Parks and Profits

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

Miami mayors, commissioners, and managers have come and gone. Elections now and then have changed the course of local politics. Social upheavals have rocked the city's internal equilibrium and external image. But Jack Luft has remained Miami's premier planner and visionary for nearly three decades. "He is probably one of the most intelligent and politically adept administrative staffers in the City of Miami," observes Coconut Grove lawyer and civic activist Tucker Gibbs, who has often been at odds with Luft. "Anyone who could survive the City of Miami from 1970 to 1998 knows how to work the system."

As a young planner assigned to Coconut Grove in the Seventies, Luft honed the skills needed for a job that required him to be part civic booster, part obedient bureaucrat, and all-around cajoler. He managed to prod the Grove's commercial property owners into creating a European-style retail district that emphasized pedestrian-friendly low-rise buildings, sidewalk cafes, and boutiques.

But when he sanctioned plans for Commodore Bay, a concentrated mixed-use development that would have stretched from Main Highway to Biscayne Bay, former supporters branded him a tool of developers and turned against him. Miami attorney and public parks advocate Dan Paul dubbed him the "merchant of concrete." The rebukes have haunted him ever since.

Luft, now 53 years old, insists that reputation is undeserved. He characterizes himself as a devoted combatant against the worst kinds of commercial construction: impersonal glass-and-steel towers, and designs that favor cars over people. But he's unabashedly enthusiastic about dense urban commercial centers. "I haven't been all over the world, but I've been around -- to Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro, Vancouver, Tokyo, Kyoto," he says. "Where some people want to go to Yosemite and see Half Dome and walk the John Muir Trail or visit Walden Pond and all that -- that's fine. I get the same high from standing on Fifth Avenue in New York during the St. Patrick's Day parade and listening to the muskets go off and echo in those glass canyons as the kilted bagpipers walk by. And I say, 'God, I love cities!'"

Luft agreed to accompany New Times on a tour of Virginia Key, where he discussed the city's plans for a variety of moneymaking projects. The tour began at Miami Marine Stadium.

Some environmentalists say Virginia Key is already overdeveloped. Why not stop now and preserve what remains?

One of the things that has gotten me in trouble with environmentalists is that I feel there are a lot of laws -- and I'm glad they're there -- to protect the frogs and the turtles and the trees. And they need to be protected. What bothers me is I don't see that same level of protection and support for the urban environment, for creating quality urban places that are habitable, sustaining, nurturing for people. For my mind, the real challenge is to try to make a livable place out of something that societies have been creating for 2000 years: urban concentrations.

But Virginia Key is not an urban concentration. So why develop it?
I think Virginia Key has, in the mix of things, this incredible possibility. You've got wilderness retreats that are hands off, untouchable, pristine -- and let's hope they stay that way -- bird sanctuaries and manatee breeding grounds. And then right next door you've got a place where you can have water sports, Jet Ski races, rowing shows, and all the stuff that happens in the ballet of the water. Plus you can have the waterside restaurants and hang gliders and parasailing and all that stuff. It's a playground of the water.

But why must the city lease much of Virginia Key to private developers to build and operate a marine stadium, a hotel, boat ramps, restaurants, and other amenities?

By deed restriction we have to have a marine stadium. The stadium was built as a marine center for marine events. The 200-acre basin was set up specifically for water shows and performances. It was built for that.

So why not just develop the marine stadium and leave the rest of the island as is?

To bring in the private sector you have to complement those public-sector objectives that are not economically viable with components that are economically viable. Why are they putting executive corporate suites in basketball arenas? Same reasons. We went out to the private sector before and asked, "Is anyone interested in just fixing up a marine stadium and running it?" No. "Is anyone interested in fixing up and operating a stadium if you had a boat yard, resort, and facilities that are compatible with the goal of public recreation and tourism -- and also to bring in a profit?" Yes. We're not just dropping things out of the sky.

Exactly what are the city's plans for the marine stadium and its basin? The master plan outlines a pathway around the basin and a nature center just north of it, in an area now overtaken by Australian pines.

If you've been to Minneapolis, there is a wonderful series of lakes in the center of the city -- Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun, and Lake Harriet -- and they are all interconnected by the park system. You take these bodies of water and encircle them with long, continuous, uninterrupted pathways. That's the image we're looking for. If it were up to me, I would turn [the nature center] over to Tropical Audubon and I would say, "You work with the school system, with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Nature Center, and treat this as an interpretive trail, educational center, kind of like the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel."

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