The Heat's Hot Air

The team promised the public an arena with plenty of open space. Instead we're getting a nightclub and a restaurant.

Stroll around the new American Airlines Arena, home court of the National Basketball Association's Miami Heat. Admire the round, sweeping design created by South Florida's best-known architecture firm, Arquitectonica. Walk inside and marvel at the 20,000 yellow, orange, and red seats, which range from executive office chairs on the floor to five-dollar cushionless perches near the ceiling. Dozens of concession stands provide food and drink for fans. Since Gloria Estefan christened the rainbow-trimmed white palace at a concert this past December 31, hundreds of thousands of patrons have flocked here.

But all is not as it seems. Beneath the $165 million facility's flashy veneer is a passel of broken promises and lengthy delays. Four years ago, before a public vote on the arena, the Miami Heat and team owner Micky Arison unfurled a three-million-dollar campaign to promote their plan. A central element in their attempt to sway public opinion was a series of renderings that included a soccer field adjacent to Biscayne Bay, a large plaza, a pedestrian bridge to safely carry patrons to Bayside Marketplace, and a widened, more aesthetic Biscayne Boulevard in front. The renderings were beamed to thousands of homes across Miami-Dade County on television ads and talk shows. And voters responded, approving the measure in November 1996. "It was all a lie," declares Dan Paul, an attorney who led the effort against the arena. "They seduced the public with grand plans that they never had any intention of building."

Obviously the Heat sees things differently. Steve Watson, the team's vice president of communications, admits there were some adjustments to the plan after votes were cast. But he points out the arena is still a publicly accessible waterfront destination. Changes between rendering and reality were all part of the normal process of construction. "What we are trying to do is create an entertainment corridor that links the American Airlines Arena possibly with a new baseball park, possibly a hotel, and possibly a nightclub," Watson adds.

The key to determining how the public was bamboozled can be found in flyers distributed before the election, tapes of TV broadcasts recorded during the campaign, and the hundreds of pages of contract Miami-Dade County signed with Arison and the Heat.

Although the county and the basketball team reached agreement in April 1997, two years later Arison negotiated a loophole the size of a cruise ship when commissioners amended the contract to allow Arison to develop the soccer field into shops and eateries. In March 1999 the Heat announced plans to build Margaritaville, a 100,000-square-foot restaurant owned by singer Jimmy Buffet, on the very space where the much-publicized renderings had shown players kicking balls into a net. The Key West-theme restaurant would be adjacent to a 50,000-square-foot Bongos café, part of the ever-burgeoning Gloria and Emilio Estefan business empire.

Watson explains the soccer field was only an idea. The Heat decided waterfront restaurants would be a better use of the open space. "[The renderings were] a way of incorporating different ideas and putting them down on a picture," he explains. "It's our building. We do the construction."

The vice president uses the same reason to justify the team's decision to build a wide ramp and a loading dock on the southwest corner of the arena, where the renderings had depicted a large, yellow tiled area that was to be called Freedom Plaza. The public square might have hosted hundreds of people during community events or served as a location for fans to gather to celebrate the NBA championship that has eluded the team.

But today the only open space is a modest area, where scalpers sell tickets and street vendors hustle souvenirs. More practical matters took precedence, notes Watson, who sees plenty of public space. "There is a beautiful plaza," he maintains.

And how about the renderings' depiction of a broad, landscaped median on Biscayne Boulevard extending from I-395 south into downtown? The Heat's drawings show a roadway similar in appearance to palm-tree-shaded sections of the MacArthur Causeway. In reality the county added but one new lane in each direction and a fresh coat of asphalt. Thin slabs of concrete occupy the space where the grand median was promised. The only greenery surrounding the arena are small plants and palms that line the edge of the ramp leading to the entrance.

Watson says the team did its part by donating one million dollars to fund the road improvements. Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman Yvonne Lyons confirms the state agency plans to begin building the more aesthetic medians in 2004. "It doesn't all happen overnight," Watson adds.

Finally there is the pedestrian bridge between the arena and Bayside. It was intended to help patrons parking at the waterfront mall pass safely over the speeding tractor-trailers that rumble in and out of the Port of Miami. The 1997 contract required the Heat to build it by July 1, 2000. The county promised to pay up to $1.5 million for the project, but no more.

In the past three years, though, rising construction costs have pushed the price of the project into the $3 million range, according to county records, making the Heat responsible for $1.5 million. The team so far has balked at paying for the excess, and it now seems clear the Heat will not meet the agreed-upon deadline. The penalty for such tardiness is unclear; the contract only states that Miami-Dade (i.e., taxpayers) has the option of taking over the project.

Watson contends that, like the median, the bridge will be built. The Heat did not realize the need to pull a federal permit to construct the walkway over Port Boulevard. Filling out the paperwork and gaining approval will postpone completion. "There is a delay in the process," says Watson. "It will be one year before the bridge is built."

Miami Mayor Joe Carollo sees the overpass as an essential component of his plan to link the downtown waterfront. "I fully expect this key provision of the contract to be kept," he says. "If not, it becomes very difficult to move people with all the traffic going to and coming from the port."

The four shortcomings -- the soccer field, the plaza, the median, and the bridge -- should add up to a new moniker for the stretch of Biscayne Boulevard in front of the arena, attorney Dan Paul comments. Now named for deceased Cuban exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa, it ought to be called the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, not for Caribbean immigrants who failed to reach the United States or aspiring South Beach models who flopped, but to honor the flimflam that resulted in public support for a large-scale, taxpayer-financed project that offers little benefit to residents. "I guess that's just the way things get done in this county," Paul laments.

jose.jimenez@miaminewtimes.com

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