Guess Who's Coming Back to Dinner Key?

In the waning rounds of the Dinner Key boat yard brawl, a third heavyweight returns to the ring

Last week an old man in a golf cart handed out eviction notices at Dinner Key boat yard in Coconut Grove. The carpenters, mechanics, and sailmakers who received them will have to end their tenancy and move out by January 31, leaving the historic city-owned boat yard to the next chapter of its life.

The future of one of Miami's last, best, and most rundown pieces of public waterfront land was supposed to be settled today, January 16, with Miami commissioners awarding a 40-year land lease to one of two competing development groups. The first group, which includes movie star Sylvester Stallone, Grove condo magnate Manny Medina, and former city commissioner Rosario Kennedy, wants to turn the boat yard's rusting seaplane hangars into a six-million-dollar film and TV studio. Partners in the second group, among them State Rep. Carlos Lacasa, lobbyist Julio Rebull, Sr., and North Carolina sports team owner Felix Sabates, say they'll spend five million dollars constructing a large, modern marina. (The details of both proposals, and the controversy surrounding the contest, were chronicled in the New Times feature story "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Key?" last October.)

But the showdown vote was yanked from the agenda by Miami City Manager Ed Marquez a week ago Wednesday, ostensibly because Miami's elected officials are so busy solving the city's financial crisis that they haven't yet had time to consider the boat yard lease. The real reason: Hugh Westbrook, health-care tycoon and political heavy hitter, has decided he's interested in Dinner Key after all.

A powerful Democratic Party fundraiser and founder of Vitas Healthcare Corp., Westbrook dropped out of the bidding war two months ago without explanation, officially ending his quest to build a farmers' market on the bay reminiscent of Boston's Faneuil Hall or the French Market in New Orleans. Sources say that he was fed up with the city's selection process, believing it to be stacked in favor of the Stallone-Medina group, and that he was also distracted by unexpected delays in the sale of his multimillion-dollar home hospice company.

Westbrook's surprise return -- formally announced in a letter to the city last Friday -- is potentially very bad news for the other two bidders. Late last year an advisory panel ranked Westbrook's proposal well ahead of the Lacasa-Rebull marina plan, and just one point behind the Medina-Stallone movie studio scheme. Antagonists in the protracted boat yard fight, as well as observant bystanders, are now wondering why and how Westbrook came back.

"The surface explanation will be that he simply requested to re-enter the race," says a source within Westbrook's development group. "The true reason is that someone in the city administration picked up the phone and begged him to come back to the table. Whoever it was conveyed the sense that there was growing concern about the idea of a movie studio at Dinner Key. Maybe someone finally sat down and looked at the numbers and realized how little sense a studio makes on that site. So what happens when the studio doesn't work out? It's not difficult to figure that Manny Medina would very quickly offer up a plan to bulldoze the boat yard hangars and build a high-rise on the edge of the bay. Given the city's financial meltdown, it would be difficult to resist."

Medina calls this scenario absurd, and says he has no hidden agenda.
"I have no intention of using that property for anything other than a low-rise use, and I'll sign that in blood if you want me to," the developer declares. "First of all, even if we are successful, Manny Medina is not taking control of that property. I'm one component in a group. Second, you couldn't build a condo there because there are legal restrictions that prohibit it. Third, I'd be shooting myself in the foot -- a high-rise would block my view of the bay." (Medina owns Grove Hill, a 22-floor condominium directly across from the boat yard).

As for Westbrook's return, Medina says he's still absorbing the news: "I have no comment. I don't know why he's doing it. I don't know why he dropped out in the first place."

Carlos Lacasa, a principal in the other group fighting for control at Dinner Key, says he's neither shocked nor especially dismayed by Westbrook's reappearance. On November 13 he and his partners wrote to the city manager objecting to various glitches in the bidding process. Medina, the group complained, had failed to properly disclose financial information about himself and his partners as required by the city's May 31 request for proposals (RFP), and his group had misrepresented the nature of Miami-Dade Community College's participation in a proposed film institute. Privately the partners say they're also miffed that a movie studio was ever made an allowable element in the city's guidelines for proposals. The RFP originally identified a public market, a marina, and a working boat yard as some of the desired elements in any redevelopment plan. It was quietly amended in late June to specifically allow the movie studio idea after lobbyist Rosario Kennedy met with city officials.

"I suspect that Westbrook may have felt, as we have, that the Stallone-Medina bid was heavily favored and that there was no sense in going forward," Lacasa says. "My information is that the city manager took it upon himself or was told to initiate this."

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