Mega-mall project in Northwest Miami-Dade wins state approval for land deal

The proposed 200-acre retail theme park in Northwest Miami-Dade won state approval Tuesday for a land deal at the heart of its plan to bring the largest mall in America to the Miami suburbs.

In a unanimous vote in Tallahassee, Gov. Rick Scott and Cabinet members endorsed selling 82 acres of state land to Miami-Dade for $12.3 million, which in turn will sell it for the same amount to American Dream Miami developer Triple Five. Some of South Florida’s largest malls urged the Cabinet to reject the American Dream deal, an early sign of the fight ahead for Triple Five as it pursues a shopping destination large enough to have its own indoor ski slope and sea-lion habitat.

The approved transaction allows Triple Five to avoid potential competition in the state’s surplus-land protocols, which give local counties first shot at any spare real estate before it goes up for sale. It also marked an early win for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, whose administration spent the last year negotiating the American Dream in secret and then won quick approval for it last month from the County Commission.

Opponents of the sale criticized the sales price as not representing the best deal for taxpayers. And while state officials cited appraisals justifying Triple Five’s price, critics said more effort should have been put into evaluating the land wedged between Florida’s Turnpike and Interstate 75.

"We don't think that an appraisal is adequate to ensure that you're going to get fair market value for the property," said Bill Williams, a Tallahassee attorney for a newly formed group called the South Florida Taxpayers Alliance. "It doesn't seem fair for the taxpayers of Florida."

The decision to sell 82 acres of state-owned land west of Miami Lakes followed two hours of debate. Supporters described a $4 billion venture that will be the largest real estate project in the history of South Florida, with a likelihood of 25,000 new jobs.

Gimenez was joined by Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Albert Carvalho in urging the governor and Cabinet to approve the land sale. Miami-Dade’s school system held a 50-year lease on part of the state land, and Triple Five agreed to pay an additional $7 million for the school board to cancel the lease.

General Growth Properties, owner of Miami’s Bayside Marketplace, and Simon Property Group — owner of Sawgrass Mills, a West Broward shopping center north of the American Dream site — both spoke against the project Tuesday.

Testifying in favor of the project were the Beacon Council and the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam made the motion to approve the deal, and described the undeveloped property as "82 acres of melaleuca."

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater quickly endorsed Putnam's motion, but expressed wariness about the state's appraisal.

"I'm just going to question whether we're getting the best possible return for the taxpayer," Atwater said. "I really do question." But he noted that no one other than Triple Five, owner of Minnesota’s Mall of America, has offered to buy the property.

Triple Five is securing the rest of its 200-acre site from private owners, and most of it comes from developer Graham Co. While it now has the needed footprint for its four-million-square-foot project, the company faces a long path of regulatory approvals involving transportation, zoning and land-use clearances.