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Flashy Miami Worldcenter development's gains spark debate about economic progress

Miami commissioners want developer to commit to job creation for locals

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MIAMI – While standing about a block away from the Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. federal courthouse in Miami, Jose Rios said "having no money" made him feel "invisible."

Rios was setting up a sleeping area early Friday morning on a sidewalk next to an empty parking lot. He said he had been living near Miami's Overtown neighborhood for the last year, because he was running away from "step dad sex abuse and no one gave a f---."

A few blocks away, there was a line in front of Club Space, a nightclub that remains open 24 hours. Another Jose, also known as Joe Ramirez, was also running away. He was there for "EDM acoustics" and was "already drunk and ready for $7 water" bottles.

"We're space cadets. That side has [the] Terremark conspiracy. You have strip club pervs, Grand Central hipsters [and] bay yuppies,"  Ramirez's friend Tatiana Alvarez, 22, said. "One day, cops will send homeless crack heads running. Dollar bills gonna come. It'll be like newspaper bomb turn[ed] into rich opera [expletive] glass."

That was Alvarez's description of Miami's Park West neighborhood, an area west of Biscayne Bay, north of downtown Miami and east of Overtown, formerly known as Colored Town. Developers have been talking about a Miami Worldcenter vision in the area for about a decade. This year, Miami commissioners have been giving the 28-acre mixed-use $1.5 billion project the green light. 

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What the city wants in the area is "substantially similar, if not identical, to that of plans that have been approved for Brickell City Center, River Landing and the Design District," Nitin Motwani, Miami Worldcenter developer, said in a statement.

Developers want to start construction this year. The project -- a partnership between Boca Raton based The Falcone Group and Marc Roberts Companies -- faced bitter litigation against commercial broker Edie Laquer who wanted to be a partner in the project. They also faced opposition on their management of public streets.

According to the Miami Worldcenter plan Northeast 7th and 9th Street would be closed to traffic. Seventh from North Miami Avenue to Northeast 2nd Avenue would become a pedestrian-only promenade, and 9th Street would turn into retail space. Northeast 8th Street would be open for traffic.

"Miami Worldcenter has earned the support of the Miami Entertainment District Association as well as the owners of Mekka, Will Call, E11even and others," Motwani said.

Developers want the center to connect to PortMiami, AmericanAirlines Arena, Museum Park, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, and East Coast Industries' Grand Central Station railway project.

There will be about 7,000 parking spaces, developer's plan said. The retail vision includes Macy's and a Bloomingdale's as the anchor of 750,000 square feet of commercial space. Also part of the plan is a Marriott Marquis Hotel 100,000 square feet expo center.

"While it's premature to speculate about future tenants, we will ensure our operators complement existing businesses," Motwani said.

Architect Howard Elkus said in a promotional video that South America's Iguazu Falls inspired some of the public space designs. Christopher MacLeod, co-owner of The Corner, an after-hours bar on 11th Street and North Miami Ave., allowed a bar manager to post an opinion on social media.

"Absolutely sickening," The Corner's Facebook status said. "Downtown City of Miami is being given away by crooked officials, happening right now under our noses."

The Corner's Facebook shared a report by Al Crespo, a local blogger who complained that Miami commissioners were giving the developer real estate air rights for free. Crespo also said Miami was giving up too many liquor licenses to developer and too much commercial signage freedom. 

"They want air rights for free ... the air rights above city streets are of significant economic value ... The value of the air rights that the World Center wants could be worth millions of dollars," Crespo said on his website.

Some regulars at The Corner Friday said they had not read Crespo's story or knew anything about the Miami Worldcenter. But they said they feared new development could threaten the survival of the trendy hangout -- which stayed open until 8 a.m. Friday.

At City Hall in Coconut Grove Thursday, Miami Commissioners approved two ordinances that would exclude zoning board review from the process and modify design standards. Graphic designer Marcos Fernandez, who was at The Corner, said he didn't know about it, but he wasn't surprised.

"This mellow spot [The Corner] was born in the first wave of gentrification, but I don't think it will survive the next wave,"  Fernandez said. "Poverty is exclusive. Overtown's racist history knows this a little too well."

Miami Commissioner  Keon Hardemon said he wants to make sure this doesn't happen. As Miami Worldcenter developers look to the city for approvals, he said he wants to make sure that the commitment to job creation for locals is legitimate.

Motwani said earlier this year a study showed that the project will create about 19,500 construction jobs and 14,000 jobs after the project is completed. He also said that he had been working with with the Southeast Overtown and Park West's community redevelopment agency and local colleges.

"Our team has worked with the city to create a master plan that improves pedestrian connectivity and access, creates significant economic impact, and delivers a healthy mix of residential and commercial uses that will revitalize the area," Motwani said.

Miami Commissioner Frank Carollo did not attend the Thursday meeting. Commissioners Marc Sarnoff and Francis Suarez are supporters of the project.  Miami Commissioner Willy Gort echoed Hardemo's concern and said he wanted specifics in the development agreement.

"I want to see a real jobs package, not three-quarters of a page with promises that are ready to be broken," Hardemon said. The commissioner has been asking for money to invest on programs such as credit assistance and job training for Miami's inne-city neighborhoods.

Developers have to wait for Miami's Planning Director Francisco Garcia to get the Urban Design Review Board's advise before he makes a final decision on the project.

Meanwhile early Friday morning, Rios said he doesn't care about what will happen to the area's homeless if the Miami Worldcenter project succeeds. He said in Spanish he defines success as "suriving the day to day." When a bottle of Corona came flying out of a moving car and unto the sidewalk, he started shouting.

"See? 'Mira eso' [look at that] That's what we have to put up with. They think of us like 'pura basura' [garbage]," Rios said in Spanish and English.

Rios, who said he is of Salvadoran descent, had a warning: "Be careful around here, this world isn't easy and the people up on those high buildings who can help, or the police who think of us as bad people -- are not going to come help if something happens.

"'Asi son las cosas' [that's how things are]."

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