Source: https://www.miamiherald.com, June 7, 2019
By: Joey Flechas and Adriana Brasileiro
Almost a year after the rushed debut of the latest plan to build a stadium in Miami for David Beckham’s upcoming Major League Soccer team, the biggest question hanging over the project remains unanswered. What will it cost to clean up contaminated soil at the Melreese golf course site?
The extent of the pollution under the publicly owned 131 acres next to Miami International Airport was unclear in November when 60 percent of voters endorsed the broad terms of a deal to allow Beckham’s local partner, MasTec chairman Jorge Mas, to negotiate a 99-year lease with the city to redevelop the golf course into “Miami Freedom Park.” The $10 million it cost to clean up 13 acres next door more than a decade ago suggests the remediation could be extensive and expensive.
Now, the soccer group’s contract proposals also spark new questions about the amount of lost park space that will be reestablished elsewhere in Miami, a requirement under a law that ensures no net loss within city limits. Through maneuvering Miami zoning code, the soccer group says it intends to keep its obligation to make up for lost parkland to only about 27 percent of the 73 acres it would pave over for commercial development and parking.
At the end of any negotiation lies a significant political hurdle. The deal requires approval from four of five Miami commissioners, and two have already expressed displeasure with the proposal or outright opposition.
The details of the Beckham group’s proposal will be scrutinized as the team owners and city officials negotiate a deal to present to the city commission. If approved, the stadium and adjoining complex would serve as the venue for 17 home games played by Club Internacional de Fútbol Miami, Inter Miami.
Mas gave Miami administrators a first offer this week that would allow him to redevelop Melreese into a privately financed $1 billion complex with a hotel, office park, mall, 25,000-seat stadium and 58-acre public park that would remain under city control. Mas would lease 73 acres for commercial and stadium development, including a parking garage with soccer fields on the roof.
The paperwork and plans, though, could mean nothing if the cost of cleaning up is too high. The site was a dumping ground for an old municipal incinerator that was shut down decades ago.
What lies underneath the fairways and greens is key to whether the project moves forward at all, and team officials have not yet shared results of recent soil testing with county environmental administrators, according to records at the Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM).
This week, Mas told the Miami Herald his consultants have assured him that preliminary testing suggests the cleanup costs won’t bust his $35 million budget, a figure he has publicly stated since he first rolled out the Melreese proposal last summer.
“Preliminary indications are that we’ll be within the realm of it not being a deal-breaker,” Mas said this week.
Still, the soil analysis is not complete, and DERM wants to see the data.
This week, a consultant and an attorney working for Beckham and his partners provided a briefing on an environmental report that’s expected to inform plans for the cleanup of metals and chemicals that are likely present on the site. Wilbur Mayorga, Miami-Dade’s pollution chief, met on June 3 with two people representing the soccer group: Craig Clevenger, a geologist and consultant at environmental firm EE&G, and Kerri Barsh, an attorney at Greenberg Traurig, according to DERM records.
Mayorga said the consultants gave him a verbal summary of the findings after the conclusion of initial soil and groundwater sampling, and told him the report would be ready “soon.’‘ He said he expects to receive the detailed report in the next few weeks, adding that he hopes the plan to remediate contamination on the site is appropriate.
“They can propose a great plan for the actual project, but at the end of the day we need to make sure that the grounds will be safe for the workers who will build it and for the citizens who will visit and use the park,’‘ he said.
Under the proposed contracts, the Beckham group would be solely responsible for remediating the land’s “preexisting conditions.” Contract clauses immediately following the team’s commitment to remediation are steeped in legalese that suggest the city would be responsible for any contamination it causes after the site is initially cleaned and developed, and the soccer group would be responsible for any pollution it causes.
While the overall cost of cleaning up Melreese is still unclear, the remediation of adjacent land around 14 years ago suggests the bill could be steep. In 2005, the city began renovating the park at 1550 Northwest 37th Ave., a 13-acre slice of the southeast corner of the land tract shared with Melreese.
The building of Grapeland Water Park, completed in 2008, required about $10 million in cleanup work after pre-construction soil analysis found pockets of polluted earth and ash. While not a serious health issue, the contamination added cost and time to the project.
Mas says money is a potential deal-breaker, but he’s confident in his consultants’ advice. As far as time, he aims to field an MLS team in Miami for home games by 2022, but the team will already be launching in in Fort Lauderdale. The Beckham group has already demolished Lockhart Stadium to make way for a training facility and exhibition stadium. The complex will host Inter Miami’s home games for its first few seasons.
Though the environmental questions loom large, other issues will factor into whether Miami Freedom Park can gain the required super-majority vote from Miami’s elected officials to approve the 99-year lease. Four of five commissioners would have to approve the deal. In November, 60 percent of voters approved the broad framework of the deal in a much-debated referendum.
Among the other concerns: Can Mas and his partners comply with city law and replace lost acres of park space elsewhere in Miami? Although Melreese is a golf course that requires a fee to gain access, it is considered a park under Miami’s zoning code. If any of that land were to be rezoned, new parkland would have to be created somewhere else so the city does not suffer a net loss.
On first blush, comments from Mas’ lawyers might not satisfy green space advocates who oppose paving over the golf course. Even though Mas would lease 73 acres of public land for commercial space, one of his land-use attorneys told the Herald she believed only 20 acres of park space would need to be replaced under Miami’s zoning code.
Iris Escarra, land-use attorney at Greenberg Traurig working on the Miami Freedom Park team, said only 20 acres would need to be rezoned to accommodate the stadium, hotel and office space. The remaining 53 acres would, despite being developed, keep its “civic space” zoning. The zoning designation allows for retail development so long as it does not occupy more than 25 percent of the land.
So in order to build the strip of stores and restaurants planned for the area outside the stadium, Mas would need the city to make an exception to the 25 percent rule.
“These are uses allowed in parks that activate the parks,” Escarra said, noting that the Rusty Pelican restaurant, Jungle Island and planned retail/restaurant and parking garage redevelopment next to City Hall on Dinner Key are all zoned for civic space.
Part of the leased land would include a parking structure with 11 rooftop soccer fields that would be free to use for Miami residents under the age of 16 who register. Owners appear to have adjusted their position on the accessibility to the rooftop soccer fields in recent months. In March, a MasTec attorney told the Herald the public would have to pay to use those fields.
Traffic and parking is another major concern for residents in the park’s vicinity. The soccer group has not yet released a full analysis. Mas said he intends to propose a new traffic light on Northwest 37th Avenue to ensure that Grapeland Heights residents can safely access the park, and traffic would be diverted away from the neighborhood so that visitors aren’t taking up resident parking spaces in front of homes.
City administrators and their legal consultants are expected to negotiate these and many other details in the coming months. Some city leaders have indicated they expect to see some of these terms change, including the proposed $3.6 million minimum rent to the city. Commissioner Joe Carollo has publicly stated the city deserves higher rent.
The proposed rent payment reflects the terms approved in the referendum, when Miami residents voted to allow city administrators to skip the normal bidding process and negotiate a 99-year lease with the Beckham group. Voters approved an arrangement in which the city would receive the greater of a fair market value rent and 5 percent of total rent revenues from tenants in the complex. The city would be guaranteed a minimum annual rent of about $3.6 million.
City Manager Emilio Gonzalez emphasized the $3.6 million is a just a floor, adding that he thinks the city should should negotiate for more money. Before a final rent structure is settled, the city plans to order more appraisals of the land.
“That number is going to flow from a market study,” Mas said. “That’s where the number comes from. The number doesn’t come out of the air. It’s not a negotiated number. It’s fair market value.”
Gonzalez said he expects the overall financial benefit for the city to be higher than the current figures.
“Do I envision us getting more? Yes,” Gonzalez said.
The city manager said there are other ways the city could reap more revenue, such as parking surcharges and stadium naming rights, setting up a likely hot negotiation point. In the soccer group’s first offer, the team keeps the naming rights.
Mas and his team have drummed up support at multiple community meetings in recent months, including a get-together for residents in the adjacent Grapeland Heights neighborhood. The group has some residents who have raised concerns about traffic and parking, which the soccer group said will be included in an upcoming traffic plan. More meetings are planned.
In its outreach, the group has focused on the deal’s public benefits package, which includes $5 million toward the completion of the Baywalk and $20 million to put toward improvements on the 58-acre public park portion.