David Beckham's five-year effort to bring a Major League Soccer team to Miami cleared a major obstacle on Wednesday after the city commission said voters could decide in a referendum on plans for a new soccer stadium.
The November ballot initiative will ask whether the city should negotiate a no-bid lease with Beckham to build the stadium and commercial complex on what is now the city-owned Melreese Golf Course.
After initial opposition to the proposal, commissioner Ken Russell changed his mind during the meeting and cast the deciding vote in the 3-2 decision.
"I'm comfortable putting this to the voters," Russell said in a packed chamber, filled with both supporters and opponents of the plan. "The result of this will be the largest city park we've ever had and 12 new soccer fields for our youth."
The decision ended days of suspense and controversy after the commission voted last week to delay a vote on the project.
The $1 billion project, known as Miami Freedom Park, will allow for a 99-year lease on the grounds of the current golf course. The plan includes a 28,000 seat soccer stadium, 600,000 square feet of space for restaurants, 400,000 square feet of office space and 110 acres of green space.
Beckham's group has said it will accomodate parking and traffic concerns with 3,000 parking spaces and two miles of roads within the park.
Russell's decision came after he met with Beckham's partner, Jorge Mas, late Tuesday evening until early Wednesday morning to discuss an update to the proposal. It now includes more money for the city and a promise that the Beckham group would fund the cleanup of toxic soil currently underneath the golf course.
Russell said he had the power to demand more from Beckham's group as the swing vote on the issue. The commissioner secured a committment that all workers at the park will receive a living wage and that Beckham's group will fund the completion of the Miami Riverwalk and Baywalk.
"I've been pulled in so many directions," Russell said. "I decided that if the deal is good enough, if all the caveats are addressed, the voters can decide."
The vote came hours after an attorney filed a lawsuit against the city government, alleging that the commission has not followed the law while considering the project. The complaint contends that the city is disregarding its own competitive bidding laws and failed to properly notify the public about details of the proposal.
Opponents have criticized Beckham's group and the city for rushing the planning process. During the meeting last week, Russell added he was still learning about the plans and said Beckham's group did not conduct any outreach in the neighborhood east of the golf course.
Mas responded in an interview with the Miami Herald, saying his group is under pressure from the MLS to secure the stadium plan or risk losing the franchise.
But during the meeting on Wednesday, commissioner Manolo Reyes, an opponent of the proposal, stressed the lawsuit was evidence that the commission has not been transparent while considering the proposal.
"We have not received any kind of a traffic analysis. We have not received anything," he said, noting that the project has not been properly vetted.
Despite his support for sending the project to a referendum, Russell cautioned that the plan is still far from receiving final approval. He and commissioner Joe Carrollo—who also supported the plans—said that cleaning up the toxic waste below the golf course will likely cost more than what's projected. If the Beckham group cannot afford the cleanup, then the project could fall through, the commissioners said.
In another potential roadblock, if the voters approve the proposal in November, it will return to the city commission for a vote on a final leasing agreement. The commission can only pass the agreement on a four-fifths vote. Beckham still needs to win over at least one other commissioner to meet that threshold.
Some opponents of the project were hopeful. Ally Jackman wore an orange shirt to show she participates in the First Tee Foundation, a non-profit at Melreese Golf Course that teaches golf. Jackman said there is no other golf course equipped to house First Tee.
"There is a community that has evolved through decades at this course," she said. "Not just First Tee. The restaurant at the course. The pro shop. The one private business. We are all there for each other. And that is such a unique setup that you find nowhere else."
But others, including Carollo, said the golf course is not easily accessible. Although the course is designated a city park, the public cannot use it for general leisure activities. And rounds of golf start at $80 for city residents during weekday operations.
City records also show that the course, which is operated by a private company, has lost money over eight of the last 10 years.
Cesar Molero was one of many supporters of the plan wearing black MLS scarves at the meeting. He lives near the course. A large park like the one included in the project, he said, is something his neighbhorhood has never seen before.
"We're used to just a couple acres to jog on top of each other," he said. "I think the city should offer a larger park and not just a fenced-in golf course."