Neighborhood Bully

Think financing a Marlins ballpark is tricky? Just try finding a place to put it

Efforts to build a new stadium for the Florida Marlins are moving ahead with the speed of a Josh Beckett fastball. Details of the financial arrangements may not be in place for several months, and a site has not been selected, though Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton says a plan is quietly taking shape to purchase the needed land from private owners. But the biggest potential obstacle to a deal was overcome on October 28, shortly after the Marlins' victory parade in downtown Miami.

No proposal involving the county could move forward without a vote of the county commission. Mayor Alex Penelas, County Manager George Burgess, and Marlins president Dave Samson needed the support of seven commissioners, and so throughout the late afternoon on that Tuesday, as the three men sat in a conference room off the second-floor commission chambers, a procession of seven county commissioners marched in, one by one, and had their arms twisted. Pepe Diaz, Sally Heyman, Dennis Moss, Javier Souto, Rebeca Sosa, Dorrin Rolle, and Commission Chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler all pledged their support. Done deal.

Later that evening Penelas & Co. held a press conference announcing the county's intention to contribute some $73 million toward a $325 million retractable-roof stadium that would seat 38,000. The Marlins will kick in $137 million toward construction, but the source of the remaining $115 million remains uncertain. That uncertainty didn't stop the county commission from voting this past Tuesday to commit millions of tax dollars toward a new ballpark.

Natys Mendoza and Antonio Ferray would love the Marlins to play at the Orange Bowl, but they don't want to lose their homes to a new stadium
Francisco Alvarado
Natys Mendoza and Antonio Ferray would love the Marlins to play at the Orange Bowl, but they don't want to lose their homes to a new stadium

Now the pressure is on the City of Miami. Because the $325 million price tag does not include land acquisition, the Marlins are relying on Miami to find them a new home somewhere in America's poorest city. For weeks city officials have been pondering their options, which initially appeared to be limited to publicly owned land. The notion of buying enough private property for a stadium (ten to fifteen acres) was farfetched given the city's budget constraints. But Winton says sufficient money could be available for that purpose.

Winton, who is chairman of the city commission, will not provide details about a possible land purchase for fear of alerting current owners to the city's interest in their properties, which could result in instant price inflation. He does acknowledge, though, that if efforts to buy private property fall through, the new stadium will indeed end up on public property. (According to top city officials, Bicentennial Park has been ruled out.)

During the stadium frenzy of early 2001, the city hired a team of consultants to study eight locations, four of which are no longer viable, including the city commission's favorite: privately held land on the north bank of the Miami River. Most of the riverfront property is now under development as a mixed-use, residential and retail complex.

Three other locations are now receiving intense scrutiny: the old Miami Arena, a cluster of publicly owned parcels several blocks west of the arena, and the Orange Bowl. The consultants who evaluated sites in 2001 didn't even consider demolishing the Miami Arena and replacing it with a ballpark because rerouting existing railroad tracks and a telephone switching station would have added roughly $50 million to the cost.

While it's still too expensive to put a stadium on the site, city officials are once again talking about tearing down the arena. Winton explains that razing it would free up a stream of convention-development tax money (approximately $35 million over 30 years) that now goes to the building's operation and capital improvements. (A separate flow of tax revenues would continue paying off the bonds that were sold to construct the arena.) The $35 million would become available to acquire private land for a ballpark. Meanwhile the cleared land could be sold or redeveloped by the city.

One proposed stadium site that would require the acquisition of private property is located just a few blocks west of the arena, between Metrorail and I-95 from NW Sixth to NW Eighth streets. Known as Arena West, it was studied by the consultants and found to have a number of advantages. Nearly all the land -- just under sixteen acres -- is city-owned, and access to mass transit and I-95 is excellent. "That site has a lot of advantages from a logistics and transportation point of view," says Rafael Sixto, past president of the Miami chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which endorsed the Arena West site in 2001.

But as the consultants pointed out, there are serious disadvantages as well. For one, Arena West is too far from existing "entertainment clusters" to generate much economic development. Far worse was this, according to the consultants: "Disruption to the neighborhood would be significant, requiring the demolition of a ... residential development that has contributed to the rebuilding of the area (and involves the potential relocation of up to 60 families)." The cost to demolish portions of the Poinciana Village condominiums was estimated at a reasonable seven to ten million dollars, but actually doing so is now considered unreasonable. That land is part of the city's ambitious plan to restore some life to beleaguered Overtown, and Johnny Winton, for one, can't see derailing the project, a move that could have serious political consequences. "I don't think that is an option," he says.

As for the Orange Bowl, the consultants suggested two possibilities: tearing down the 65-year-old football stadium and replacing it with a ballpark, or building a ballpark adjacent to it. Both are fraught with problems. Access to the site is poor, as anyone who attends University of Miami football games knows. Public transportation is virtually nonexistent, forcing fans to drive through residential neighborhoods looking for a parking space on someone's front lawn. That chaotic scenario may be manageable with a UM football schedule that includes five or six home games each year, but the Marlins calendar is dramatically different, with more than 80 home games per season. Even with smaller crowds, the consultants predicted, a baseball stadium would seriously disrupt the neighborhood.

Another drawback to the Orange Bowl is the low probability it would be of economic benefit to the area. As the consultants wrote: "This site would present extremely limited spin-off development. It does not draw pedestrian traffic from the central business district, and it will not benefit from the clustering effect created by multiple anchors."

The biggest hurdle to the first Orange Bowl option -- demolishing the stadium -- is the city's ten-year agreement with UM, now entering its third year, to host the Hurricanes football team. According to the consultants, "the city would be required to determine the fair-market value of the [UM] agreement, which would include compensation of all future lost revenue streams." That could be a very expensive proposition. "As far as I am concerned, the Orange Bowl is the permanent home of the University of Miami," says Winton, whose comments are echoed by Miami City Manager Joe Arriola.

If the city is unwilling to scrap the Orange Bowl, the only option is to build a ballpark next to it. In 2001 the consultants determined that the new structure should sit on the east side of the bowl. In addition to problems of access and negligible economic benefits, the eastward "expansion," as it was called, presented a most unwelcome predicament: The city would have to acquire 94 privately owned parcels, virtually all of them residential. Several hundred people would be forced out of their homes or apartments at an estimated cost of $20 million to $25 million. The ballpark design now being considered by the Marlins is more compact than the one envisioned in 2001, but many single-family homes and apartment buildings would still need to be condemned and torn down.

The neighborhood around Fourteenth Avenue and NW Fifth Street is a classic Miami mix of Latin American immigrants. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Zenida Leal, her cousin Natys Mendoza, and their friend Antonio Ferray sat on the front porch of Leal's tidy one-story home on NW Fourth Street. "If they can convert the Orange Bowl into a baseball stadium, I'm all for it," 72-year-old Leal said in Spanish. "Do you know how many people from this neighborhood would start going to games?"

But a ballpark that forced them out was another story. "Why would they want to expand into the neighborhood?" asked 66-year-old Ferray. "They have plenty of land already. They can save a lot of money by building on top of the Orange Bowl."

Added 63-year-old Mendoza: "Taking away someone's house to build another stadium doesn't make sense. Where are we going to go?"

Similar apprehensions were expressed by another neighborhood resident, who has lived in his home for twelve years. "I own an apartment building on NW Thirteenth Avenue," he said. "I live off the rent. A new baseball stadium would shut me down." He insisted that his name not appear in print. Why? Last time he publicly castigated Miami officials, he explained, he was immediately hit with hundreds of dollars in fines for code violations.

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