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

Ed Marquez did not return several phone calls seeking comment for this story. While he acknowledged that he was indeed approached by the city, Westbrook wouldn't identify which official asked him to re-enter the fray. "We got nothing from the city beyond a reassurance that the process was going to be open, and that no decision has in fact yet been made on the boat yard," says Westbrook. "We think we'll get a fair hearing. Given that, we decided to come back in."

Westbrook's re-entry brought an abrupt halt to what had been moderate to furious lobbying and behind-the-scenes dealmaking by the two other bidders as the commission vote approached. Many observers believe the Medina-Stallone group had by last week secured the support of Mayor Joe Carollo and Commissioner Tomas Regalado, while the Lacasa-Rebull group had the tacit favor of Commissioners J.L. Plummer and Humberto Hernandez. The fifth member of the city commission, Willy Gort, remained inscrutable.

Meanwhile, two local citizens' groups -- the Cocoanut Grove Village Council and the Marine Council -- had decided against endorsing either boat yard plan, but they may now throw their support to Westbrook. "His proposal is the one that most accurately reflects the Coconut Grove waterfront charrette," says Village Council chairman Tucker Gibbs, referring to a series of city-sponsored brainstorming sessions begun in 1992 and intended to draw the public into a discourse about what the refangled boat yard should look like.

As late as last Thursday evening, Antonio Zamora, Jr., a representative of the Lacasa-Rebull partnership, met quietly with Medina in hopes of brokering an eleventh-hour deal that would serve the interests of both developers. The scheme: Medina would agree to back away from the boat yard, leaving the project to the Lacasa-Rebull group. In exchange, the Lacasa-Rebull partners would help persuade commissioners to give Medina control of the Coconut Grove Convention Center as an alternative (and larger) site for a movie studio.

"Everybody felt that with Medina's political connections and our political connections, we could make it happen," says a source within the Lacasa-Rebull group, who asked not to be named.

Those connections extend beyond the strictly local level. Felix Sabates, the group's principal cash source, is the brother of Manty Sabates Morse, a Dade County School Board member and president of the Dade Republican Party; her husband Luis Morse is head of Dade County's legislative delegation and speaker pro tempore of the state House of Representatives.

As a practical matter, the switcheroo, were it to come about, would be accomplished by getting politicians to grant Medina a management contract for the convention center rather than a lease, thereby avoiding the legal necessity of considering other bidders. Zamora and his partners call the plan the Melreese Solution, a reference to the way the city turned over control of its publicly owned Melreese golf course to a private business entity without considering bids from others.

In theory the brokered deal might succeed politically, because Miami is under tremendous pressure to increase revenues. The convention center lost $25,000 last year, while the boat yard is viewed as a chronic underproducer of revenue. On the other hand, handing Medina the convention center might enrage the public.

"There's a certain logic to this scheme, because there's more space at the convention center," says a source close to the boat yard bidding war who asked not to be named. "But I think the political mechanics are impossible. I just can't fathom that anyone thinks they could get away with this."

Lawrence "Monk" Terry, a Grove activist and former city marinas administrator, agrees. "On the basis of protocol, rationality, whatever, I would go completely bonkers," says Terry. "Because what it means is, Why bother to have an RFP process, why hire accountants, why form an advisory committee? This smacks of pure politics. It's not a win-win deal. It would simply be the city saying, 'Hey boys! We're still for sale!' I don't think that is very creative or particularly serves the interests of the community."

At this point the Melreese Solution may be wishful thinking on the part of the Rebull-Lacasa group; Hugh Westbrook's return to the bidding war is certain to make the deal more difficult to broker. And for the moment, Medina seems to be keeping his distance from it. "To be honest with you, I have not thought this through," says the developer. "My gut reaction is that it's not a bad idea, but I have to think it through from a theoretical to a practical level."

Meanwhile, evictions at the boat yard proceed, and the politicking surrounding the redevelopment deal has hit the street level. According to three witnesses, Renato Diaz, the city employee who posted the eviction notices, has also been handing out petitions militating against a movie studio at the old boat yard.

"This whole thing surpasses Kafka," snorts Jose Maria Cundin, an artist who's being ejected from Dinner Key. "Here I am trying to paint, and the next thing I know we're being not just evicted but kicked in the ass. What is going on around here?

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