Parks and Profits

Believe it or not, Miami's planning czar Jack Luft says he can make Virginia Key both lovely and lucrative

Miami Marine Stadium sits abandoned on Virginia Key, battered by Hurricane Andrew, trashed by vandals, picked over by scavengers. Though it is surrounded by a fence with locked gates, gaining entrance is easy. Jack Luft, Miami's planning and development director, quickly finds his way to a gaping breach in the fence and strolls in.

The ground-level floor is littered with debris: broken glass, garbage from squatters, and chunks of concrete. Graffiti covers many of the walls. The cantilevered seating area upstairs, however, is in surprisingly good shape despite five years of neglect.

Luft sits in the middle section and gazes out at the boat basin, a large, oval-shape body of water fronting the stadium. A barge that for years had been rigged to serve as a floating stage lies submerged directly below, another victim of the hurricane. He motions across the boat basin toward an undeveloped, pine-covered peninsula. On its northern side, he notes, is an inlet that attracts manatees and wading birds.

Yet not far away, and in dramatic contrast, is Dade County's massive central sewage treatment plant and an old landfill. Moreover, the boat basin itself owes much more to man than nature. "The big bad city dredged out all the sea grass and all those little shrimps in the Sixties, and [partially] filled it in to build a basin," Luft says. "That was in the era of building treatment plants on islands in the middle of Biscayne Bay. Let's face it, we've made mistakes on Virginia Key. Now we're here to make silk purses out of sows' ears."

In a phrase, Luft has framed the debate that has been washing over Virginia Key for years. Luft himself, in fact, has been a principal in that debate for a full decade. On one side are the environmentalists and parks advocates who cherish that sow's ear in all its rugged, unruly natural splendor.

On the other are the politicians, business people, and bureaucrats like Luft who are naturally inclined toward taming the wilderness and whose proverbial silk purse holds real assets in the form of a refurbished and active stadium, a boat basin bustling with special events, a resort hotel, restaurants, marinas, marine supply stores, a privately operated campground, and more.

Such visions of revenue-generating silk purses on Virginia Key are nothing new. As far back as 1981, when Dade County deeded to the city land on the southeast side of the island, officials of both governments envisioned hotels and campgrounds, among other facilities. In 1987 Luft himself prepared a master plan for Virginia Key that allowed for even more commercial development. Over the years the island has become home to ventures such as the Miami Seaquarium, the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, the Dade school district's MAST Academy, an outpost of the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, three restaurants, two marinas, and a variety of other businesses -- all of it squeezed onto thin strips of land on either side of the Rickenbacker Causeway.

But the interior of the 1000-acre island -- generally north of the causeway -- has remained relatively untouched, with the notable exceptions of the sewage treatment plant and the old landfill. In recent years, Miami voters have had two opportunities to express their opinions about new development on Virginia Key. In 1991 they voted to allow the construction of a large waterfront restaurant just west of the marine stadium, but that project sank amid financing problems.

Then in November 1995, the first proposed project affecting Virginia Key's interior was put to a vote. An elaborate campground covering 154 acres would be built by a group of investors that included Arthur Hertz, chief executive officer of Wometco Enterprises, the company that owns the Seaquarium. By a narrow margin, voters defeated the proposal.

Since then, of course, the City of Miami has experienced financial meltdown, and now more than ever there is pressure to convert publicly owned lands into reliable sources of revenue. Luft has responded by reviving development plans for Virginia Key. Early next month he will explain his plans for a new marine stadium, a resort hotel, and a scaled-back campground to the blue ribbon commission formed last winter to advise the city's elected officials on ways they can maximize revenue from municipal resources, natural and manmade.

After that presentation, Luft will ask the city commission for permission to prepare formal requests for proposals for the campground, stadium, and the hotel, to be located at the eastern end of the boat basin.

Many of the people who successfully rallied voters against a campground in 1995 say they are incensed at this revival of a scheme so similar to the one defeated. "It's just typical of the City of Miami," complains Betty Sime, a veteran Key Biscayne activist and village council member. "The City found a way to get what they wanted despite the referendum. It's not in the best interest of the public and it's not what the public stated they wanted. This is geared toward what the developer wants."

Virginia Key's self-appointed protectors -- the South Florida Boardsailing Association, the Tropical Audubon Society, and the Sierra Club -- have joined together to develop a strategy for protecting the island's flora and fauna. And as they prepare for a new round of debate over the key's future, their efforts are aimed at one man: Jack Luft.

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