The Cheat Is On

The Heat continues its disgusting betrayal of public trust with a nifty assist from spineless county commissioners

When the Miami Heat's latest vision of the American Airlines Arena complex hit the New Times newsroom, the place went bonkers. “I am outraged!” exclaimed editor Jim Mullin. How could there be new plans? The great white wall had already been built. All that remained for construction crews was to add some leafy landscaping, playing fields, a bayside walkway, and a waterfront restaurant. Had Mullin finally gone bananas? Perhaps he was delirious from battle fatigue. After all the fearless essayist last year declared a frontal assault on the Florida Marlins owner who was bent on replacing public waterfront with a baseball stadium in Bicentennial Park (“John Henry, This is War” December 16, 1999).

But careful inspection of the documents, which were drawn by the internationally renowned Brickell-based firm Arquitectonica and secretly obtained by a New Times field operative, revealed pungent evidence. There they were, just as plain as ripening banana bunches on a tree: not one, not two, not three, not four, but eleven new buildings next to the arena. And they were exactly where, back in 1997, Heat executives and the mayors of Miami and Miami-Dade promised a lovely park along the shoreline of the sparkling, aquamarine bounty of Biscayne Bay.

Although the team is authorized to build 70,000 square feet of entertainment and retail in that space, the recently drafted blueprint includes 187,569 square feet of shops and a 26-story hotel. Soccer moms and dads will find no trace of the playing field that appeared in a 1998 master plan for the arena prepared by Cooper, Robertson & Partners, an architectural and consulting firm. No, in the Heat's newest scheme, kids would have to kick balls around 44,095 square feet of something the Arquitectonicos term hardscape. Think concrete. Lots of it.

Sure there is something called a “park area” on the drawing. At 34,990 square feet, it is smaller than the hardscape and about one-fifth the size of the illusory playing field. Think twenty-yard line. And to make sure no one enjoys too much green space, a big chunk of the park will be covered by concrete terraces dubbed “monumental stairs” and a band shell. Too much serenity? No need to worry. Two buildings surround the miniscule park. One is labeled retail and the other is set aside for Margaritaville, the Jimmy Buffett bar and restaurant franchise. It will join the recently opened Bongos and is certain to waste away the last salt shaker of peace and quiet along the bay.

Also out: a pedestrian bridge leading from the arena's concrete terraces across Port Boulevard to Bayside Marketplace. In: a 19,000-square-foot retail structure shaped like a cubist banana straddling the roadway. (As recently as this past spring, the Heat told New Times the bridge would be built. See “The Heat's Hot Air,” April 13, 2000.)

And there is no “continuous walk immediately adjacent to the water's edge” with a view of open water, as outlined in Cooper, Robertson's dreamy renderings. Instead a modified bayfront walkway will provide pedestrians with vistas of a marina and a huge seaplane landing dock to the east and two cruise ship berths to the north. Pedestrians also will be able to sniff the fumes of cars and trucks driving along a two-way street called Bayshore Drive that would parallel the pseudobaywalk and then curve west into an extension of NE Eighth Street.

Since May the Heat Group, the basketball team's real estate arm, has been sharing its bayside shopping mall dream with a select group of city officials, county commissioners, and other captains of Magic City machinations. On July 19 a team of Heat Group reps presented the proposal to Miami City Manager Carlos Gimenez, who calls the plan “interesting.” (Heat Group president Jay Cross was on vacation and didn't return calls seeking comment.)

New Times also phoned Bill Johnson, a senior assistant to County Manager Merrett Stierheim. Johnson, under whose bailiwick such plans would fall, confirmed only Margaritaville and three other new buildings in the Arquitectonica rendering would be allowed under current law. That's because in May 1999, the Heat pressed the county commission into authorizing construction of 70,000 square feet.

But most of the imaginings, including the hotel, would defy the Heat Group's agreement with the county. “The rest of the stuff may be what the Heat is desiring to do, but they don't have the authorization to do that,” Johnson explains. “They do not have the right of the owner, which is the county, to develop a hotel. The county owns the land. We own the arena. That's an entirely publicly owned asset.”

Another naysayer is the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The Heat's hallucination proposes a U-shape stretch of road that would pass underneath Port Boulevard and allow access to the arena and shopping area. The construction, proposed by state transportation officials, would require crews to fill in about two acres of Biscayne Bay. But Florida law states that such work is allowed only to alleviate some kind of “extreme hardship,” like the collapse of a wharf or another emergency. Traffic problems caused by the arena and a new shopping mall do not meet that definition, the FDEP concluded in May. “We wanted to fire a shot across the bow,” says FDEP environmental specialist Robert Hall, “to let them know we don't want them filling in our aquatic preserve.”

In 1996 lawyer Dan Paul organized the Committee to Stop the New Arena. That group lost its footing when Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, Heat executives, and others threw down a lot of rhetorical banana peels, like the idea for a soccer field, a park, and other nice stuff. Might Paul create a Committee to Stop the New Arena Shopping Mall? Nope. But the crusading lawyer does call the plan “a further breaking faith with the electorate and a further desecration of the waterfront.”

So now only the county commission can keep the arena complex from consuming more bayfront. But if recent history is any gauge, the Heat Group will likely wind up with more than a Margaritaville and a few shops. Throw eleven bunches of rotting bananas against the wall and who knows? Some might stick.

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