Heat Group agrees to kill development plans for land next to arena
By Susan Stabley
and Shannon Pettypiece
The Heat Group and Miami-Dade County want to kill an agreement to develop 4.5 acres next to American Airlines Arena, which could preserve the slice of waterfront land as a park.
The Heat Group, arena owner and 30-year tenant, told county commissioners it is willing to back out of plans to develop a park-zoned strip east of the arena, following a request from the county, which owns the land.
"We are giving up our rights," said Richard Weiss, Heat Group attorney. "The county and the Heat are in agreement that this should be a park."
County Commission Chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler said the board could wipe out the Heat's development rights Oct. 7.
The Heat Group was to begin a retail-marina-walkway by 2000, according to a 4-year-old deal. This year, a proposal was floated for the group to partner with Codina Development on a 20-story, 235-unit apartment tower with retail, prompting opposition from the Urban Environment League of Greater Miami.
Tuesday, the county manager submitted a plan to remove both the Heat's development rights and obligation to help fund an elevated walkway connecting the arena to Bayside Marketplace, said Assistant County Manager Bill Johnson.
The agreement now calls for the county to commit $1.5 million to a walkway over Port Boulevard with the Heat Group funding the rest. Under Tuesday's proposal, the county would shift its funds to create a walk under the Port Boulevard bridge that could tie into a network of public sidewalks the City of Miami envisions along Biscayne Bay and the Miami River.
Commissioners voted 5-4 to delay action until Oct. 7 to include the City of Miami and Bayside owner Rouse Co. in the talks.
The Heat Group says it's willing to give up development rights because it wants to be a "good neighbor," according to its attorney, Richard Weiss.
But the group, which owns and operates American Airlines Arena, has been paying the county $175,000 in annual rights on the land while mulling development, an amount that would increase to $350,000 next month if the group proceeds, said Assistant County Manager Bill Johnson.
Aside from that fee, experts say developing the land may be more trouble than it's worth.
Initial plans called for 70,000 square feet of retail, a marina and a walkway, according to an agreement signed four years ago.
And Miami City Commission Chairman Johnny Winton, also owner and president of WynCo Realty Partners, said Tuesday that "retail would be a failure" at the site on 4.5 acres east of the arena.
A more recent proposal for the site - a 20-story, 235-unit apartment tower with retail - faced a series of hurdles, including approvals on the local and state level plus the winning over of a skeptical public.
Controversy had raged following approval of the 1996 referendum that allowed the arena to be built because marketing materials promoting the issue showed renderings of the arena with open waterfront space, not plans for retail or housing. The actual ballot lacked guarantees of what would happen to that land, referred to as Parcel B or Maritime Park, but many remember renderings of a park in those materials.
Mr. Weiss conceded that it would be "a hard parcel to develop" but said the decision to offer to pull out of the agreement ultimately came after a request from the county.
"The bottom line is that the county says, 'we don't want you to develop this there,' " Mr. Weiss said.
Regardless of motivation, the Heat Group's decision is being lauded by Nancy Liebman, head of the non-profit Urban Environment League of Greater Miami, which opposes commercial development of the land without public approval. She also credits Armando Codina, whose development group was poised to develop the residential tower with the Heat Group, for his support for the park.
"It's truly a gift," she said. "This is a great opportunity to bring the city back to a place it used to be many, many years ago when people enjoyed that waterfront."
Commissioner Winton, who represents the area where the parcel is located, expressed concern over the site's future if developers abandon all plans.
"What I don't want is that space to become a magnet for the homeless," he said. "I think that with the Heat walking away with no obligation and no commitment, we end up in a spot where we don't want to be."
The development rights to the parcel and the Heat Group's obligation to fund a sky bridge are two separate issues, falling under separate agreements, said Otto Boudet-Murias, senior adviser for economic development for Miami Mayor Manny Diaz.
The deal to build the bridge over the roadway used by trucks to the Port of Miami came after the Rouse Co., owners of Bayside Marketplace, gave up land it had been leasing from the city, which in turn sold it to the county so the county could assemble the land for the Arena. In exchange, the Heat Group committed to funding most of the construction of a walkway that could encourage users of the arena to visit the shops at Bayside.
The county may not have the authority to absolve the Heat Group of its commitment to the sky bridge without the city or Rouse's approval.
Raul Tercilla, vice president of Rouse Co. of Maryland, owner and operator of Bayside Marketplace, was out of town and could not be reached Tuesday.
Miami City Manager Joe Arriola is expected to meet with Miami-Dade County Manager George Burgess and the Heat Group next week to discuss the issues surrounding the land, said Mr. Boudet-Murias.
City officials are already predicting a raised walkway won't be successful.
Mr. Winton called it "a complete boondoggle that was ugly on top of it."
Early discussion of a pedestrian bridge had the walkway extending from the second level of Bayside to the second level of the arena, Mr. Murias said.
"The reality is that people will not want to use that as a connector," he said, "because of the height needed to clear Port Boulevard."