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Miami wrestles with urban scheme

Critics say a new professional baseball stadium, marina, tunnel, and park ignore the needs of the city's working class.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 2008

Big Plans: A $3 billion proposal would install a mega-yacht marina where these two fishermen lounge on a weekday afternoon. Controversy and a lawsuit mark the plan.

Patrik Jonsson

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Miami

Either Norman Braman is a people's hero, fighting the good fight with bullhorns and placards, or he's a slick luxury car salesman trying to pull down Miami's grandest public works plan in decades – part of which might cut into his sales of Hondas and Beemers.

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Whatever his motivation, Mr. Braman, former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, has enough clout to yank the city into court this week in what promises to be a bitter fight over Miami's urban core and a test of its sharp social and economic divide.

At stake is an unusual $3 billion "mega deal" to build a tunnel to the Port of Miami, construct a ballpark in Little Havana, create a new park at Bicentennial Park, build a trolley system, and pay off nearly half a billion dollars in unexpected public debt from the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on Biscayne Boulevard.

Using taxpayer money for ambitious renewal projects is always controversial. Braman is suing the city and county in Miami Dade Circuit Court for misuse of public money, but he says he'll drop the suit if the city and county let the issue go to a voter referendum.

"This project is really about the city branding itself as the crossroads of the Americas, keeping the Miami brand up there ... with other communities in the United States and also in Central and Latin America, where it competes with places like Panama City," says Jim Murley, an urban affairs expert at Florida Atlantic University in Fort Lauderdale.

Stadiums, tunnels, symphony halls – they're all in the arsenal of the modern city planner.

But with Americans increasingly suspicious of large-scale giveaways to corporations and sports teams – especially in a city like Miami, where one stadium built at taxpayer expense currently stands empty – civic leaders are looking for new mechanisms to get bulldozers moving. "Bundling" projects for political expediency is becoming more common for cities trying to build favorable buzz, experts say.

"Folks supportive of the park may not be supportive of the tunnel or the baseball stadium, but this is a way to sort of build consensus ... to get these kinds of large projects approved," says Frank Nero, president of the Beacon Council, a Miami business group. "The governmental entities that did this should be commended for being creative."

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