In Miami, David Beckham Has Wrought America’s Best Stadium Deal

Fund it like Beckham.

Miami Beckham United

All this time, all we needed to change America’s exploitative model of pro sports stadium construction was an Englishman to show us the way.

Enter David Beckham, the midfielder-turned-mogul whose four-year quest to bring a new Major League Soccer franchise to Miami cleared a major milestone on Tuesday evening when the Miami-Dade Commission approved a deal to sell his group three acres of land, completing a 9-acre stadium plot.

Beckham’s proposed 25,000-seat stadium would be blocks from Miami Metrorail and the Miami River, and a half-mile from the new All Aboard Florida station. It would be privately owned, privately funded, and built on private land—no municipal bonds, no tax breaks. The most revolutionary part of all? No parking garages. The stadium group is counting on fans to come by transit, by shuttle from nearby garages, by taxi, and on foot. It has also proposed chartering fan ferries to pilot up the Miami River.

It’s a model deal for a city that sees itself as a newly urbanized, mixed-use metropolis. Downtown Miami’s population has more than doubled since 2000, from 40,000 to 89,000. The skyline bristles with new residential towers. America’s first private passenger rail service in a half-century will open there in September, offering service north to Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach.

But in some ways, Miami-Dade wasn’t an obvious place to rewrite the rules of the stadium deal. The county owns and subsidizes American Airlines Arena, home of the worst fans in basketball, and recently agreed to pay the owners of the Miami Dolphins to host major events—including a $4 million bonus for a Super Bowl. The shimmering swindle in Little Havana known as Marlins Park has been called “the worst public works project in Miami history,” and will cost Miami residents for decades to come.

But a collision of factors led to a better deal this time. For starters, the MLS—which gave Beckham a huge discount on the league’s expansion fee when he inked his contract to play for the L.A. Galaxy a decade ago—insisted on a downtown stadium location. That meant the Miami group couldn’t get Broward County and Miami-Dade into a local bidding war, of the type that brought the Atlanta Braves to Cobb County. It also kept the team from considering a reported offer from the American Dream Miami, a planned suburban megamall northwest of Miami that represents a more familiar style of South Florida development. (Cars, cars, cars.)

The ghost of Marlins Park also played a role. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who led the talks with the stadium group, earned a reputation as a major critic of that deal from the start.

It took four years and four attempts for the group, which includes four significantly less famous wealthy investors, to nail down the Overtown parcels, with two waterfront sites and a location near Little Havana falling apart for various reasons. The new stadium would be located on contaminated land in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and would require the owners to pay property taxes—a welcome change, for the county, from two publicly owned sites the team had targeted on Biscayne Bay.

Now, Beckham & co. must get zoning approval from the City of Miami. And would you believe it, the biggest fight, the Miami Herald reports, is going to be over parking. (Most developers overbuild parking according to the demands of the city or commercial tenants, and residents tend to cause an uproar over exceptions that might threaten their own God-given curbside parking spot.) But with a deal to buy the two-block site in place, there will be pressure on Miami to approve the $220 million stadium, which also includes a year-round jobs guarantee.

So, maybe it would be too much to say that David Beckham is responsible for bending this stadium deal into shape. But he’s not just a pretty face: Beckham’s sweetheart $25 million expansion fee, compared with the market price of $150 million, makes it possible for the Miami group to accept a better deal for the public than its counterparts might pitch in rival cities. And for once, the pressure was on the ownership group: They aren’t shopping between cities, and with the MLS eager to ink expansion deals, the Beckham group feels that the Overtown site is its last chance.