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For mega-mall project, a fight over how quickly Miami-Dade’s roads can be ready

MIAMI HERALD: A debate is under way over just how ready Miami-Dade County’s roads can be for the largest mall in America.

The developer behind American Dream Miami — a six-million-square-foot retail theme park proposed for undeveloped land off Florida’s Turnpike in Northwest Miami-Dade — contends beefed-up highway interchanges and other improvements will clear the way for an estimated 70,000 vehicles a day traveling to the new tourist attraction.

But others are questioning whether developer Triple Five is showing too much optimism by projecting a smooth expansion of the region’s transportation network — not to mention whether the improvements would be enough to prevent even more gridlock in an area where some roadways are already flirting with overload.

“It is unlikely that all needed interchange improvements will be approved and constructed by 2020, the build out year for ADM,” Lisa Colmenares, a state transportation planner for South Florida, wrote in a Nov. 23 letter to Miami-Dade. “If any of the interchange improvements fail to be approved … by 2020, the base transportation network that is the foundation of [the county’s] traffic analysis will be invalid.”

A lawyer for Triple Five sees the state letter highlighting minor discrepancies in timing that the developer would work out before scheduling American Dream Miami’s opening.

“The bottom line is you won’t have a project until the interchanges are there,” said Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, the former state senator and lawyer who is a registered lobbyist for American Dream Miami. “Of course, nobody wants the traffic to work any more than we do.”

The letter from Florida’s Transportation Department illustrates the bureaucratic push-and-pull under way as American Dream Miami nears a crucial preliminary vote before the County Commission on Jan 25.

That would be the first of two chances for the 13-member board to either reject or restrict the development plan submitted by Triple Five, the Canadian firm that owns Minnesota’s Mall of America and wants to bring a far larger version of it to Miami-Dade. The 200-acre project expects to employ more than 14,000 people after Triple Five spends more than $3 billion to build it.

"OF COURSE, NOBODY WANTS THE TRAFFIC TO WORK ANY MORE THAN WE DO." - Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, lawyer and lobbyist for American Dream Miami

Miami-Dade’s planning staff hasn’t issued a formal endorsement of the proposal. Instead, it recommended commissioners forward the plan to state agencies for a required review before taking up the proposal for a final vote as early as April. That leaves roughly four months for Miami-Dade planners to sort out the consequences of a project large enough to accommodate a domed ski slope, submarine lake, indoor roller coaster and 35 percent more retail space than the Mall of America itself.

While Triple Five has laid out its broad transportation strategy, county planning chief Mark Woerner recently told a planning board his agency still doesn’t have a detailed proposal on how roadways should be expanded to accommodate a project that would rise on wooded, vacant property where the Florida Turnpike meets I-75.

“This project is not going to work without a lot of these significant transportation improvements in place prior to opening,” he told the county’s Planning Advisory Board on Dec. 7. “That’s what we’re working toward … That’s why our recommendation is ‘transmittal.’ It’s not ‘adopt.’ It’s not ‘deny,’ either … We have a lot of work to do.”

While the county report says staff also wants more information on Triple Five’s plans for stormwater runoff, wetland conservation and how to protect wood storks that might be nesting on the site, traffic remains the top concern.

Manny Cid, mayor of Miami Lakes, recently wrote Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and incoming commission chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo to request that a portion of the taxes American Dream pays Miami-Dade be diverted to his city “to fund our strategic transportation initiatives which will hopefully alleviate the mall’s impact for Miami Lakes.”

 Triple Five’s transportation plan hinges on boosting the two major highways that border the development site: the Turnpike on the west and I-75 on the east. With existing transportation plans already calling for the highways to be widened within the next few years, Triple Five would fund expanded interchanges around the mall to help traffic move quickly.

That would include a new interchange off the Turnpike at Northwest 170th Street, the southern edge of a new commercial and residential project by the Graham Companies that would go up just south of American Dream Miami. Triple Five also wants the existing interchange on I-75 and Miami Gardens Drive expanded to make it easier for highway travelers to exit directly into the new theme park.

Traffic serves as the top target for American Dream’s opponents, led by some of Miami-Dade’s largest malls. A traffic consultant hired by a group that includes the owners of the Dolphin Mall and Bayside Marketplace contends Triple Five’s projections put too many cars on the highway while under-counting the number of vehicles that will be using local roads running through nearby neighborhoods.

"I SOMETIMES GET STUCK IN TRAFFIC GETTING OUT OF THE PARKING LOT." Jacqueline Livia, owner of an insurance company near the proposed mall site

The Tampa-based consultant, Randy Coen, said the flawed assumptions rest on Triple Five casting American Dream Miami being as big of a road-trip draw across the Sunshine State as the Mall of America is in Minnesota.

“It’s Florida. You’ve got theme parks. You’ve got entertainment parks. You’ve got major retail centers,” he said. “You don’t have that in Minnesota.”

The stakes could be particularly high for Miami Gardens Drive, a local road that Miami-Dade says can’t handle the mall’s traffic without expanding from its current four lanes to six.

At the moment, the road handles a maximum of about 3,475 cars an hour near the proposed mall site — only 3 percent below its capacity of 3,580 per hour. But add in another 1,600 cars an hour from the two projects, and Miami Gardens Drive would be pushed more than 40 percent above capacity — earning it a dreaded “F” rating on the grading scale used to score roads across the country, according to the December report submitted by the county’s planning staff.

At a gas station off Miami Gardens Drive, property manager Jonathan Hernandez said he saw the mall project hastening the day when this area of unincorporated Miami-Dade north of Miami Lakes would be getting too congested for his family. “If you come here during school days, there’s a line all the way back to 67th. Maybe all the way to 57th,” he said from a Chevron station off Northwest 87th Avenue. “With the mall, it’s going to be crazy.”

For Jacqueline Livia, who owns a nearby insurance brokerage, the projections mean even more congestion for a road where traffic is already daunting.

“I sometimes get stuck in traffic getting out of the parking lot,” said Livia, president of Lakes and Country General Insurance.

Even so, Livia said she’s looking forward to the arrival of American Dream Miami and the close-by destination it will offer suburban families who often have to head east for entertainment. “If you have kids,” she asked, “where do you go?”

READ STORY HERE: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article123877429.html