By Douglas Hanks
The Miami Worldcenter retail and residential complex won approval Tuesday for a special taxing district in the city’s Overtown neighborhood, fending off a fierce challenge by community and labor organizers.
At issue was a taxing mechanism designed to let developers fund about $72 million in infrastructure improvements through a special assessment charged on their properties’ tax bills. Future owners within the Miami Worldcenter footprint would pay the tax, and Miami-Dade has hundreds of “community development districts” throughout the county.
“They’re not taxing the government. They’re not taxing the residents. They’re taxing themselves to put in the infrastructure that government cannot afford,” said Audrey Edmonson, the county commissioner representing Overtown.
County commissioners approved the new district 12-0, capping a week of agitation by opponents of the development. Demonstrations included briefly occupying the commission’s reception area Thursday evening and a silent protest Tuesday that got opponents ejected before the vote.
When developer Nitin Motwani prepared to address commissioners, dozens of people in the audience rose and turned their backs on the dais. Esteban “Steve” Bovo, the commissioner presiding over the meeting at the time, ordered security to escort the protestors out of the chambers if they didn’t sit down.
“We’re going to show everybody respect in this house,” Bovo said.
A $1.7 billion project to be built mostly on vacant land and parking lots a few blocks from downtown Miami’s waterfront, Miami Worldcenter would be one of the largest mixed-used developments in the United States. It plans to bring a massive shopping center to the downtown Miami area, including anchor stores by Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s.
Supporters call it a landmark venture that will create thousands of jobs in the heart of one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods. Critics see it disrupting the Overtown neighborhood and sapping new property taxes from it as part of a city subsidy without benefiting residents.
“Let’s be honest for a second. This development isn’t for Overtown,” said Umi Selah, an organizer with the Dream Defenders group. “Of course we’ll be allowed to work there, serve there, clean there, wait there. But we won’t be tolerated there.”
Miami city commissioners already approved a potential $108 million subsidy from the city’s Overtown Community Redevelopment Agency, and county leaders noted the community-development district was mostly a billing device for the development. But opponents portrayed it as another significant benefit for the project and demanded benefits that included free Wi-Fi for Overtown and union agreements with a hotel planned for the Miami Worldcenter complex.
Motwani declined the bulk of the demands but agreed to a package of benefits in the run-up to the vote. Edmonson’s office announced Tuesday that Miami Worldcenter agreed to a higher share of unskilled laborers during construction (from 30 percent to 35 percent) and local subcontractors (from 20 percent to 25 percent), and a deal allowing the Laborers’ International Union of North America to have a share of the construction work.
“It’s a good step forward in working collaboratively with the private sector,” said Christian Ulvert, a political consultant representing the union.
Motwani and his lobbyists spent much of the meeting huddling with Mayor Carlos Gimenez and his aides. Before the vote, Gimenez announced Motwani also agreed Miami Worldcenter would not ask about criminal histories in employment applications.
“We do agree that black workers matter,” Motwani told commissioners, invoking one of the slogans protesters wore on T-shirts during the meeting. “This creates an area that has been blighted for decades. Long before we got here.”
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