The largest mall in America plans to open just south of the Broward County line, but developers behind the project insist highways to the north face no "significant" traffic problems from American Dream Miami.
"Our traffic study shows that there are no significant impacts to Broward County roads," said Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a lawyer and lobbyist for Triple Five, the Canadian developer behind Minnesota's Mall of America that now wants to build a larger version in Northwest Miami-Dade. It's expected to draw about 75,000 vehicle trips a day to a 175-acre wedge of undeveloped land where I-75 meets the Florida Turnpike.
Broward claims the analysis is flawed and underestimates the number of vehicles that will be making their way each day through Broward roads to American Dream Miami, one mile south of the Miami-Dade line. This week the Broward County Commission authorized a lawsuit against Miami-Dade if developers Triple Five and the Graham Companies don't pledge to help ease gridlock to the north.
"This mega-mega mall that's going to attract so many visitors — obviously a lot of them are going to come through southwest Broward," said Broward Commissioner Steve Geller. "You've got to be pretty naive to think there won't be any traffic impacts in Broward."
The dispute highlights the central role American Dream's own traffic assumptions play in Miami-Dade's process for approving the project, a $4 billion retail theme park so mammoth it plans to have an indoor ski slope and a submarine lake.
On 300 acres to the south would be Graham's unnamed commercial and residential project.
Both require changes to Miami-Dade's master growth plan, and the administration of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez is recommending approval. County commissioners are set to take a final vote on the projects on Thursday, May 17.
While planners and traffic engineers working for Miami-Dade have reviewed the study, the developers' report is the main analysis being used to calculate whether the projected 30 million visitors a year can be accommodated without making the area's congested roads even worse. Miami-Dade has not produced its own traffic report, and the assumptions in the American Dream report have raised questions in the past.
Last year, Lisa Colamares, a Florida transportation planner, wrote Miami-Dade to say the state couldn't vouch for the parameters used to generate American Dream's traffic flows.
"The Department is concerned with the trip distribution and assumptions included in the traffic analysis," she wrote in a March 15, 2017, letter to Jack Osterholt, the deputy mayor in charge of planning and zoning.
Representatives for American Dream say their traffic analysis has endured two years of scrutiny and been accepted at the county and state level after some revisions. Earlier this week, Miami-Dade's Transportation Department told a planning board that agency officials had no objections to the proposal.
American Dream brands Broward's complaints as a bid for excessive impact fees from Triple Five, owner of Minnesota's Mall of America, and Graham, one of the most successful developers in South Florida.
"Everybody has had a shot at it. These are not easy guys to deal with," Triple Five consultant Robert Gorlow said of state and county engineers scrutinizing the traffic numbers since they were submitted in 2015. "We're not adjusting the traffic [study] because someone has one opinion or another. We're using a scientific method."
The consultant Triple Five and Graham hired to produce a traffic study, Leftwich Consulting Engineers out of Orlando, predicts American Dream will attract about 75,000 trips a day and another 60,000 from Graham by 2040. The developers will be required to pay millions of dollars toward some road-widening projects and the construction of new interchanges to accommodate traffic for the new projects.
American Dream wants to build about 6 million square feet of retail, entertainment and hotel space in its project, and Graham plans another 4 million of mostly office and business space, plus 2,000 homes.
"Of course there will be impacts when you do this," Diaz de la Portilla told a county planning board on Monday, before the Miami-Dade panel gave nearly unanimous support to the proposal. "When you create the kind of unique destination we're planning to create ... We want to make sure we address the impacts, because that is in our interests, as well everyone else's."
Darlene Fernandez, assistant transportation director for Miami-Dade, said she has strong confidence in the traffic study, which was subject to intense review by the county and other agencies during the review process.
"We're confident with that traffic study," she said. "We spent three years on it."
She added that the key is not just the traffic counts, but what road improvements Triple Five has agreed must be completed before American Dream opens. "We didn't ask for the bare minimum," she said. "We asked for everything we can, and more."
Even with American Dream required to pay for road widening and interchanges — including new off ramps on I-75 — not all of those improvements are designed to avoid gridlock. The developers' traffic analysis shows that some of the main roads and highways serving the American Dream site are already busy enough to be considered failing. Adding a sprawling mall and theme park in 2022 — the scheduled opening — won't change the failing status.
For example, Miami Gardens Drive is set to widen from four lanes to six, with Triple Five helping pay for the improvements. Leftwich's 2016 traffic study already ranks the road's capacity at "F," the lowest possible ranking, without any improvements or any new construction in the area. Once the new lanes are added and American Dream opens, the consultant still predicts an "F" rating.
Even so, American Dream sees its location just inside the county's urban-development boundary as ideal for a large attraction because it offers easy access to a pair of major highways. With visitors able to travel north and south along I-75 and the Turnpike, the Leftwich study predicts use of the two highways will avoid significant strain on other roads.
A lobbying group formed by some of the region's largest malls to fight American Dream has already objected to the parameters used to churn out traffic predictions in the model. Broward's traffic consultant also objected, saying American Dream's "forced trip diversion" onto the Turnpike affects travel patterns for about 30 percent of the theme park's visitors.
When Broward's traffic engineers reworked the assumptions to have far more visitors arrive directly from I-75, the results showed enough of a strain on a stretch of the Miramar Parkway to justify the developer paying impact fees for improvements.
In a presentation delivered to American Dream and Miami-Dade staff at a Jan. 22 meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Broward planners said roughly one in three vehicles visiting American Dream would drive through Broward. The predicted share was slightly lower for the Graham project — 36 percent versus 33 percent — but the traffic would still be enough to fill a six-lane interstate highway, according to the presentation. It predicted roughly 50,000 vehicle trips a day through Broward. While American Dream's projections show 75,000 trips a day, the analysis also estimates only 70,000 of them will represent trips that wouldn't otherwise occur in the area. Half the trips are into the mall and half are out.
Scott Brunner, the Broward transportation planner who gave the presentation, said the two anlayses generated the same number of car trips per day. But Broward's assumptions brought more traffic through the southwestern part of the county.
American Dream's own traffic analysis seemed to underestimate the number of day trippers and tourists who would drive down for a visit from Palm Beach and beyond, Brunner said. He said Broward's analysis found the original traffic study used roughly the same average trip length of between 10 and 11 miles for both the Graham and the American Dream project — despite one being a standard commercial complex and one being a retail theme park with roller coasters and an artificial beach.
"A regional entertainment complex would be expected to attract trips from much further away than what was used in the impact study," Brunner said Wednesday.
Scott Leftwich, author of the developers' traffic study, agreed that the vast majority of American Dream's traffic will arrive from Broward and Miami-Dade. The model produced only about 500 American Dream drivers from Palm Beach County, just north of Broward. That doesn't mean tourists won't visit the mega-mall. Significant numbers will arrive from hotels throughout the region, and American Dream plans to build 2,000 hotel rooms within the complex itself.
"American Dream Miami is designed to actually keep the people who are coming for longer stays," Leftwich said. "They want them to stay in the park."
Leftwich based the traffic study on patterns at the Mall of America, saying that Triple Five project is the best model given the entertainment and theme-park options at both. AmericanDream would be about 50 percent larger than the Minnesota park, with roughly 1 million more square feet of retail than what the Mall of America had at the time of a 2016 study. Both are modeled as destinations with entertainment options designed to keep vistors longer than they would for a traditional mall. While the Mall of America has a light rail stop, American Dream is paying for a county bus center for new routes from Broward and Miami-Dade to transport visitors and workers.
The stakes in the Broward flare-up may not be that high. Geller, the county commissioner, said Broward is seeking about $4 million from the developers to pay for sophisticated traffic signals to help with intersections feeding into Miramar Parkway. Diaz de la Portilla said Broward had been seeking more than $20 million when talks began in early 2018.
The talks continue, with Diaz de la Portilla saying Miami-Dade and Broward officials are meeting Thursday over the dispute.
In a letter released Thursday, Gimenez wrote Broward Mayor Beam Furr saying Miami-Dade's staff has found no evidence American Dream and Graham would contribute more than 5 percent of the daily traffic on any Broward roads. That, he said, would be the trigger for Broward to demand fees from the developers.
"To be clear, our analysis is not that there are no impacts in Broward County," Gimenez wrote, saying he was eager to resolve the dispute. But in applying accepted rules for when a project is causing significant traffic problems, "the impacts to Broward County roads do not rise to a threshold that requires the developers to provide mitigation."
By Douglas Hanks
The Coalition Against EPCAL Housing is considering legal action if necessary should the Riverhead Town Board approve the sale of the town-owned vacant land to Calverton Aviation and Technology, the group’s coordinator said yesterday.
The coalition, comprising civic and environmental organizations active in the town, says the applicant’s refusal to make full financial disclosure to the town prevents the town board from finding Calverton Aviation and Technology “qualified and eligible” to buy and develop the site.
Triple Five Group, the principal owner and controlling partner in Calverton Aviation and Technology has declined to provide the audited financial statements requested by the town board.
“Triple Five Group represented at the hearing that as a privately held company, Triple Five Group does not have publicly available financial statements,” the company wrote in a response to the town’s last round of questions and requests for production of documents.
Triple Five said a letter it provided from accounting firm Grant Thornton of Edmonton, Alberta — where Triple Five is headquartered — stating that “Triple Five Group has a minimum of $40 million dollars available for the project” and demonstration of its ability to access borrowed capital for the development, should be enough for the town’s decision.
Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said in an interview yesterday afternoon that Triple Five declined to make the requested disclosure even on a confidential basis to an accounting firm to be hired by the town.
Deputy Supervisor Tim Hubbard, considered to be a swing vote on the pending deal, said in an interview yesterday afternoon he believes Triple Five’s financial disclosure “for the most part” was sufficient.
He said the town sought the kind of information made public by publicly traded companies and Triple Five Group, as a privately held company doesn’t make that kind of information public.
“I think what they didn’t answer they can’t,” Hubbard said.
“I’m satisfied they have the finances to complete the deal — that they have it or have access to it,” Hubbard said. “I am satisfied with the financial disclosure.”
The town board, which last week closed the record of the public hearing mandated by state law to determine whether the prospective purchaser is a “qualified and eligible sponsor,” may now vote on that decision.
If the board finds CAT “qualified and eligible,” the town will be required to execute a contract of sale approved by the previous town board late last year, effectively tying the hands of the incoming board on the terms of the deal.
The Coalition Against EPCAL Housing convened a press conference yesterday morning on the lawn outside Riverhead Town Hall to decry the proposed $40 million land deal.
Calverton Civic Association president Rex Farr, who serves as the coalition’s coordinator said the contract of sale is “nothing less than a horror show” and against the town’s interests.
Among other things, Farr said, the “no strings attached” contract of sale not only leaves the door open for future residential development but also for the possibility of commercial aviation at the site — something that was in play years ago when there was talk of using the former Grumman manufacturing site for a cargo jetport.
“We suspect but cannot prove that the various federal agencies connected to aviation have respected the Navy Department’s purpose in granting ownership to this town, but all bets are off after the town disposes of the property to a private entity,” Farr said. “That is when we can expect that the prospects for an airport at EPCAL will resurrect and all local zoning restrictions will wash away.”
“This is the biggest deal in Riverhead’s history since Robert Moses put in the expressway,” Farr said.
Though coalition members yesterday said they believe the vote would come at next week’s board meeting, both the town supervisor and deputy supervisor said in phone interviews after the press conference that no vote is yet scheduled and likely will not be.
“While the hearing is closed, we still need time, as far as I’m concerned, to digest the information and for our attorneys to give us their opinion and for our financial resources to give us their opinion,” Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said.
“I’m not going to look to vote on it until we get a result back from the ethics committee,” Deputy Supervisor Tim Hubbard said yesterday, referring to a complaint to the ethics committee made by the Coalition Against EPCAL Housing against Councilwoman Jodi Giglio. The coalition’s complaint concerns a March 12 private meeting she took with the applicants in NYC during the pendency of the “qualified and eligible” hearing.
“It’s only fair to wait for the ethics committee to come back with a decision,” Hubbard said.
Jens-Smith said yesterday the ethics committee has met to consider the complaint but has not yet issued any decision.
Hubbard defended the councilwoman. “I know people are concerned about it
but I don’t think she did anything wrong. Legally she did not. There was no law broken or violated,” Hubbard said. “It’s not something that should make her recuse herself.”
The coalition yesterday renewed its call for Giglio’s recusal.
Coalition member John McAuliff criticized the town board for closing the public hearing on the qualifications of the applicant on May 4, within five days of the applicant’s final submission of documents being posted on the town website. That left little opportunity for the public to review and comment on the additional documents and responses submitted, he said.
The vote to close the hearing was split 3-2 along party lines, with Democrats Jens-Smith and Councilwoman Katherine Kent opposed. Republican council members James Wooten, Giglio and Hubbard voted to close the hearing and move the process forward.
Wooten has said he’d like to see the vote taken as soon as posible.
Coalition members yesterday said they believe the town board is required to act within 10 days of closing the hearing. There is no such statutory requirement. A letter of intent executed by the town and Luminati Aerospace last April contains a “binding provision” that requires the town to execute the contract of sale within 10 days of finding the purchaser “qualified and eligible.” It does not set a deadline for making the “qualified and eligible” determination.
Both Jens-Smith and Hubbard said they knew of no such deadline.
“I think if there was one our attorneys would have told us so,” Hubbard said.
The board is scheduled to meet with the town’s lawyers in the deal on Thursday, Jens-Smith said.
By Denise Civiletti
The showdown between some of the Miami area's largest malls and a new one that would dwarf them all may hinge on whether county commissioners deny tax subsidies that American Dream Miami has not requested — at least not publicly.
A lobbying group formed by the owners of the Dolphin Mall, Bayside Marketplace and other major Miami retailers lost the first round Tuesday when a Miami-Dade panel unanimously recommended a development agreement for the American Dream project that is silent on public money going into the $3 billion retail theme park. The project would bring the country's largest shopping destination to undeveloped land in Northwest Miami-Dade.
But the real showdown looms before the County Commission, which is set to vote on the project on May 17. In past meetings, commissioners have said they want no public dollars spent on the Miami version of Minnesota’s Mall of America, Triple Five's most famous development.
The project's lobbyist won't comment on whether Triple Five will ultimately ask for some form of public money. But Mayor Carlos Gimenez said they did so privately several years ago. And a bill in Tallahassee was flagged by the county attorney's office as one designed to let American Dream Miami recoup some of its property-tax revenues through a special district that could be formed around the sprawling retail theme park.
Eager to head off construction of a mega-mall that expects 30 million visitors a year, rival malls see the issue of public dollars as a way to scramble Triple Five's extensively negotiated development deal with the Gimenez administration and inject a restriction that would bar American Dream from seeking financial help from county government in the future.
"We think part of a level playing field means that American Dream shouldn't get public money that wasn't made available to current taxpayer malls like Dadeland, Dolphin Mall and International Mall," said Jeffrey Bercow, the lawyer and lobbyist who represents the group formed by the mall owners to fight American Dream.
Triple Five needs a change in the county's land-use rules to move forward with its development partner, The Graham Cos., which requested its own set of approvals to build a 300-acre commercial and residential project just south of American Dream. The proposals include no request for public subsidies, though American Dream representatives did seek them in private meetings as they began pursuing the Miami-Dade project three or four years ago, according to past comments by Gimenez.
At Tuesday's meeting before Miami-Dade's Development Impact Committee, a collection of county staffers who review major construction projects, Triple Five said it would be improper to invent a public-funds restriction just for American Dream.
"It has not been attached to anybody else's agreement or application that I've been involved with in the 30-plus years that I've been involved in the public process of zoning and land-use planning in Miami-Dade County," said Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, the Triple Five lawyer and lobbyist who used to sit on the County Commission.
The appearances before the obscure Development Impact Committee offered a preview of the high-stakes confrontation looming next month when both sides are expecting a fight on the public-funds question for the nearly 200-acre development where I-75 meets the Florida Turnpike near Miami Lakes and Hialeah.
Diaz de la Portilla branded the existing malls' request for a funding restriction as a blatant example of big businesses trying to thwart competition from a project so large it's boasting of creating more than 14,000 permanent jobs at a shopping theme park that's supposed to have its own ski slope, submarine lake and artificial beach.
"This is far from wanting a level playing field," Diaz de la Portilla said of the mall group's demand on a subsidy ban. "That is intended to be a poison pill, that is intended to be an unequal playing field."
Triple Five's economic-impact study said most of the American Dream jobs would be in retail and hospitality, with about 60 percent of the permanent workers earning less than $25,000 a year. The study predicted about 23,000 jobs would be created to build the project, and about 15,000 people would work there once it opened. It would be the largest private employer in Miami-Dade. Triple Five predicts roughly 30 million visitors a year.
In early meetings with Triple Five representatives before details of the project were unveiled in 2015, Gimenez said the Canadian company did press for public dollars. Gimenez said those requests were rejected.
In 2016, a Florida bill sponsored by Diaz de la Portilla while he was in the Senate would have authorized special taxing districts to let large projects like American Dream recoup some of their property taxes to pay for some development costs. The bill didn't pass.
A legislative summary prepared by Miami-Dade's county attorney's office said the bill's "language is targeted at the proposed megamall in Northwest Miami-Dade." At the time, Diaz de la Portilla said the taxing-district portion of the bill came from another lawmaker and wasn't his creation. He denied the language was designed to help his client, Triple Five.
In an interview after Tuesday's hearing, Diaz de la Portilla declined to answer questions about whether Triple Five ultimately wants government help in financing a project he called "the greatest job-development application in the history of Miami-Dade County."
"All we have is a development agreement," said Diaz de la Portilla, whose brother, Alex, is running for a vacant seat on the Miami-Dade commission. "All we have is a zoning application. Period and end of story."
By Douglas Hanks
One of the largest development plans in South Florida history — the American Dream Miami mega-mall, theme park and hotel, plus an adjacent office hub and residential community — is in its final stretch of approvals in Miami-Dade County.
What’s now 511 vacant acres in unincorporated northwest Miami-Dade, two miles south of the Broward County border, would be unrecognizable, a mini-city off of Interstate 75. The proposed mall would dwarf the malls that exist in America today and would add some twists: a submarine ride, indoor ski slope, water park, theme park, sports complex, outdoor fishing and theaters.
The $4 billion American Dream development represents a “tremendous economic development project” bringing 25,000 permanent jobs and creating opportunities for small businesses, said lawyer-lobbyist Miguel Díaz de la Portilla, working for developer Triple Five/International Atantic LLC. The Graham Companies plan an office-residential park adjacent to it.
The project teams spent “countless hours” working with county staff to take care of the expected impacts on roads, parks, sewers, fire rescue service, and more, Graham Companies attorney Joseph Goldstein said.
American Dream Miami, proposed at 3.5 million square feet of retail space, would be larger than Aventura Mall and Sunrise’s Sawgrass Mills, two of Florida’s largest. It would even surpass the size of America’s largest mall now, the Mall of America, in Minnesota.
American Dream Miami is proposed on 174 acres in the vacant triangle between I-75 and the Florida Turnpike’s Homestead Extension. The 6.2 million-square-foot project includes 2.7 million square feet of entertainment and common space, plus the shopping. In addition, a 2,000-bed hotel would be built.
Graham Companies proposes to develop 337 acres just south of it into a 3 million square foot business park, with 1 million square feet of retail space and 2,000 residential apartments. That growth would slowly take place over 20 years, representatives have said.
As the gigantic proposed tourist attractions have wound their way through approvals over the past several years, Broward County officials have kept close watch. Broward leaders, particularly in Miramar, fear the new tourist attraction could clog roads in the southwest part of the county.
Also watching closely are other malls in the region, including Sawgrass Mills in Sunrise. Attorney Jeffrey Bercow, with the South Florida Taxpayer Alliance, said the mall owners he represents want to ensure American Dream “plays on a level playing field and follows the same rules and regulations that other malls have followed in the past.”
Though American Dream hasn’t requested public funds or financing, Bercow said he suspects they will, and asked Miami-Dade officials to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Diaz de la Portilla called Bercow’s association “a group of competing mall developers who don’t want any competition.”
Development officials in Miami-Dade County gave both projects — the American Dream Mall and adjacent office-residential park — a push forward Tuesday, at a meeting of the Development Impact Committee. After a vote on May 7 at the county’s Planning Advisory Board, final votes are scheduled at the Miami-Dade County Commission on May 17.
By Brittany Wallman
Oh, what a tangled web.
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio yesterday acknowledged she made “a poor choice” — in the words of Deputy Supervisor Tim Hubbard — when she traveled to New York City to meet with representatives of Triple Five, a developer looking to buy a massive tract of vacant land in the Calverton Enterprise Park.
Yes, you can say that again.
The trip to the city came on March 12, in between two sessions of a public hearing convened by the Community Development Agency to essentially decide whether to sell the land to that developer. Giglio and the four other town board members constitute the governing board of the Community Development Agency. She did not inform the other board members or the town’s legal counsel she was taking the meeting, which occurred the day before the already-scheduled date for the second session of the public hearing.
The only record of the discussion between Giglio and Triple Five on March 12, apparently, are handwritten notes made by the councilwoman, which she reviewed at yesterday’s work session during a discussion that was not on the board’s published agenda. Giglio announced at the conclusion of the agenda’s public business that she would like to review the discussions she had in the city that day and answer any questions the board has. Two Triple Five representatives happened to be in the audience yesterday for Giglio’s unannounced presentation to her fellow board members.
Giglio maintains that her private meeting with the applicants was for the purpose of “vetting” and “due diligence.”
Her colleagues on the board, with the exception of Councilman James Wooten, have criticized Giglio for taking the meeting. Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith and Councilwoman Catherine Kent are angry about it and had sharp words for Giglio during a tense meeting.
Hubbard, who said her decision to meet privately with the applicant during the pendency of a qualified and eligible hearing was “a poor choice,” said he believes Giglio did not mean any harm by taking the meeting, that she did it in good faith for the purposes she expressed.
I would like to believe that as well. For one thing, Giglio called me on the morning of March 13 to tell me about the meeting she had the previous day.
She was for the first time in many conversations I’ve had with her over the past year, positive about the pending sale of the EPCAL land to any entity that has anything to do with Luminati Aerospace. She had been an adamant opponent of the deal up to the week before. On March 7, during a snowstorm, she attended a Chamber of Commerce meeting where Triple Five made a presentation. The March 12 meeting was a result of a conversation she had with the company principal Nader Ghermezian at the chamber event, she told me.
During our March 13 phone interview I questioned Giglio about her opinion of the Triple Five proposal and she said she was now supportive of it. She said I should interview them directly and offered to set up a phone interview with Stuart Bienenstock of Triple Five and Steve Rogers, a Triple Five consultant. She told me she knew they were together in the office and could speak with me. Shortly after my call with Giglio, she texted me to say they would expect my call at 1:30 p.m. at a number she gave me. (I should note it was Bienenstock’s cell, which I already had.) I made the call and had an interview of more than an hour, during which I asked, and Bienenstock answered, many questions.
Later that afternoon, Giglio called me again to say the supervisor and town board were unhappy with her when they heard about the meeting. She said the town’s lawyers were also unhappy about it.
I had already interviewed the town supervisor about Giglio’s meeting. Frankly, it struck me as — at best — a fundamentally stupid thing to do. It certainly created an appearance of impropriety. At worst, it might have violated some rule or law.
That Giglio’s private meeting took place in the middle of a public hearing to decide whether the town will sell 1,644 acres of vacant land for $40 million to a mega-developer is no small thing. The board’s decision in this matter must be based on testimony and evidence in the record. What was said in the Giglio meeting is not part of that record. If nothing else, her “poor choice” has made the town vulnerable to legal action by any party aggrieved by whatever it decides in this matter. And that will cost taxpayers money, at a minimum.
Giglio’s action was a classic “ex parte communication” — a communication with any party to the proceeding by a member of the agency. The state administrative procedure law prohibits such “ex parte communications.” However the provisions of the state administrative procedure law do not apply to proceedings of local public authorities like the Riverhead CDA. They sure provide damned good guidance, though.
Giglio said more than once yesterday that members of the board often have meetings and discussions with applicants while these hearings are pending. She said that has been her experience in her eight years on the town board during which she previously participated in five of these “qualified and eligible” hearings, she said.
That just isn’t true. The town has not had five “qualified and eligible” hearings since Giglio took office in 2010. She cited two by name yesterday that took place prior to her election. There have been three Q&E hearings since Giglio took office. All three were closed on the same day they were opened. So there is no analogous situation to what just happened.
If the councilwoman’s defense is admitting that she and other board members in the past have had outside discussions with applicants and made their decisions based on information provided to them privately that was not part of the public hearing record — well, that just leaves me speechless. First, that they’d do that. And second, that she’d admit it as a way to justify behavior that is clearly a violation of public trust, however well-intentioned it might have been.
I’ve heard the “this happens all the time” argument before. It came from Riverhead’s former CDA director Christina Kempner after my March 13 article about Giglio’s NYC meeting the previous day. She was adamant about it. She’s adamant about a lot of things having to do with Luminati and Triple Five. Her enthusiastic advocacy of the deal took me by surprise. Text messages and emails from Kempner extolling the project — an email blast to undisclosed recipients declaring “this project is the best thing that could ever happen at Calverton,” for example — made me wonder if she was working for them as a consultant.
I asked Kempner that directly and she denied it — adamantly.
On March 18, in an email message with the subject line “it has to be said publicly,” Kempner sent me an op-ed titled “Let the Sun Shine” responding to Greg Blass’ column about Giglio’s ex parte meeting. In it, she defends Giglio’s actions and excoriated the town supervisor, who she said “stonewalled and polluted this hearing from the get-go.” She accused Jens-Smith of having an undisclosed agenda against Triple Five. She accused her of intimidating and threatening supporters of the project.
I spent several hours that Sunday back and forth with Kempner about the content of her piece, seeking facts to back up her allegations.
I also questioned her about the propriety of her advocacy for the Luminati and Triple Five deal, since she was the CDA director when the Luminati letter of intent was negotiated and signed last year. She denied that she works for the applicant in any capacity or that she has been offered future employment by the applicant.
Kempner, of Quogue, is a lawyer and a licensed real estate broker.
I referred her to the “revolving door” provisions of the town ethics code, which Kempner said were not in play because she has not been employed by the town for more than six months. The code prohibits a former employee from appearing before a town agency on behalf of a client for a period of six months after their town employment ends.
I pointed out that the code also states, in pertinent part, “No former Town officer or employee shall, at any time, appear before any Town agency, or perform any work, whether paid or unpaid, for any person, in connection with any particular matter on which the Town officer or employee personally participated in and substantially worked on during the period of his or her employment with the Town or which was under his or her active consideration.”
Kempner argued that this provision did not apply to her because, she says, she was not directly involved in negotiations with Luminati. The LOI negotiations were conducted by the former supervisor, she said. So in her position as CDA director, Kempner argued, she was not an employee who “personally participated in and substantially worked on” the Luminati deal. In my mind, that’s a stretch. The question should be put to the town’s board of ethics.
Kempner held the Riverhead CDA job for nearly 10 years until last May, when she left the CDA to take a job with Stony Brook University as director of its business incubator in Calverton. She left the incubator job in February for a position as deputy supervisor of housing and human services in the Town of Brookhaven.
She said she is advocating for this deal because she deeply cares about the town and the future of the enterprise park, because it affects the whole region and the economy for years to come. She said she owns property in the Town of Riverhead, is a taxpayer here, and as a parent is concerned about her children’s future. (She later asked to withdraw the op-ed.)
I’m all for civic involvement, but Kempner’s activities where this land deal is concerned seem out of the ordinary.
There’s also the fact that Kempner and Giglio are good friends.
Indeed, Giglio disclosed yesterday that Kempner went with her to NYC on March 12 to meet with Triple Five. Neither the councilwoman nor the former CDA director previously disclosed that to me during multiple interviews, emails and text messages about the deal in general and the meeting in particular. That disclosure also seemed to take the supervisor and town board by surprise yesterday.
When Jens-Smith asked why Kempner accompanied her to that meeting, Giglio said Kempner is her friend and a lawyer.
Oh, what a tangled web.
I’m not sure what to make of some of this. But Giglio, unwittingly or otherwise, has by her actions compromised the integrity of the hearing process and tainted its outcome.
Consider that, at the second Q&E session, Nader Ghermezian offered the town $2.5 million for park improvements — if the town board votes unanimously to approve the land deal. Yesterday Giglio also admitted to discussing the need for park improvements, saying she asked him what the “community benefit” would be for his proposal. She said she told him the project was next to a park and said Triple Five was already aware of a work session discussion on March 8 about the expense of such improvements and the town’s lack of funds.
Pay to play much?
Giglio has herself caught up in a tangled web, indeed — a web she spun herself. And it will have real consequences for the town no matter what the board decides on this application. Poor choices have consequences and poor choices by public officials have big consequences. She should recuse herself from all further proceedings and the eventual vote.
Finally, the town must act to revise its code of ethics to establish standards of ethical behavior by officials and employees while hearings on applications are pending. We cannot afford to allow “gray areas” of ethical conduct when it comes to matters of such consequence.
By Denise Civiletti
BERGEN COUNTY, NJ — While American Dream Meadowlands inches closer to its March 2019 opening date, one local environmental group thinks the project is a bad idea for several reasons.
The New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, a national environmental advocacy group, says Triple Five Group's $5 billion, 7.1 million square-foot project is "New Jersey's nightmare." The nonprofit claims the 90-acre project does not make sense fiscally, is not a good investment, will hurt the environment, and cause massive traffic problems for North Jersey.
Air pollution is a big environmental strike against American Dream, according to the Sierra Club.
"It'll be one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases in the region with all the heating and cooling that will go on there and all the electricity it's going to use," said Tittel.
Jeff Tittel, the chapter's executive director, said that in order for the mall to work, 100,000 vehicles a day must visit it and 150,000 on a Saturday.
"Everyday traffic will be like game day at Giants Stadium," Tittel previously said. "What happens to the traffic in the region if on a Saturday people are going to the racetrack, shoppers are coming to the American Dream, and there is a Saturday football game at the Meadowlands?"
Mass transit options are being implemented and explored. A commuter shuttle will run between NJ Transit's Meadowlands station and the Secaucus train station. NJ Transit will operate a direct bus line from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City to American Dream.
New York Waterway is in talks to run a shuttle to take customers to and from marinas along the Hudson River's Gold Coast to American Dream.
The project could also exacerbate flooding that already plagues the area.
"They're filling in wetlands to construct it," Tittel said. "That floodwater is going to go somewhere else. You're going to fill in wetlands to build a waterpark."
American Dream Meadowlands' genesis dates back 12 years ago when the ill-fated Xanadu project was slated to be built. Developer Triple Five took over the project in 2011 and secured $1.6 billion from Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan in May to finance it.
The state Department of Community Affairs approved the sale of $800 million in taxpayer bonds to fund the project. The $800 million is in addition to $350 million in funding from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.
"They are paying virtually no taxes and putting up nearly $1 billion in public bonds," Tittel said. "It's a waste of taxpayer money and that capital could have been used in building a biotech incubator. All we're doing here is putting money into a mall and malls are dying."
Jim Kirkos, chief executive officer of the Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce, disagrees with Tittel.
Kirkos previously said that regional malls near the West Edmonton Mall, another one of Triple Five's properties, have expanded three times in the last six years.
"The Garden State Plaza, the Willowbrook Mall, American Dream is not expected to put those places out of business," Kirkos said.
American Dream will feature:
- North America's largest indoor water park designed by DreamWorks, the company behind "Shrek," "Kung Fu Panda" and "How To Train Your Dragon."
- KidZania, a miniature city run by kids 4 to 14 years old with its own currency. Companies like Honda, Sony, Kellogg's, Coca-Cola and others have sponsored businesses and landmarks in the attraction.
- The Launched Euro-Fighter roller coaster will have the world's steepest roller coaster drop. The Spinner Coaster will be the world's tallest and longest free-spinning roller coaster in the world. The latter's cars will rotate vertically as they move along the track.
- The first Sea Life aquarium in New Jersey. It will feature a tropical ocean tank with a walk-through underwater tunnel.
- A 22,000-square-foot arcade and bowling alley for adults. It will feature live bands and a selection of craft beers.
- An aquarium with an underwater tunnel and a LEGOLAND discovery center. The aquarium will feature seahorses, sharks, rays and a tropical ocean tanks. LEGOLAND will feature a 4-D cinema, a Lego brick pool and rides. Kids can also take Lego building classes.
- A 12-story indoor ski park with an 800-foot-long hill.
- A 300-foot-tall Ferris wheel will offer a one-of-a-kind view of Manhattan.
- A 4-D, dine-in movie theater that will allow moviegoers to smell scents in the films they watch.
- 15 restaurants and 50 grab-and-go offerings in a 150,000-square-foot food court.
- The world's first Kosher food court.
- A separate retail area for luxury retailers, including Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue and Hermes.
By Daniel Hubbard
- Developer Triple Five Group said it aims to complete the $4 billion American Dream Miami mall and entertainment outlet by 2023, three years past the initially proposed date, according to Miami Today.
- Triple Five must secure approval on master, zoning and development plans from the Miami-Dade County Commission by the end of the year to be on track for the proposed construction timeline. The county commission is expected to hear those plans in its last public hearing of 2017 on Dec. 7.
- Project officials said the parcel must be rezoned from industrial and office use to business and office use to allow the project to move forward as a "family entertainment destination" rather than what many onlookers are calling a mega-mall.
News of the delay comes just months after project officials had said they would push the completion date back to 2022 to coincide the development's opening with the completion of nearby infrastructure improvements and transportation projects. If the project moves forward according to developers' proposed scope, it will be the largest mall and amusement park in the U.S., beating out the long-time titleholder, Mall of America in Minneapolis.
The development comes as retail centers face a pressing need to rethink the traditional brick-and-mortar approach. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, 79% of U.S. shoppers have purchased an item online, and more than 40% buy something online a few times a month or weekly. The mall may not be dead — yet — but dozens have already shuttered, with estimates projecting up to a quarter of those remaining to close by 2022.
This trend toward internet shopping has forced retailers to be more creative in their attempts to get customers through the door. Grocery stores like Whole Foods have taken this approach as well, offering up opportunities for socializing with bars and dine-in spaces.
But amusements and attractions that appeal to the whole family are the focus of large developments like American Dream Miami and its New Jersey counterpart, American Dream Meadowlands. Scheduled to open in March 2019, the development will feature a DreamWorks water park, an indoor ski and snowboard park, a Cirque du Soleil theater, an aquarium, a Legoland Discovery Center and an ice skating rink.
by Kim Slowey
A Harlem-based civil rights leader has sent a letter to the developer of American Dream Meadowlands questioning the level of diversity among contractors and subcontractors at the East Rutherford site.
"The exclusion of minority businesses in a project that is receiving massive public subsidies from the state and country is not only a break of trust — it is immoral," the Rev. Dr. Johnnie Green wrote in a letter to Triple Five executive Don Ghermezian. "Once completed, this project will only succeed if people of color in New Jersey and New York support it."
In the letter, Green set a goal of 30 percent of business contracts going to minority- and women-owned businesses. In a phone call on Friday, however, he said "even 15 to 20 percent would be a step in the right direction."
"I don't want it to get to the point of demonstrations there, but we want to be informed of significant progress on this," Green said. "We're getting to the point where the rubber meets the road."
Triple Five executive Tony Armlin said he did not have specifics available about the extent of women- and minority-owned business partnerships. But he said the project last month employed 22.7 percent minority construction workers — just ahead of the 22 percent target set by the Economic Development Authority.
Only 2.6 percent of the workers last month were female, Armlin added — below the 6.9 percent target set by the EDA. Armlin said the focus on grueling, heavy construction in this phase of the project made it too difficult to find enough female workers for those tasks.
Later this year, an increase in light construction at the site would mean a rise in participation among both groups, Armlin said.
"The contractor has evidenced good-faith efforts over the life of the project, and is in compliance," said EDA spokeswoman Erin Gold, whose agency granted a $390 million tax break in 2013 that is contingent on sufficient women and minority participation in the project's workforce.
PCL Construction — which built the West Edmonton Mall in western Canada and the Mall of America in Minnesota — currently has about 110 employees on site. Of those, 41 percent are women or minorities (or both).
At a press conference at the site on Monday, Triple Five Vice President Paul Ghermezian said that while about 600 workers are now on site (many of them inside the 2.3 million-square-foot existing structure), that number eventually will increase to a peak of 3,000 in about a year. More than 500 additional workers are expected on site in the next six months.
After years of delays, Triple Five in June completed its complex construction financing package that provides more than $3 billion designed to ensure completion of the shopping and entertainment project. The projected opening date is now March 2019.
Several equal opportunity leaders have appeared at board meetings of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which is the project's landlord, throughout the year.
Dr. James Harris, vice president of the NAACP branch in Montclair, and Jeffrey Dye — president of the Passaic County NAACP — each said Friday that they have had productive meetings with sports authority board members in recent months. Agency president Wayne Hasenbalg, Leroy Jones, and union leaders Andrew Scala (painting) and John Ballantyne (carpenters) are among those who have been involved, they said.
"I'm kind of optimistic so far," Dye said. "But I've dealt with projects before where I started down this road, only to see the efforts phased out later. These few months will tell us if they are serious about this."
"We know that a lot of major projects have workforces that do not look like the neighborhoods where they are built," Harris said. "We fully expect a cooperative spirit — but we're going to insist on positive results, and we will get more assertive if we don't see that they are serious."
Hasenbalg said a meeting likely will be scheduled "in the next two weeks" among lead project contractor PCL officials, Harris, Dye, Jones, state Assemblyman Gordon Johnson of Englewood, and other interested parties.
Triple Five also will be required to submit reports on workforce diversity in the coming months to the sports authority and the Economic Development Authority, Hasenbalg added.
The state at one point had a program mandating that 7 percent of all state contracts go to minority business owners and 3 percent to businesses owned by women. That mandate was dropped in 2003 after a lawsuit was filed that challenged the plan's constitutionality.
In 2003, Mills Corp., the operator of American Dream predecessor Meadowlands Xanadu, signed a developer's agreement that included language that required submission of a plan to show efforts to diversify the project workforce. Two years later, early in the initial construction phase, Mills reported that 13 percent of its contract values went to a trio of minority- and women-owned business enterprises (MWBE) firms.
Mills set goals of 15 percent minority participation and 2 percent for women-owned companies, but in 2006 the company exited the project as it was dissolved.
Hasenbalg said a $390 million tax break granted to Triple Five by the EDA includes language requiring that concrete steps be taken toward diversity.
The worker-participation goals were set at 15 percent for minorities and 2 percent for women.
by John Brennan
The final financing piece to New Jersey’s long-stalled American Dream Meadowlands megamall project has hit another delay.
A $1.1 billion tax-exempt revenue bond transaction to fund the last construction phases of the massive retail/entertainment complex in East Rutherford, N.J. did not price as scheduled Wednesday. A market source said the deal, underwritten by Goldman Sachs, was delayed due to a scheduling conflict and may take place as early as Thursday or early next week.
The unrated bond deal is slated to include $800 million of limited obligation revenue bonds backed by payments in lieu of taxes determined by the Borough of East Rutherford’s tax assessment, and $300 million of grant revenue bonds.
Wisconsin’s Public Finance Authority is borrowing through two negotiated deals as a conduit for the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority, which operates the Meadowlands District that houses the project next to MetLife Stadium. The American Dream development led by Triple Five Group, which includes an indoor water park, ski slope and theme park, is scheduled for completion in 2019, 15 years after a 2004 groundbreaking on the original project called Xanadu that hit snags following the 2008 Great Recession.
“After dealing with this project for the last 14 years with three developers, the last six with Triple Five, I am certainly looking forward to the bond sale,” said East Rutherford Mayor James Cassella early Wednesday afternoon. “More importantly I look forward to the financial benefits that it will bring to East Rutherford along with the economic benefits this project brings to Bergen County, the region, the State and also, as important, having our union laborers back on the job.“
Triple Five Group spokeswoman Debbie Patire declined to comment on the bond sale Wednesday. The PFA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
By Andrew Coen
The company behind American Dream, Triple Five of Canada, is detailing its vision for a mall-entertainment destination in the Meadowlands in New Jersey — and the hazards that could derail the project.
Since the concept of a shopping destination on state-owned marshland was first green-lit in 2003, the mall has encountered many problems. Two earlier developers gave up on the project, formerly known as "Xanadu."
Now, Triple Five is looking to raise $2.8 billion to finance the final phases of construction. More than half of the funding will be arranged privately through J.P. Morgan Chase. The remaining $1.1 billion is expected to come from the sale of tax-free, unrated, government bonds.
For that bond sale, two preliminary offering memoranda are now in circulation: one is for an $800 million bond package backed by payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT); the other is for a $300 million bond package backed by sales tax receipts generated after American Dream opens. The bonds are being sold by the Public Finance Authority of Wisconsin, which is serving as a middleman between the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority and investors.
The documents — over 1,800 pages of them — disclose a wide array of risks that potential investors will have to consider.
Transit is one. Roads and trains are both already heavily congested and could get worse: According to the PILOT bond memo, “The difficulty, expense, unfamiliarity and time-consuming nature of these transportation options, especially for persons carrying numerous purchases, may present a special risk."
An even greater challenge may be the seeming end of America’s love affair with malls. A study by Credit Suisse recently suggested 20 to 25 percent of U.S. malls could close by 2022. “To the extent that these trends continue and have a material adverse effect on the American Dream Project, tenants and customers of the American Dream Project may find the American Dream Project less attractive, which may have a material adverse effect on the generation of sales taxes and on the operating income of the American Dream Project,” the offering memo states.
If the mall fails to meet revenue projections, bond investors will have little recourse: their claims can be made only after the J.P. Morgan lenders have been compensated.
Sixty-nine percent of American Dream's 2.9 million square feet of space has been leased to tenants like Saks, Lord & Taylor, and Primark. There will also be a Nickelodeon amusement park and a DreamWorks water park.
Still, says Lisa Washburn, a credit research analyst for Municipal Market Analytics, the project should give any investor pause.
“I still remain skeptical about the ability for success for the project generally and specifically very concerned about the risks to bondholders,” she said.
Triple Five expects American Dream to open in early 2019.
by Ilya Marritz