Out of the Park

Chances are good that downtown Miami will soon have a new baseball stadium. Don't believe it? The only obstacle I can see is a reluctant state legislature, whose approval is required for crucial parts of the complex funding package put together by Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and Marlins owner John Henry. It includes more than $260 million in public money. But assuming, as I do, that political horse-trading will overcome any problems in Tallahassee, the Florida Marlins will become the Miami Marlins, and owner John Henry will have succeeded in his gambit to keep baseball in South Florida by digging deeply into our pockets.

The necessary legislation will be enacted despite the fact that everyone knows publicly financed sports stadiums are foolheaded endeavors. The few jobs they create are unskilled and low-paying (the net increase in jobs here will probably be zero); their economic impact on host cities has been calculated by the Brookings Institution as either flat-line or actually negative; and the only people guaranteed to benefit are wealthy players and team owners -- no one else. So barring an unexpected epidemic of common sense breaking out among our elected officials, brace yourselves: The Miami Marlins are coming to town on your dime.

Given the seeming inevitability of a new stadium, its location now looms as the most urgent issue facing local decision-makers. From what I can tell, that also is very nearly a done deal. It will be a done deal come 2:00 p.m. Thursday, March 15, when the Miami City Commission convenes a special meeting at the Manuel Artime Community Center (900 SW First St., Little Havana), which can accommodate the large crowd that's anticipated. Commissioners will choose among several possible stadium locations now being evaluated by outside consultants. I expect the so-called Park West plan to prevail. Developed by Boston architect Ben Wood with help from former Miami planning director Jack Luft, and initiated by political veteran Maurice Ferré, the proposal calls for Biscayne Boulevard to be moved eastward some 200 feet and for the stadium to sit west of the road on land now owned by parking-lot magnate Hank Sopher.

Other possible locations don't stand much chance. Henry's hopes for building on the waterfront in Bicentennial Park have effectively been thwarted by Commissioner Johnny Winton and a devoted cadre of park activists. The highly touted property along the Miami River near South Miami Avenue is in private hands and thus is too expensive to consider seriously. The other ideas -- on the site of the Orange Bowl, on or near the site of the Miami Arena, Mayor Joe Carollo's westward relocation of Biscayne Boulevard -- are impractical for various reasons. Only the Park West plan combines feasibility and desirability. Mind you, it's not my desire (I'd like a privately built stadium on privately owned land, preferably the river location), but I recognize its attributes, which are formidable.

Foremost among the advantages is affordability. The plan is based on a land swap with Sopher, which means there literally is no cost. In addition building the stadium west of the (newly aligned) boulevard means it will exist within the boundaries of the city's Community Redevelopment Authority and the recently designated federal empowerment zone, allowing for tax advantages and other economic incentives. Sopher's newly consolidated holdings south of the Park West stadium site would permit development on a scale otherwise not possible, and that could benefit nearby neighborhoods. Each public dollar spent on the plan would go further because it envisions several large projects evolving simultaneously. There are other attractive aspects to the Park West proposal, but I think these four will be sufficient to ensure its adoption by city commissioners on March 15.

John Henry may have created an army of enemies by demanding that the public pay for a baseball stadium in Bicentennial Park, but he also forced people to confront the chaos that has passed for planning in the past. One upshot has been an overwhelming community response to the threat on the park. That culminated on February 10 when more than 300 people attended a design charrette whose goal was to produce innovative new ideas for rejuvenating the park. Even cynics were awed by the sight of so many people spending a full day in a hotel meeting room, hunched over tables while debating and sketching their dreams for the perfect waterfront park. The ideas generated by that unprecedented exercise in participatory democracy are now being synthesized by Winton's committee and outside consultants. Originally they had agreed to make a presentation to the full commission on March 8, but Winton wisely postponed that until after he and his colleagues decide where to put the baseball stadium.

The Park West project would affect much more than Bicentennial Park, and that is both its attraction and its danger. While it doesn't pretend to be a comprehensive plan for the northern edge of downtown, it comes close by suggesting numerous possibilities, unlike other stadium proposals. If properly executed, it could transform that part of the city into a thriving center of civic activity. If poorly executed, it could spell disaster.

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Jim Mullin
Contact: Jim Mullin