David Beckham’s longtime fantasy of bringing Major League Soccer to Miami will have to wait another week for answers, after a contentious meeting before the city commission didn’t exactly go as planned.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve walked into a room and people weren’t smiling at me,” said Beckham during the meeting. “It’s not a nice feeling.”
The crucial vote that would have allowed the proposed stadium deal to move forward was deferred to a special city commission meeting next Wednesday, July 18. If it passes, the proposed no-bid lease of city-owned golf course Melreese Golf Course for the stadium complex will go before voters in a November ballot measure. Lawmakers noted the ballot item is almost surely to pass if it goes before voters.
The project, known as Miami Freedom Park, would allow for a 99-year lease of the grounds.
The $1 billion project includes plans for a 28,000-seat stadium, 600,000 square feet of space for restaurants and bars, 400,000 square feet of office space, over 3,000 parking spaces, an estimated 750 hotel rooms, and 110 acres of green space which would be partially made up of youth soccer fields.
“We’re trying to create something for the city of Miami,” said Beckham. “We’re bringing a global sport to one of the most interesting, important, vibrant, exciting cities in the world.”
In the hours leading up to a presentation by the Miami Freedom Park team, supporters of the project spent hours outside tailgating. A busload of supporters came. But the crowd inside the room at city hall was almost entirely made up of activists who want to save the existing golf course, some of whom arrived as early as 5:30am to make sure they could occupy the space.
“I call it taking from the poor and giving to the rich,” said Daniel Baumgard, a board member of the First Tee Miami Foundation, a non-profit that helps kids learn how to golf. “This is parks and recreation and we’d hate to see the city take the largest remaining park in the city of Miami -- the only golf course in the city of Miami -- and turn it into another concrete jungle.”
Cuban baseball icon Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez also spoke against the stadium, saying he volunteers at the course. "It's a family," he said.
Currently, the golf course is technically a city park by definition, but access is limited in practice. Rounds of golf start at $80 for city residents during regular weekday operations, and go up from there. And the space is not accessible to the general public for general leisure activities like picnics, walking and frisbee throwing in the same way as other city spaces. District 3 Commissioner Joe Carollo pointed out that this puts the space out of reach for many city of Miami residents.
“I hear the argument like, don’t destroy green space, and sure Melreese looks like a green space from an airplane,” said Gabriel Miguel, a Miami resident who wants to bring a local MLS team. “But a golf course isn’t really a green space, it’s a fenced off course. I can’t go there and go for a jog or anything like that.”
There are other obstacles for the project. A report from the Miami New Times revealed that the ground beneath the course is riddled with toxic waste that came from an incinerator that used to be in Coconut Grove. The total cost of cleaning up those toxic chemicals is not yet known, but would likely run in the millions of dollars. It is unclear who would foot the bill for the clean-up.
The issue of toxic waste became a major hang-up for lawmakers, leading to them pushing back the vote for another week. District 2 Commissioner Ken Russell, a swing vote, wanted assurances that the city would not have to foot any of the bill for clearing the land. Miami Freedom Park said they would foot the bill so long as it was reasonable, but acknowledged they don’t know how much it could cost.
Thursday’s meeting came only four days after the first images of the planned development were released to the public by Jorge Mas, an executive of MasTec, a partner in the project and member of an influential Cuban-American family in South Florida.
The release of the plan was followed by a mad dash by journalists and watchdogs to review all the possible public documents related to the project before the city could take a vote. Even lawmakers who were slated to vote on the issue didn’t have all the facts straight. Commissioner Russell and District 1 Commissioner Willy Gort complained that they were still learning about the specifics of what they were voting on during Thursday’s meeting, while District 4 Commissioner Manolo Reyes said the way information was being withheld was in violation of how unsolicited proposals are supposed to be handled by the city.
“We have lost the trust of the people. Because we create all of these controls and all the processes and then we violate them,” said Reyes. “This process today has not been transparent. I have learned more from the [Miami] Herald than I’ve heard from the city management.”
It was only during the presentation when the Miami Freedom Park group laid out its traffic plans for the site. Two miles of roads and traffic lights will be contained within the park, which the group says will limit traffic on the outside. The public was not able to comment on this idea.
Bold projections from Beckham and his group estimate that the park will generate up to $44 million in taxes for the city, county and Miami-Dade County Public Schools annually, based on $425 million that would come from the entire complex. The soccer stadium itself would actually be a small part of that revenue, making for only $42 million in projected revenue.
The city-owned course is currently leased and operated by a private company. City records show the course has lost money over eight of the last ten years of operations.
In the end, the commission was divided on what exactly to do. Russell suggested the commission take some time to digest what it learned from the presentation and reconvene at a later date.
A special city commission meeting will be held on Wednesday, July 18th at 10:00 am.
"I wouldn't say it's the outcome we wanted, but we'll live for another week and see what happens," said Michael Stern, the head golf professional at Melreese Golf Course. "Hopefully the commissioners get the answers they're looking for and those answers help us keep the golf course."