The great illusion: a soccer stadium up magician’s sleeve
Written by Michael Lewis on October 20, 2015
Illusionist Harry Houdini would have applauded as county commissioners last week escaped outrage over funding another stadium by declaring that an Orange Sports Complex Community Redevelopment Area would be totally unrelated to sports complexes.
Bruno Barreiro stripped from his bid to create a tax funding mechanism its hitherto principal aim – to buy stadium land for British soccer star David Beckham, whose name wasn’t mentioned. Then he had to perform another escape act.
Community redevelopment agencies, or CRAs, by state law are limited to areas labeled slum and blighted. Mr. Barreiro’s request uses those words. But he represents the area. They are his voters. So last week at a committee meeting he had to call his area a slum while denying that it is one. And he did.
“The issue of blight – different reporters have called on the issue, slum and blight,” Mr. Barreiro said. “People say I want to derogate, or demean, or talk bad about my community, that it’s slum blight and so forth. Unfortunately, that’s the wording that the state has put in and the definition for them to determine the creation of a CRA… In my opinion it’s not slum and blight…. It has a lot of promise.”
After the double escape act – the equivalent of Houdini’s escapes from locked boxes under water while handcuffed – the committee unanimously backed spending about $40,000 to study whether the area including Marlins Park in Little Havana is a blighted slum that should retain half of incremental taxes from development to benefit the area.
Those taxes could be huge – Commissioner Xavier Suarez pointed to a billion-dollar, four-tower residential project on the Miami River’s south shore that would funnel vast sums to a redevelopment agency instead of general county and city accounts.
Ironically, commissioners ignored a plea by Brett Bibeau, Miami River Commission executive director, who told them the river commission backs the CRA plan only if its funds also go to river projects on its south shore. The plea was not discussed; the resolution ignores river funding.
The resolution also retained a provision that half of tax incremental revenues stay in a CRA and half go to the taxing entities – the county and City of Miami. Yet state legislation allows CRAs to exist only if they get 95% of the funding, not just 50%.
In the course of the great illusion, a tax agency that the week before was being formed to buy land for a soccer stadium for Mr. Beckham and football stadium for the University of Miami and build a Metromover leg to the stadiums was transformed on the fly into an agency focused on four new purposes: workforce and affordable housing, economic development and unspecified infrastructure.
But even with the purpose so well camouflaged, retained was a clear if unmentioned provision that the agency would close once a soccer-football stadium and a Metromover leg to the sports complex were built.
As commissioners debated whether the City of Miami could split the cost of a CRA study, they also ignored a written provision that the private sector – presumably Beckham & Co. – would fund the study.
Discussion that began by denying any connection to any stadium any time for anyone despite the agency’s sports name and written provisions shifted to the undeniably great need for affordable and workforce housing.
Even the land to be included in a redevelopment area shifted. It started bounded by the Miami River, 22nd Avenue on the west and Flagler Street on the south. It was amended to go west only to 17th Avenue but then stretch eight blocks farther south to Southwest Eighth Street.
So with all involved denying that a new stadium would be a factor in an Orange Sports Complex Community Redevelopment Area – “We cannot talk about a second stadium because really at the end of the day it’s their problem if they want to buy the land and they want to build one there,” said Rebeca Sosa – other things changed too, including the area involved, its purpose, and whether the area qualifies under state law.
The measure is far from state review. First it must pass the county commission Nov. 3. Then the City of Miami would have to sign on, because the agency would be a city, not county, entity.
Only after clearing those hurdles would anyone look at whether the agency met state law in not serving a blighted slum or getting only 50% of incremental taxes from new development and property value increases.
No doubt East Little Havana needs help, despite government spending of $3 billion on a 4-year-old baseball stadium on the former Orange Bowl site that is the heart of a “blighted slum” Orange Sports Complex. Nor is there doubt that adding workforce and affordable housing is vital.
The question is whether an escape-on-the-fly gambit written to aid a soccer stadium is a fitting – or legal – mechanism to achieve aims grafted on at the last minute. The measure developed like a camel – a horse created by committee.
There has to be a better and more direct way than a questionable Houdini trick to uplift a deserving neighborhood.