Bruce Matheson claims to speak for the 130-person Matheson family, which once owned most of Key Biscayne.
Bruce Matheson claims to speak for the 130-person Matheson family, which once owned most of Key Biscayne.
Photo by Karli Evans

Wealthy Miami Heir Sues to Kill David Beckham Stadium Deal

If Bruce Matheson wants to tank a real-estate deal, the heir to one of the richest and oldest families in all of Miami knows how to do it. Through sheer force of will, he has successfully prevented the ultrarich owners of the Miami Open tennis tournament from plowing over portions of Crandon Park. He's mounting a battle to stop Florida International University from buying the public Tamiami Park.

And now he's funding a new lawsuit in an attempt to kill soccer star David Beckham's plan to build a huge stadium in one of Miami's poorest neighborhoods. Matheson alleges the county broke state law by handing Beckham land in Overtown in a no-bid deal and that by doing so, the stadium will destroy the neighborhood's quality of life, a fear some Overtown residents have also expressed at public meetings.

Of course, Matheson also has a personal reason to be concerned: He owns land nearby.

"Twenty-five thousand people entering that neighborhood will wreak havoc with noise, traffic, and pedestrian congestion, because it’s not only a proposed soccer stadium, it’s a proposed concert stadium," Matheson told New Times via phone after the Miami Herald broke news of the suit.

Through a spokesperson, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who helped broker the deal, slammed the lawsuit.

“It’s apparent that Mr. Matheson hates professional sports,” Michael Hernández, the mayor's spokesperson, told the Herald. “He’s doing his best to drive out the Miami Open from Key Biscayne, and now he hopes to block Major League Soccer from coming to Miami.”

In June, Miami-Dade County reached a long-awaited deal with Beckham, who has been trying for years to build a soccer stadium in Overtown, the historically black neighborhood where residents of color were forced to live when the city was segregated. (In fact, Overtown used to be officially known as "Colored Town.") Until the 1960s, Overtown was a vibrant, safe, and well-kept community, but when the county built a jumble of I-95 ramps and overpasses in the middle of the neighborhood, property values plummeted, streets were cut in two, and the community took a massive blow. It has never fully recovered.

Now Beckham wants to capitalize on the relatively cheap price of Overtown land and build a soccer stadium there. After four years of searching for a site, the soccer star's group, Beckham United, plans to purchase a publicly owned parcel of land in Overtown for $9 million, which the county agreed to last month.

But Matheson alleges that figure is far too low and that the county could have demanded much more from Beckham's group (or someone else) if the government had followed state law, which requires the parcel to be put up for public bidding.

The suit says Matheson himself is "ready, willing, and able to purchase the County Property at the same price and on the same terms the County has offered the County Property" to Beckham's group. Matheson owns property on North River Drive less than a quarter-mile from the stadium site. (He does not live on that property and instead spends most of his time aboard his 72-foot Argosy yacht.)

"Mr. Matheson has made a substantial financial investment in the purchase of his property," the suit says. "Mr. Matheson will be substantially and adversely affected by the increased vehicular and pedestrian traffic, congestion, noise, decline in property values, and other impacts the project will cause."

In the suit, Matheson mentions that land nearby — including sales that Beckham's group made itself — has sold for far higher prices when broken down per square foot. The $9 million deal the county signed with Beckham in June sold land at roughly $69 per square foot, but Beckham bought a different parcel on the same block for $103 per square foot in 2016. Matheson also said that the property appraisals used the sale data from 2015 and that the property in question was resold in 2016 at twice the price, jumping from $77 per square foot to $142.

"The County did not submit the property to a competitive bidding process as unambiguously required by Florida Statute § 125.35," the suit reads.

It's a classic Matheson move: He maintains an encyclopedic knowledge of local and state law and has exactly zero time for fools, hustlers, and county executives.

As New Times recounted in a 2016 profile, Matheson is the great-grandson of W.J. Matheson, a scientist, inventor, and world traveler who became one of the richest men in America at the end of the Gilded Age, around 1900. The elder Matheson made a veritable fortune in upstate New York by selling synthetic dyes and vaulted himself into the nation's aristocracy, befriending Theodore Roosevelt and hosting parties alongside the Vanderbilt family. After Matheson's son Hugh contracted lead poisoning, he was told to spend time in the sun, and the Mathesons moved their clan to what was then a mostly wild and uninhabited South Florida.

With his father's money, Hugh hired 60 workers from the Bahamas, who planted thousands of coconut trees across the island, dredged canals across Key Biscayne, and installed water wheels to irrigate the land. The Mathesons built a huge estate on the island, called Mashta, and set about hosting parties and yachting between Miami and the Bahamas.

The family later gave its land on the north end of Key Biscayne to the county, and the county in exchange built the Rickenbacker Causeway to the key, as long as the government promised to use the land for "public park purposes only." Years later, the county built a tennis center over what used to be a landfill and let what later became known as the Miami Open — one of the most prestigious tennis tournaments in the world — operate in the park.

This enraged Bruce, who by then had become the public spokesperson for the Matheson clan. Through a series of lawsuits that wrapped up last year, Matheson fought expansions of the Crandon Park Tennis Center and has successfully fended off the Miami Open's attempts to expand the tennis center to take over public park land. As part of the agreement that handed the Crandon land to Miami-Dade County, the Matheson family retains a controlling say over what goes on in the park. Even some other activists have complained that the unelected Matheson possesses far too much control over public land, but others have praised his ability to prevent dollar-obsessed county officials from selling off extremely valuable beachfront land to developers.

"You don't turn a privately dedicated public park into a commercial development zone," Matheson told New Times last year.

Despite having a seemingly limitless store of cash to pay lawyers to fight Matheson, IMG, the New York-based sports management firm that owns the Miami Open, lost a legal fight last year over whether it's allowed to expand the Crandon Park Tennis Center site, stoking fears that the tournament might one day leave town.

Matheson has repeatedly lamented he has spent much of the past two decades wrapped up in lawsuits with county officials and sports owners. But he's now voluntarily wading into another fight, with yet another deep-pocketed set of real-estate magnates, that will likely take years to resolve.

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