Clock ticking on Heat Group's plan to develop land behind American Airlines Arena
By Paola Iuspa
Developers plan to decide within two weeks the fate of their proposal to build a residential and commercial project on park-zoned waterfront strip east of Miami's American Airlines Arena.
Forrest Robinson, president of Codina Development, said he plans to meet with executives of The Heat Group, which holds the development rights to the 4.5 acres, to determine if it is worth proceeding in the face of a depressed economy and local opposition.
The Heat Group is the owner and 30-year tenant of American Airlines Arena. Mr. Robinson said Codina is only firm interested in developing the site in partnership with The Heat.
Their proposal took a hit this month when the Urban Environment League of Greater Miami, a nonprofit, resolved to oppose the project. Headed by Nancy Liebman, a former Miami Beach commissioner, the group seeks a referendum on any change in use of the vacant, sandy strip, called Maritime Park, and cancellation by 2003 of The Heat Group's development rights.
The group sent its resolution to elected officials, said Ms. Liebman, who plans a street protest next week against the project.
"Their resolution will play a role when we meet with The Heat," Mr. Robinson said Monday. "But it is normal to have opposition in any projects."
Codina officials said they met with the environment league this year to explain the project and try to gain support.
"They just want the entire parcel to be open space," Mr. Robinson said.
For almost a year, Codina and The Heat have been discussing a 20-story, 235-unit apartment building with retail space.
The project would occupy 50% of the Miami-Dade County-owned parkland. The parcel extends along Biscayne Bay and is separated from Biscayne Boulevard by the 3-year-old arena, home to the NBA's Miami Heat.
If Codina and The Heat Group move forward with current plans, they would need amendments to seek state, county and City of Miami laws.
For example, building a rental building would require county commissioners to amend a 1999 contract with The Heat Group that allows only retail projects. Also, city commissioners would have to rezone the parcel from parks and recreation to commercial and residential.
A state law on the leasing of government-owned land would also need to be altered to allow The Heat Group and Codina to proceed without opening the development and leasing to competitors. That amendment could be made during the current legislative session, though The Heat and county officials said they have not yet pursued changes.
"No amendment on this issue has been prepared," said Jorge Luis Lopez, whose firm, Steel Hector & Davis, represents The Heat Group.
In 1999, The Heat Group signed an agreement to build 70,000 square feet of retail, a marina and a walkway along Biscayne Bay. The contract called for maintaining unobstructed views of the water, public access and open space, according to a county document.
Ms. Liebman said when voters were asked in 1996 to approve construction of the arena, renderings and marketing materials showed a waterfront open space east of the arena, where Parcel B or Maritime Park is today. But the actual ballot question did not specify that construction of the arena had to include a park or maintain unobstructed views of Biscayne Bay.
The Heat, doing business with the county as Basketball Properties, was slated by 2000 to begin construction of retail, which is part of the county contract. But negotiations with commercial developers have never materialized.
With development of any portion of the site still pending, The Heat Group is paying the county $175,000 in annual rights. If construction does not begin by December, according to the contract, that fee will jump to $350,000 or the county can cancel the contract.