike in northwest Miami-Dade.

Never mind that this is not the rural, open-sky landscape of Minnesota — where the company built the Mall of America — or Orlando, for that matter, where theme parks came first and communities grew around them.

Never mind that South Florida is not tundra territory, where people might want to be locked up indoors at the biggest mall in America, even if fake skiing is provided (are we trying to redefine tacky, or what?).

Never mind that the land in question is surrounded by massive amounts of traffic during rush hour and beyond and that development of this scale will be life-altering to surrounding communities.

Dubbed “American Dream Miami,” for some of us the entertainment complex and retail giant will be a daily nightmare.

Secretly in the making for a year, the developer has had the eager ears of the Miami-Dade mayor and commission and of the school board, which must vote on whether to waive its leasing rights to a state parcel that’s part of the tract in exchange for $7 million from the developer.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez supports the project, already promoting it as a major jobs booster even though malls and theme parks offer what Florida has plenty of already — dead-end, low-wage jobs that don’t allow people to live above poverty levels.

For Northwest Miami-Dade cities — including Miami Lakes and jam-packed Hialeah Gardens and Hialeah, and for unincorporated enclaves like Palm Springs North, and stretching into Broward’s Miramar and Pembroke Pines — that kind of mammoth project poses major threats to the quality of life.

Believe me, I know. I live in this area, and I’ve seen the quaint, master-planned community of Miami Lakes, studied for its virtues in places like Harvard, struggle to retain its green village character in the face of growth. Cow and horse pastures, once a charming sight amid terracotta-roofed neighborhoods built around lakes, now seem to lurk like warning signs that there could be yet more development when the price is right. It’s extremely disappointing to learn that most of the land will come from the Graham Companies for a project with the potential to do so much harm to the community they built.

A megamall so close to this area will have a tremendous impact on traffic already clogged by schools, offices and shopping centers. And it could also affect the ability of signature family-owned businesses to survive when faced with the competition.

“We are gathering information on the impact or benefits this may have to our community,” Miami Lakes Vice Mayor Manny Cid told me. “My position is obviously to enhance and protect the quality of life of our residents.”

County Commissioner Esteban Bovo, who represents many of the communities affected by the project, told me that he’s open to it for several reasons: Too many people come to his office looking for jobs, and this $4 billion project promises 25,000 of them. The land will be bought and developed anyhow because it represents a valuable tax base. And in addition to building and running the park, the developer, Triple Five, also wants to relocate its headquarters here.

“The big question is the concern of traffic,” Bovo said. “How does a project like this fit into the traffic [pattern] getting in and out of a structure like this?”

I think there’s a bigger question: Why is it OK to ransack the quality of life of established communities in the name of economic development and increasing the tax base?

There’s no real estate peace anywhere in this town.

Not in historic Little Havana, which faces high-powered attempts to up-zone its neighborhoods. Not in upscale Coral Gables, where there are some 14 major projects in the pipeline and seven of them require major zoning changes. And now, there’s no real estate peace in the tranquil communities of Northwest Miami-Dade that had somehow until now escaped the nightmare of rampant overdevelopment.

“The Miami you and I remember as kids doesn’t exist,” said Bovo, who lives in Hialeah. “It’s sad to some degree … but builders build because there’s a demand.”

I, however, don’t hear anyone clamoring to ski in South Florida.

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