Matthew Schwartz, the director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, stands in a patch of marshy grass on a large stretch of land in northwest Miami-Dade county. Cypress trees dot the landscape, which sits just a few miles from the Everglades. The water is about six inches high, enough to cover his shoes.
"So here we are in the middle of a wetland, and this is our drinking water we're standing in right now," Schwartz says.
This sprawling wetland habitat is what developers plan to turn into the largest mall in the country.
In May, county commissioners gave the green light to the project, a $4 billion, 6-million-square-foot mall and entertainment center dubbed American Dream Miami, located between Interstate 75 and Florida's Turnpike. Developers say it's more than a mall: the glass ceilinged structure will include features like a 16-story indoor ski slope, a giant water park, an indoor lake with submarines and a beach.
But it's not likely to break ground anytime soon. In order to pave over the 197 acres of wetlands — the size of 150 football fields — on the property, developers still require dozens of environmental permits, including those to dredge and fill, build on an archeological site and raze wildlife habitat. The wetlands replenish the Biscayne aquifer, which supplies the region’s drinking water.
Critics say the mall project will strain the fragile South Florida environment.
"To be building this now, when we're so aware of our environmental problems … I hate to use the word 'insanity' but it’s starting to feel that way," Schwartz says. "We're against the approval of these permits and we're going to organize and advocate. We want [permitters] to oppose this project in terms of being off the scale in terms of water use."
The developers, the Canadian company Triple Five, have vowed to comply with state and local environmental rules meant to protect the Everglades, as well as to offset their project's impact.
"We don't shy away from environmental mitigation because it's required by law, number one," Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, the lawyer representing the project, said at the May 17 approval hearing. "But we are good stewards of the environment."
The land was once the Everglades. When developers began to dredge it in the 1920s, Florida politician and farmer Ernest "Cap" Graham turned it into a dairy farm. It became one of the largest dairies in Florida.
The Graham family — including Phil Graham, who served as publisher of The Washington Post, and Bob Graham, the former Florida Governor and U.S. Senator — would eventually go on to found the town of Miami Lakes.
Since the dairy stopped functioning in the 1950s, the land has stood undeveloped. It’s one of the last big holdouts of vacant, green space inside the county's Urban Development Boundary, or UDB, the line that separates housing and shopping centers from the Everglades. Dozens of cows still roam free.
Triple Five, the developers of the current largest mall in the country, the Mall of America in Minnesota, purchased the land in 2015.
On 300 acres to the south of the proposed American Dream site, the Graham Companies plans to build housing, a business park, hotels and more retail to take advantage of the huge influx of people to the mega-mall.
An estimated 30 million people will visit American Dream each year, amounting to about 70,000 vehicle trips in and out of the property.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava cast the commission's sole vote against the project in May.
"It's really a bit of an absurd situation in my opinion to place that kind of heavy development with environmental risks and impacts right on the edge of our most fragile ecosystem," she told WLRN.
Other commissioners applauded its economic value and the jobs it will create. Triple Five estimates about 14,000 full-time jobs will be created by the project.
At the nine-hour hearing before commissioners, Diaz de la Portilla said Triple Five has been working with the county's Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources, DERM, for over a year to ensure it will be able to meet county rules for construction on wetlands like this one.
"I don’t think anyone who has been around Miami-Dade County or Florida would say that DERM is soft on enforcing environmental regulations," he said.
According to Lisa Spadafina, the head of the Natural Resources Division at DERM, the developer will likely be able to mitigate the project's environmental impact by creating or restoring a wetland somewhere else nearby. Though details of that are pending a comprehensive evaluation of the site, she said it's likely the developer will enhance a degraded wetland in the Everglades and commit to maintain and monitor it over time, "to ensure it remains a productive wetland." Triple Five has not yet submitted an application to DERM.
"They know that our goal is for them to provide some wetland habitat in the vicinity of the impact," she says. "We have a rule that there should be a no net loss of wetlands."
Spadafina says DERM believes there are threatened and endangered species on the property, such as the Bonneted Bat and Wood Stork. Those designations will factor into the mitigation requirements, as well.
Triple Five still needs a total of 32 different permits before construction can begin, including from the South Florida Water Management District, the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The company also needs the state to implement $200 million in roadway improvements.
"That's a lot of permitting right there," Schwartz says. "So we’ll have to see. Obviously, it's not over until it's over."