Omni stakeholders make attempt to snuff crime before it becomes worse
By Risa Polansky
Before Omni Mall-area crime can deter the tenants and visitors expected to flock to the soon-to-be revamped complex, nearby businesses and property owners are beginning to talk about how to step up security.
The once-vibrant but more recently nearly desolate area has begun a rise from its own ashes, with refurbished hotels on the way and new mall complex offices and retail to be completed throughout the coming two years.
Argent Ventures, the New York-based company behind the $142 million transformation of the downtown complex, 1501-1701 Biscayne Blvd., has already doubled its security as construction continues, Chief Operating Officer Mark Teitelbaum said.
The revamp is part of Argent's planned $1 billion "city within a city" approved by Miami commissioners last year.
Though he's not "alarmed about what's going on," Mr. Teitelbaum said, he last week gathered other Omni players to begin a proactive move to dampen the panhandling, drug dealing and petty thefts they say could drive people away from the area.
"We need to resolve it before it gets to be a bigger issue," Mr. Teitelbaum told representatives of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, area hotels, Miami International University of Art and Design, Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, Miami Herald, Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust and Venetian Causeway Neighborhood Alliance.
Barbara Bisno, president of the alliance, a downtown organization, said she hopes new restaurants and activities "enliven" the area, deterring crime.
Mr. Teitelbaum said that's Argent's "longer-term plan," but it doesn't negate the need for increased security in the short term.
"Development, long term, is going to help be a savior," he said. But "we need a plan for the next six or 12 months to clean some things up."
The group is considering reaching out the city's Omni Community Redevelopment Agency for a leg up with security costs.
But the agency's revenue is tied up largely in paying off performing arts center debts.
After county and city commissioners passed their multi-billion-dollar mega-plan last month, about 43% of the agency's 2008 budget is now dedicated to the arts center.
The plan calls also for Omni agency revenue to fund projects such as a Port of Miami tunnel and revamp of Bicentennial Park down the line.
Mr. Teitelbaum said he hopes agency board members recognize the importance of the Argent project to the area.
"All I can do is present our cause and let them see," he said. "You hope, at the end of the day, that projects that benefit downtown, they'll see."
The company has already submitted a request to the agency for a $7 million contribution to the project itself.
Those in attendance at last week's meeting agreed also on the importance of taking problems into their own hands by increasing private security.
Erika Fleming, president of the art college housed in the mall complex, noted an "increase in problems," such as thefts from cars, as of late.
The school plans to institute a scanning system, she said, to prevent "strangers" from freely walking in and out of the facility, another recent issue.
The City of Miami Police department did not respond to requests for Omni crime statistics and an assessment of public safety issues in the area.
An anti-panhandling ordinance, crafted by the Downtown Development Authority, is to come before the City Commission for approval today (2/14).
It would ban both passive and aggressive panhandling in areas of downtown and Brickell, including the area surrounding the nearby arts center, but not encompassing the Omni complex.
There may not necessarily be increased crime in the area, Mr. Teitelbaum theorized.
"There's people living here and working, coming to facilities... it's in front of them, they're aware of it more," he said.
Barry Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the chamber, said he's noticed "nothing in the past six months that's been very different."
But the organization has added its own security system to its Omni hotel-based offices, he said.
David Ward, head of Arsht Center security and a former police chief, reminded powwow attendees of the importance of reaching out to local law enforcement through non-emergency numbers.
He said, though, that the Miami Police Department is understaffed.
Still, Mr. Teitelbaum said, because businesses end up passing high security costs off to their tenants, "we need support from a third party."
The meeting of stakeholders was intended to be "almost like a business improvement district," he said.
There may be a need for an official district, through which area businesses agree to tax themselves to fund area improvements and marketing, in the future, he said.
Argent's Omni office component is to be completed by the end of the year and retail should be open within two years.
The mall hotel, a Radisson, is to open under the Hilton flag within weeks.