After side issues, look at the crux of golf course giveaway
A three-day environmental scare last week nearly powered a below-par bid to plow under the only golf course in Miami city limits.
Why did officials negotiating to lease Melreese Golf Course for what could be the city’s largest private development first close the course based on an environmental report and then three days later reopen it because nothing was really new?
Was it caution to protect golfers who’ve played atop a former dump for decades with no ill effects? Or was it a play to stymie the tenant who runs the course, simultaneously shrinking land value during lease talks while ousting golf – the only barrier to creating a massive development?
Whichever, it put both the operator and all employees out of work Tuesday, only to learn Friday that all was back to normal. Call it a distraction, annoyance, or misjudgment.
Then the sudden concerns about arsenic buildup atop an old dump evaporated when consultants – not the developers’ team whose report triggered the three-day panic – said Melreese pollution was what it had been for decades below ground and that pest-killing arsenic builds up on every golf course. Panic over.
That’s good. Nobody wants golfers endangered.
Now the focus can be direct: should the city lease for a century in a no-bid deal at far below market rates its largest green space and only golf course, public or private, for a vast multi-use project beside economic engine Miami International Airport?
That’s the issue commissioners should weigh when city negotiators finish talks with Miami Freedom Park LLC.
Unfortunately, both sides will dangle ploys that glitter like fishing lures to distract commissioners from the hook in this deal.
The key distraction is that Miami needs a professional soccer team and that team needs a stadium.
The stadium will be the lure, although it’s only to be about a ninth of the project’s scope – and the plan as the public has seen it shockingly doesn’t limit how much developers can build. It instead cites the least they can build, which would be far larger than the behemoth Brickell City Centre. Lots of land would remain to later build far more, with no limit.
The soccer team has two other sites. But this one comes with retail, office, hotel and other development that is the heart of the deal. The stadium is just bait.
Next lure is the spurious claim that voters mandated a lease. What voters really did was allow the city to negotiate for the deal that could best serve the public. Commissioners in the end must decide if that’s what this is.
Environmental hazards, while very real, are a side issue. If the city actually OKs a lease, developers should pay every penny of the cleanup of the full 131 acres.
Another red herring is the 53-acre park that developers vow to give to the city. They’re just offering to let the public keep 53 of the 131 acres that it now owns. Developers would turn part of a green, fully developed public golf course into a green, fully developed public park. That’s not a gift – it’s just avoiding rent on 53 acres that today earn the city some revenue.
As talks go on, we know too little about the plan. Developers sketched uses and square feet, only to rewrite that. During negotiations city experts must pin down how much of what would be built where and when, at what height. Commissioners should get and study that data long before they vote, as should the public – not on deadline, as is usual in public giveaways.
It’s unclear how plans could affect Miami International Airport. The Federal Aviation Administration limits building heights, but even legal buildings could restrict some use of airport runways that are our economic lifelines. Auto traffic from retail and offices could choke airport access. The county, not the city, runs the airport, but the city shouldn’t impede it.
Another claim is that the city doesn’t get paid enough for use as a public course (don’t let anyone fool you, this course is as public as they come, not a country club, and the fees are far less than at most area public courses). The argument will be that the city needs the money.
Need exists: the city could cut taxes or fund legal liabilities linked to a past land giveaway on Watson Island. But selling parkland isn’t the way to balance the books. Will the city sell all of its parks to save costs? Or sell city hall? If so, would they really use receipts properly?
If a cash crunch is desperate, the city needs bids, not a no-bid sweetheart deal like its Watson Island disaster. If it’s not desperate, don’t touch public assets.
Cities cost money to operate. That’s why we pay taxes. Police and fire departments earn no profits, nor do city commissions. They shouldn’t – nor should parks. All are for the public. Yes, golfers pay Melreese use fees, just as we pay for fire alarm permits and traffic fines. But none of those is a revenue center, nor should they be.
In a lease, the city would need to replace 73 acres of golf parkland. Where would it find equally good land at the price the Mas brothers developers and soccer impresario David Beckham offer? If officials can’t tell you, they shouldn’t even consider leasing the course.
To be fair, in weighing a lease, commissioners aren’t bad guys, any more than the development and soccer interests are.
Nor were city voters misled – just badly under-informed. A 75-word ballot question, which is all law allows, asked whether to let the city even look at a deal. If talks succeed, a deal will be hundreds of pages. No way could voters have guessed all it will contain.
So unless talks crumble, the full detail is to come before five commissioners who must excise every ounce of intellect, judgment and conscience in deciding what to do.
We can’t believe officials who need to seek votes in elections again would willingly sell off Miami’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park at far below market rates without other bids and with no replacement land at hand.
Even if a majority tried that huge misstep, there’s a safeguard: it would take four votes out of five to OK the deal. That’s the law.
Unless someone recasts the law by removing the four-vote safeguard – the guarantee to voters when they gave the city the right to even talk about a deal without bids – we’ll trust in the integrity of the process and the common sense and conscience of commissioners to do the right thing and keep our vital parkland intact.