If You Sink It, They Will Come

Creating an artificial reef is no longer a slam-dunk affair, despite an abundance of missile sites, water towers, and wanna-be philanthropists

The water tower and the tiny .16-acre triangle it stands on belong to the city but are scheduled to be deeded to the Portofino Group, developers of much of the land south of Fifth Street. As part of the development agreement signed by the city and Portofino in November 1995, Miami Beach agreed to scrap the tower, with Portofino paying for the removal expenses. (The parcel left behind can be used only for landscaping, public art, or as a "buffer," according to the deal.) Bruce Henderson, environmental coordinator for the City of Miami Beach, says the firm has now agreed to take the money it originally set aside to remove the water tower and use it instead to sink the thing as part of an artificial reef. The tower stands in the midst of ongoing building projects, including Portofino's 34-story Yacht Club condominium.

"As a result of the Portofino deal, I was approached to assist them in having the tower taken down," Henderson explains. "When I realized that the tower was going to be taken down and scrapped, I saw there was an opportunity to do something with it that might be more beneficial."

Starting in mid-June, a crane will be used to dismantle the tower in stages, with workers cutting the bowl into pieces. Later on in the summer the tower will be dragged down the street to a pair of donated barges, loaded up, and towed out to sea. Members of a Metro-Dade police demolitions squad will blow up the barges and sink the whole mess to a depth of approximately 160 feet at the Pflueger site, two miles from Miami Beach.

"The water tower is a structure that would otherwise be scrapped and take up landfill space," Henderson points out. "Now it will take its place alongside the Tenneco oil platforms and the ships as an ecologically friendly way to expose people to myriad opportunities for diving and fishing. In time it will be encrusted with corals and other organisms. It will have a life of probably 30 years or so before it disintegrates. It's different. It's a unique shape. It's a little avant-garde, if you will, which fits in with Miami Beach." Mostkoff and Henderson estimate the cost of removing and sinking the tower at roughly $75,000. The $45,000 in state grant money Mostkoff received for Kennedy's missile launchers will now go toward the water tower project.

But while the City of Miami Beach hasn't officially announced its plan for the water tower, the project already has generated opposition. "I'd much rather see Portofino Tower on the bottom of the ocean," mutters Mark Needle, a former member of the Miami Beach Design Review Board. "I think the water tower is a symbol of the historic district, what might have been done there. Dumping it in the Atlantic is one more sad step along the way toward the complete sellout of the southern portion of the island."

On April 8, Needle and other Portofino naysayers appeared before the Miami Beach City Commission in an effort to nullify the entire development deal the city had struck with Kramer's firm, asserting that the Design Review Board had approved the massive Portofino plan without adequate guidance from the commission. Sitting as a quasi-judicial court of appeal, Beach commissioners heard Needle describe Portofino's "shameful attempt to silence the airing of serious issues."

If Needle and his cohorts had been successful, the construction of the Yacht Club condo would have faced a long stall, and the South Beach water tower would likely have stayed put, perhaps for years. But they weren't. The commission, by a vote of five to three, upheld the original Portofino development plan. Needle and other members of an anti-Portofino group called the South Pointe Citizens Coalition vow to fight on against the firm's high-density vision of South Beach.

"The city also said that stray cats had outlived their useful lives too," Needle notes, "until people got upset and said, 'Wait a minute. Let's look at alternatives.' To me the water tower would make a great public visitor's center. People could climb up and get a view of the historic district. Has it been explored? I'd be willing to bet not."

Mostkoff acknowledges that the vagaries of local politics could still sabotage what he hopes will be the next addition to Dade's dazzling gallery of artificial reefs. With the South Dade missile towers now a memory, he could also lose the big water tank, leaving him with a $45,000 state grant and nothing to sink. Oddly, he notes, the Portofino Group has specifically requested that the new reef not be named after its chairman, Thomas Kramer. Representatives of the development company did not respond to requests for comment. "I don't know," Mostkoff muses. "I guess reefs aren't his thing. They can get complicated."

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