MIAMI – Miami’s top administrator this week met with David Beckham partner Jorge Mas about building a Major League Soccer stadium on the city-owned Melreese golf course, floating a 180-acre alternative near Miami International Airport as Mas is raising doubts about long-standing plans to build the stadium on nine acres in Overtown.
Mas and brother José met Miami City Manager Emilio González on Monday afternoon, and discussed how the Melreese park could mesh with the Mas ambitions for a sprawling soccer complex, with room for a youth academy, restaurant and retail and an adjoining “tech village” office complex, González said.
“I suggested that perhaps Melreese could be an interesting place to consider, given what it provides,” González said. “They expressed an interest. We both agreed to continue a dialog.”
The careful language from the new city manager hints at the delicate path ahead in the coming days as González floats the possibility of renting at least a sizable portion of Miami’s largest park and a public 18-hole golf course to a for-profit soccer stadium and commercial complex. If embraced by city commissioners and championed by Mayor Francis Suarez, Melreese could offer the Beckham group an exit route from the Overtown plan the Mas brothers inherited when they joined the partnership late last year.
Suarez, who appointed González in January and attended at least part of the Monday meeting, on Tuesday said Melreese could be a promising replacement for Overtown, which the mayor said looks problematic for a stadium given opposition from some in the neighborhood and in nearby Spring Garden.
“I’ve expressed a lot of concern over the last few months about the Overtown site, based on resident concerns in Spring Garden and Overtown,” Suarez said. “The pushback definitely was a concern.”
Suarez also had lunch with Jorge Mas and Beckham last week, and said the partnership is set on a stadium plan that has outgrown the Overtown location. “I think the vision that they’ve demonstrated also is greater and grander than the capacity for that site,” he said.
Renting Melreese as a stadium site may rest with voters, with a referendum possible either in August or November, sources familiar with the talks said. Suarez said he suspected a referendum would be called before turning over the public land to the Beckham venture. The plan would be to lease a portion of Melreese to the Beckham group, with some areas of the existing park offerings remaining. That could include a reduced golf facility — such as a nine-hole course or a driving range.
While listed as a city park, Melreese is managed by a private company and marketed as the Melreese Country Club. Members can play the 18-hole course at 1802 NW 37th Ave. for $49 during the winter, while Miami residents pay $79. The Grapeland Water Park sits next door, and it’s not known if that property or the adjoining baseball fields are part of the potential Beckham proposal.
The Mas brothers — leaders of the Miami-based infrastructure giant Mastec and Beckham’s first local partners in his five-year stadium quest — have been discussing alternative sites in private meetings. In the last week, Jorge Mas publicly confirmed meetings about other sites while citing challenges with the Overtown site.
In back-to-back interviews, Mas said the site in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood isn’t large enough to fit his vision for what a soccer stadium should be, and that he is in talks with Miami-Dade County about how surrounding public housing complexes could be redeveloped in an effort to create an ideal “neighborhood experience” for residents and spectators.
The comments, combined with what González said was an hour-long meeting on Melreese at City Hall, magnify the uncertainty still hanging over Beckham’s Miami plans just weeks after a triumphant celebration in downtown Miami over MLS owners approving his expansion franchise.
The approval was held up by league disputes over the investment stake among Beckham partners, and the entry of the Mas brothers reportedly helped smooth the way to a final deal. Mas is chairman of the MasTec and José is the CEO. They’re now pitching a far grander stadium plan than the one announced by his partners after purchasing a site near the Miami River in Overtown in 2016.
The announced plan was a 25,000-seat open-air stadium on nine acres, with no room for parking garages, restaurants other non-soccer commercial spaces. Mas has publicly promised to reinvent the stadium experience in Miami, and using the draw of soccer to fuel other uses. He has also privately voiced skepticism that an Overtown stadium could thrive without parking. Mas was not available for an interview.
Jan. 29, 2018; Miami, Fla.; Fans hold signs with the likeness of MLS team owner David Beckham as they wait outside prior to the expansion announcement at Adrienne Arsht Center. (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)
Suarez shed some light on the Mas approach to affordable housing in Overtown. The Beckham partnership only owns six acres of the nine acres it needs for the stadium, with the purchase of an additional three acres from Miami-Dade set to close in June. Should the Beckham group head elsewhere for a stadium, Mas has talked of using six acres the partnership owns in an affordable-housing project, Suarez said.
“They’re talking about the possibility, if they do pivot away from the Overtown site, of being able to contribute –along with the county –more workforce housing and affordable housing,” Suarez said.
The previous partners –once led by sports mogul Tim Leiweke, who left the group at roughly the time the Mas brothers joined — touted plans in Overtown for riverboat ferries, pedestrian traffic from the nearby Culmer Metrorail station and soccer’s tradition of “marching to the match” in defense of a stadium without garages.
With far more real estate in Melreese, the Beckham group would have enough room for parking garages, practice soccer fields and possibly a stadium large enough to accommodate the University of Miami, an early potential partner in the Beckham venture before fading away as the soccer venture abandoned bids for roomier sites on the Miami waterfront and next to Marlins Park.
Melreese’s golf course entrance is about a 10-minute walk south from the Miami Intermodal Center, a transit hub that’s home to the Metrorail and Tri Rail stations serving Miami International Airport. The public course sits minutes off of the 37th Avenue exit of the Dolphin Expressway, linking the property to one of the busiest highways in Miami.
That may be more appealing than the residential side streets needed to drive to the Overtown site, but also promises to make traffic a flashpoint in any Melreese proposal as Beckham and city leaders justify putting another 25,000 people on the already clogged toll road for games and concerts.
A Melreese stadium fight also could pit Beckham against the open-space activists and others that helped scuttle a brief plan to put the MLS stadium in Miami’s Musuem Park after the soccer star’s initial bid for a PortMiami site failed in 2014. Suarez said the Mas brothers want to build some sort of park feature to surround their stadium, as a “central park” for Miami in the outer reaches of the city boundaries.
Suarez said that while he’s interested in discussing Melreese, he’s realistic about the political challenges such a plan could face.
“It’s very preliminary at this point,” he said. “It’s obviously a heavy lift.”
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