Guess Who's Coming... to Dinner Key?

Now playing: A fight over a prime piece of Miami bayfront property. Will the city fo Hollywood or choose a tamer role for the old boat yard?

Rather than build the maximum number of boat slips, the Westbrook group proposes a smaller marina designed around a broad public pier extending into the bay and leading to a small open-air restaurant. Westbrook says he's confident his group can overcome any environmental regulatory problems that building the pier might entail. The boat repair yard would be significantly larger than that proposed by Atlantic Clipper, with tenant craftsmen occupying the smaller seaplane hangar.

Perhaps most important, Westbrook's group proposes a more modest initial return to the city -- $100,000 per year for the first four years, rising after that -- but also promises to sink significantly more money into capital improvements, nearly $9.5 million. "We have looked at this very, very carefully, and we believe the true cost of restoring the property is greater than some people may have guessed," Westbrook says. "I don't want to comment on the accuracy of the numbers from the other folks, but we think this is what's required to make the project commercially viable."

After a decade of debate and false starts, and following recent weeks that have seen the resignation of Miami's city manager, finance director, and a city commissioner amid charges of corruption and financial impropriety, some observers see the boat -yard redevelopment process as a grand opportunity for politicians and city officials to prove they can do the right thing by the public. Some go so far as to call the Dinner Key deal a crucible in which the political future of Miami will be cast, for better or worse.

"If the boat-yard thing gets screwed up, and if we can't get the budget in line, I think all hell is going to break loose," says Lawrence Terry, a member of the Cocoanut Grove Village Council. "I don't think the people in this community will put up with any more nonsense. There's been too much rhetoric and too much back-room dealing in the past. If we allow this process to slide into the same old thing, we're going to be in serious trouble."

Dubious spectators complain that Atlantic Clipper is poised to take over the process by virtue of Hollywood charisma and old-fashioned political connections rather than the merits of its proposal. "I believe that the mayor may already be biased," says Felix Lima, one of the bidders who oppose a movie studio on the site and favor boat-intensive uses. "I hope that the other commissioners are not swayed by the glamour of Mr. Stallone. His being involved in this discourages other people who might have made proposals. To be perfectly frank, we probably would have reconsidered spending a lot of money on this proposal knowing that the odds are in their favor."

City officials are not oblivious to the sorry history of past development attempts or the current state of public demoralization. Two weeks ago Jack Luft, Miami's director of community planning and revitalization, successfully persuaded the Coconut Grove Chamber of Commerce to postpone public presentations by the three boat-yard bidders. He had previously sent letters to each group requesting that they defer public dialogue on the boat-yard proposals until after the review committee completes its labors. "We're trying to separate the committee's work from any round of community comment or debate or publicity," Luft explains. "This is a little like picking a jury. Just as you wouldn't want a jury member talking to the defendant before the trial, we don't want proposers lobbying the committee members, or prospective committee members talking to each other. I cannot have external, uncontrollable forces prematurely shaping the opinions of the committee members."

As the fray heats up, Hugh Westbrook says he wonders about the personalities and political currents that may affect the selection of a boat-yard developer, but has chosen to keep his distance from committee members and politicians. "We have good financing and accomplishability," Westbrook says. "I fully expect that the process is going to move forward on its merits. Maybe it's naive of me to say so, but I think the city is at a turning point, and that Mayor Carollo is in a position to point things in a new direction."

Naive is right, says Christoph. The brewing fight for control of Coconut Grove's waterfront will inevitably be influenced by power politics, to one degree or another. "If Mayor Carollo can tell the voters that he brought Hollywood to Miami, then that's one more arrow in his quiver," Christoph offers by way of example. "I hope that he won't be swayed by political ambition as he looks toward the upcoming election next November."

Asked if he could recall the name of California developer Sherman Whitmore's yacht, Grove activist Lawrence Terry said he couldn't. But he thinks virtue, not venality, will triumph at Dinner Key this time. "All the people involved in this new deal are real, and the money seems to be real. This time we have no one driving into town in a Rolls-Royce pretending they're a person of means. I'm generally hopeful."

Whitmore's yacht was named The Virtuous.

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