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American Dream Miami Mega-Mall Wins Preliminary Vote Before County Commission

Fri January 27, 2017 - Southeast Edition
Douglas Hanks - Miami Herald

Artist rendering of the proposed mega mall.
Artist rendering of the proposed mega mall.

American Dream Miami sailed through to another political victory on Wednesday as Miami-Dade commissioners granted preliminary approval for the $3 billion retail theme park near Miami Lakes and Hialeah.

In a 10-1 vote, the commission granted American Dream's request to let the approval process move to Tallahassee before the application comes back to Miami-Dade for a final vote later this year. In a boost to American Dream, the commission rejected county staff members' recommendation to remain neutral in transmitting the application and instead signaled that the board intends to adopt the proposed zoning changes.

"A lot of people would love to have this in their county," said Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz, whose district includes the American Dream site. "Projects like these don't happen very often. They rarely happen."

Triple Five pitched American Dream as a historic opportunity for Miami-Dade to expand its tourism offerings and vie for the family vacationers who currently stream north to Orlando's theme parks. Opponents branded the project as a new source of low-wage retail jobs that would only draw shopping dollars from existing malls while swamping Northwest Miami-Dade with traffic.

Wednesday's vote triggers a state review process that is expected to take three or four months, with commissioners taking a final vote on the development plan in April or May. The preliminary approval granted Wednesday comes as county officials say they still don't have a specific plan to rework nearby roadways to accommodate an estimated 70,000 cars a day from the 200-acre American Dream and its sister project, a 340-acre commercial and residential complex to be built to the south by the Graham Cos.

There also isn't an agreement on how much Triple Five would pay to address transportation issues, and county officials say they have no plan to extend commuter rail to what would be the largest mall in the United States.

Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, the lone no vote on the board, said she was concerned that a final vote loomed with so many key issues unresolved.

"It's not much time, three months. On a very, very complicated development," she said. "I am not opposed to this project. I see the economic benefit. The question is: at what cost?"

Designed as a larger version of Minnesota's Mall of America, the six-million-square-foot mall and amusement park would be large enough to include an indoor ski slope, submarine rides and an enclosed water park. Triple Five, owner of the Mall of America, expects 30 million visitors a year and more than 14,000 permanent jobs at the 200-acre complex on a wedge of pastures and wetlands where I-75 meets Florida's Turnpike.

American Dream's hiring projections would make the mall Miami-Dade's largest employment center. An economic-impact report submitted by Triple Five estimates that more than 60 percent of the positions would pay less than $25,000 a year.

A political group launched by the owners of Miami-Dade's largest existing malls, including Taubman's Dolphin Mall and General Growth's Bayside Marketplace, tried to block the American Dream vote by raising the issue of tax money subsidizing the $3 billion project.

While lobbyists for competing malls had tried to get commissioners to insist on a deed restriction banning public help for American Dream, the board opted to send the application to Tallahassee without any new conditions. Triple Five hasn't publicly asked for government money in Miami-Dade, but the county's mayor said in private discussions that he has turned down requests from the developer for financial assistance.

Several commissioners warned that they would oppose using local tax dollars to subsidize construction of the project, and also that the board could impose restrictions later in the year when it approves the final development deal for American Dream. "We'll let it go today," said Commissioner Joe Martinez. "The battle really will be when it comes back."

The lopsided vote by the 13-member board (commissioners Audrey Edmonson and Jean Monestime did not attend the meeting) followed hours of comments from members of the public on both sides of the debate.

Meryl Fixler brought her grandson, David, to the microphone to say she resented local malls objecting to a company that wants to build an entertainment destination that could be enjoyed by local families.

"I'm tired of going to your malls and sitting in a little pit to play," said Fixler, who lives in Parkland in Broward County.

Bonnie Cintron, a Miami Lakes resident, said she wouldn't object to American Dream if it wasn't moving next door.

"This is a wonderful project. But not where they want to put it," she said. "Not in a congested area."

Manny Cid, the mayor of Miami Lakes, urged commissioners to steer millions of dollars in developer fees from the project to his city to cover expenses tied to traffic. Carlos Hernández, the mayor of Hialeah, a city that may pursue annexing the American Dream site, endorsed the project, as did the mayor of nearby Hialeah Gardens.

"For the 73,000 unemployed people in Miami-Dade County, I think the traffic issue is secondary," said Mayor Yioset De La Cruz. "I think their main priority is to be able to feed their families and put food on their tables."

Triple Five, the Canadian company that owns Mall of America and is pursuing American Dream Meadowlands in New Jersey, has accused its opponents in Miami-Dade's retail industry of trying to squelch competition in lobbying against the proposal. In comments to commissioners, Triple Five tried to cast American Dream as an entertainment complex rather than another mall in a region that already boasts some of the largest in the state.

American Dream Miami's development application lists 3.5 million square feet of retail space and just 1.5 million square feet for entertainment purposes. But developers say the amusement park rides and over-the-top attractions will make the property more of a tourist attraction than a shopping center.

"We're not mall developers. To tell you the honest truth, I loathe malls," said Don Ghermezian, an executive of Triple Five, which his family owns. "I don't like to go to them even when I'm on holiday. That's what we're trying not to build."

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