Posts by: Guest Blogger Brad Knoefler
According to Forbes Magazine the Miami World Center mega-project, which promised to transform Downtown Miami, seems to be imploding.  With the partners suing each other for fraud and Deutche Bank foreclosing on a number of the World Center lots, the project, which was supported by the City of Miami with special favors and taxpayer money, now appears to be dead in the water.  The thousands of new residents in the area now have to continue to be surrounded by abandoned and dilapidated lots, adversely affecting the quality of life in the neighborhood.Just another chapter in the sad history of “redevelopment” in the area.  The December 1982 Redevelopment Plan characterizes the area as “underdeveloped land, substandard parking lots, poor lighting”.  Unfortunately, the area looks much the same today, despite more than 25 years of “redevelopment”.  In 1987 the Boundaries of the redevelopment area were modified for the “Gran Central” project, a million square foot retail / office development, which was never built.  The Miami Arena, which was supposed to be a catalyst for redevelopment, has since been torn down, leaving an unsightly pile of rocks in its place.  Over the years, plans for stadiums, convention centers, and other mega-projects have prevented any organic development from taking place.

Then the City of Miami teamed up with the Miami World Center Group, which began accumulating property in 2004.  Immediately after the property was purchased by the group, the City upzoned the area nearly 250%, vastly increasing the value of the World Center holdings.  In 2008, City resources were diverted to developing a “Special Miami World Center Zoning District”, with an unspecified cost to taxpayers.  In 2009, the Overtown CRA contracted a $1.2 million regional impact study, normally paid for by the developers themselves.  In the June 2009, the City of Miami issued a conflict of interest waiver to allow the CEO of the World Center to sit on the Board of the Downtown Development Authority while continuing to do business with the City.

So what now?  Faced with financing and legal problems, lobbyists for the World Center Group are going after public money to bail them out.  A “public / private partnership” for a billion dollar convention center in Park West is being pushed by the DDA, whose Board contains lobbyists and supporters of World Center.  This is despite Mayor Regalado’s vow to put any new mega-projects to a public referendum, the Miami Beach Convention Center’s planned $55 M in renovations, and numerous studies showing lack of demand for such a project.   If a convention center is built (albeit extremely unlikely), there would suddenly be demand for thousands of hotel rooms in the area, potentially resurrecting the Miami World Center project from the grave.

So if it sounds like history repeating itself, it is. Why do City officials continue to follow the same failed strategies as in the past?  Why not think outside the box in this era of change?  Instead of mega-projects, why not beautify the area “one block at time” as the new Mayor has suggested. Put a public park on the old arena site, focus on a commuter rail into Downtown, lobby for a supermarket to serve the 20,000 residents north of the river.  A clean, pedestrian friendly neighborhood will encourage investment and vastly improve the quality of life for the 5,000 or so new residents of Park West.  This is a proven model used around the country, including South Beach and we should use it.  Our New Mayor ran on a platform of listening to concerns of constituents and NO MORE mega-projects.  Unfortunately there are still those in the City who are not listening.

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The City of Miami’s plan to finance their portion of the global agreement hit a roadblock last week when the County Commission deferred the approval of a findings of necessity study which declares Watson Island and Bicentennial park to be “irreversible slum and blight”.  It is rumored that the Commission did not have enough votes to pass the controversial and potentially, illegal plan.

The plan, approved by the Miami City Commission, constitutes three steps:

  1. A Findings of Necessity study declaring Bicentennial Park and Watson Island to be slum and blight. The report, completed in May 2009 by Guillermo Olmedillo, concluded that “the existing conditions of slum and blight, if left unattended, will continue to flourish within the Study Area and beyond into the existing Omni Redevelopment Area and adjacent neighborhoods. These serious and growing conditions of slum and blight constitute an economic and social liability to the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County, and will impose onerous burdens including increased consumption of the municipal and County revenues for public services, such as to public safety, transportation, and infrastructure within the Study Area”
  2. Modify the ONMI Redevelopment plan to expand the boundaries of the Community Redevelopment Area to include Watson Island and Bicentennial Park (CRA monies cannot be legally spent outside the CRA boundaries), specifically mention the Port Tunnel, Streetcar, and Museum Park as desirable projects for “redevelopment”
  3. Issue $100-150 million in bonds against future Tax increment revenues and use the funds to finance the City of Miami’s obligation to contribute $50 million to the Port Tunnel, $20 million for the Miami Streetcar and up to $75 million to the Museum Park project.
The plan has been contested vigorously by stakeholders in the neighborhood, who have filed a 120 page complaint with Miami-Dade County about the City of Miami CRA’s . The complaint alleges that the City and County have manufactured slum and blight in order to redirect funds from their intended purpose of jobs, housing and quality of life improvement.  This may be a violation of State and Federal law, which has clear criteria for the use of HUD and redevelopment funds.  If the City does not maintain their own properties, despite millions of income from rent and special events, they allege, this does not constitute “irreversible slum and blight”. There are also the alleged procedural violations that occurred during the prior adminstation’s rush to get the plan through.  F.S Statute 163 pt III requires public hearings and proper notice about major modifications to a Redevelopment Plan - the last public hearings occurred in 2004 and 2005 and the plan underwent major modifications in May 2009.
The plan was passed by the CRA Board at an emergency meeting on September 29th with less than 24 hour notice given to the community.  A non-noticed meeting of the Miami City Commission to approve the plan was then held at midnight, less than 6 hours after the last modifications to the Redevelopment plan.

The item is scheduled on the County Commission agenda for November 17 as a public hearing.  Hopefully they will take their responsibility to regulate the Redevelopment Agencies seriously. This would involve ensuring that the proper procedures and citizen participation occurs this time around as well as investigating the legal and moral issues surrounding the issues of redirecting money from the poor to fund mega projects for the rich.

Miami is in dire need of park space.  The City was ranked dead last in park and recreation spaces out of 27 medium density cities and we continue to cover our public spaces with buildings and parking lots.  For decades, Miamians have cried out for a showcase park, a “Central Park” for Miami.  Well, there’s an opportunity right under our noses.  The Old Miami Arena site, currently a blighted five acre area of rocks, offers this possibility.  The current owner is open to sell, and there are no other sites in Miami that could offer such radical urban transformation.

Old Arena now

Imagine transforming the entire downtown area by turning this dilapidated parcel into a green, multi-use neighborhood space including community gardens, a nursery, a football field and a bandshell for outdoor performances and events.   With the construction of Museum Park, the City will need to relocate important events such as the Cirque de Soleil, and music events.  Moving them to the old arena site will activate a non-utilized area and create economic opportunities for Overtown residents.   The purchase of this site could also house the “Grand Central Station” for downtown, a perfect location for the upcoming commuter rail and/or Tri-Rail downtown expansion.  Utilizing this site for the public benefit offers the perfect combination of green, public facilities, urban transformation, and quality of life improvement for long suffering residents of the area.

MASTER ARCS copy

So how do we pay for this?  Aren’t the City and County undergoing a budget crisis?  Enter the City of Miami Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA).  Flush with $50 Million in cash, the CRA is planning on issuing $100 million in revenue bonds in upcoming months, primarily to finance large scale development projects debatable benefits.  Why not use a portion of these bonds to create Miami’s Central Park, which could have major benefits to everyone in the community?

Miami, its time to grow up.  We have the potential to have a world class, pedestrian friendly city if we could efficiently spend public funds for the greater good.  Let’s not miss one of the last opportunities for a “Central Park” in downtown Miami.

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