Parks and Profits

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

Would the stadium be remodeled, torn down, or simply repaired?
We would badly want to build a fixed stage. It drove the producers crazy to run all these cables and all these ropes [out to the old floating stage]. It's a pain and they won't do it. The stadium was built for water, it wasn't built for concerts. So we need to streamline it. I think it will end up being downsized in terms of the number of seats. Then you put in a restaurant on the side, and you put in little box seats -- kind of like the arena, where you can get a box lunch and watch a basketball game.

When you revived plans for Virginia Key, you asked the city to change the zoning on the north side of the basin from "conservation" to "parks and recreation." But many people fear that the parks and recreation zoning allows too much unrestricted development and that it can easily be upzoned to allow major structures.

This has to be the only town in the world terrified of parks and recreation zoning. You'd think I was zoning it for Lincoln Center. The zoning has to be consistent with the master plan intention, and the master plan is very clear: It includes recreational paths and protection of the conservation zones. If you want to have boats in the stadium basin and you want to have picnickers, then that's the right zoning to have.

You've mentioned that you'd like to have boat racing in the basin. How can people safely race boats in such close proximity to the manatee protection zone just north of the basin?

The bottom of this basin is pretty sterile. There's very little down there -- just some scrub sponges. The manatees tend to follow the shoreline and go to where the sea grasses are, which is bigtime on the other side [of the peninsula]. They tend not to come in here because it's such a sterile basin. Their real path is more toward Fisher Island and Dodge Island and over toward the freshwater coming off the Miami River.

From the stadium, Luft heads for a waterfront stretch of the island north of the Bear Cut bridge, which years ago was set aside for blacks. Normally its access gate is locked and the area closed to the public. Leaning against the counter of a long-abandoned concession stand, he surveys the site of the proposed campground that was defeated at the polls in 1995. An old merry-go-round is shuttered. Due east, the beach is empty.

Since Hurricane Andrew, the beach has probably seen more loggerhead turtles than people. A 1996 turtle nesting map prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service indicates more than 53 turtle nests in the sand, up from 40 nests in 1993. State officials, however, have warned that the increased nesting would be jeopardized by more human activity.

Luft believes a private developer could construct and operate a campground without disturbing the turtle nests by using specially designed, low-wattage lights. But Blair Witherington, a state research scientist who studies turtles all over Florida, says that any human activity can discourage nesting. "People are going to be bring their own light sources," he predicts. "If there are people on the beach at night while turtles are nesting, there's a good chance those people will scare away the turtles. During a certain stage in a turtle's nesting cycle, if she is approached, she will abandon the nest."

Luft's new plan is designed not only to attract campground operators but to assuage environmentalists and other Virginia Key advocates. For the windsurfers, he has offered to reopen the public beach (it has been officially closed and not maintained since the hurricane) and to build a water-sports center.

For environmentalists he has offered to construct nature trails and an education center on the west side of the island, inland from the critical wildlife area. He even has something for the Village of Key Biscayne, whose residents were among the leaders opposed to the 1995 plan. Already Luft is negotiating with the mayor and village manager to share the costs and benefits of a long-sought regional sports field atop the former landfill. Dade County would also participate in building the field.

Experienced Luft-watchers say this kind of deal making is his trademark style, and it has allowed him to not simply survive the turbulence at city hall but to steadily accumulate power and respect. "He knows how to work the system," observes Jack King, editor of the Coconut Grover newspaper. "He can be very confrontational with the commissioners. I don't know how many times I've thought to myself, 'That guy is gone, he's going to get fired.' And then at the next meeting they are in love with him. I think he goes privately to the commissioners and says, 'You know, you were right about some things,' and then puts his ideas together with theirs and they come back happy with him."

But the most ardent Virginia Key activists refuse to make deals. They point to the city's dismal record at trying to turn a profit by leasing public land, and they fear that a campground operator would lose money and then pressure the city to help. "I'm not against a campground," says Miami civic activist Nancy Lee, who has closely monitored the various plans for Virginia Key. "What I'm worried about is the campground owner going before the commission and saying, 'I can't make money.' Then commissioners say, 'I guess you can build a restaurant there. I guess you can build a roller coaster.' If a park has to make money, it's not a park any more."

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