Parks and Profits

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

Luft, who grew up in an Iowa farm town, began his career landscaping parks in Kansas City, Missouri. After working with an urban-planning team at an architectural firm, he developed an interest in understanding why so many U.S. cities were dying and what could be done to revitalize them. So he obtained a master's degree in urban planning from Iowa State University and in 1970 drove with his wife and the first of their two children to Miami, where he took a job with the city. Luft's shoulder-length hair and penchant for riding his bicycle to work set him apart from the typical civil servant.

Four years later he received his first big assignment: redesigning the zoning for downtown Coconut Grove, which was threatened by intense development. To protect the village atmosphere, Luft, who lived in the Grove (and still does), designated a ten-block area as a "village shopping district" and created a new zoning classification that limited buildings to four stories. "That's when we said, 'Everything has to come out to the sidewalk, everything has to have windows, has to be pedestrian-scaled,'" Luft recalls. "I think probably the most enduring part of the Grove master plan was the initiative to make sure that whatever was built in the Grove would conform to that small-lot, small-scale, shoulder-to-shoulder relationship. Everything in that era was trying to be set back, with parking lots in the front, typical suburban stuff."

But if Coconut Grove residents were grateful that Luft's work had preserved the village's character, those sentiments dissolved a little more than a decade later when he endorsed plans for the Commodore Bay development. The invective that followed grew heated, and Luft was assigned to a new job with broader responsibilities: city design director. (Officials insisted the move had been planned for years.) "Commodore Bay was the biggest mistake the City of Miami could have made, and Jack was very much in favor of Commodore Bay," recalls activist Tucker Gibbs. "He got yanked out of the Grove for it."

Luft would go on to design master plans for downtown Miami and Virginia Key. By 1985 most of those things that made the island problematic -- the decline of the boat-racing industry in Florida, the creation and closing of the landfill, construction of the sewage treatment plant -- had already occurred. It wasn't until 1993 that city officials undertook a serious effort to plan development of the island.

But when voters rejected the referendum in 1995, the city's financial woes were not publicly known. The $68 million deficit forced officials to take an urgent new look at better utilization of the city's resources, including Virginia Key's potential to generate income. "The city gets into a lot of trouble through graft and corruption, and the environment has to pay for it," complains Key Biscayne council member Betty Sime. "It doesn't seem quite right."

How do you plan on protecting the city's resources and financial interests?
Where you really come down to terms is in the lease documents. You look at Parrot Jungle [soon to be on Watson Island] and you'll see that the lease is quite explicit about numbers, about the amount of cover material on the ground, about operational standards. That's where you embed in the deal all our terms and conditions. The Parrot Jungle lease requires bonding at every step of the construction process.

But the city doesn't have much of a track record for protecting its investments. In effect, you're saying to the public: We failed on Virginia Key, we failed on Dinner Key. But trust us, we're going to succeed this time.

The opposition to Virginia Key is about two things: It's about change. Change is constant in terms of people's difficulty in dealing with their environment; lack of change is comforting. The planner poses change as an imperative. The second thing is trust. For anyone to deal with change, they have to have some trust in the process. Trust is not easy to sustain. Anyone can look at a city as large as this and find ample reason to say, "I don't trust you." The only way to overcome that is tell the truth and listen.

Last year Luft qualified for the city's early-retirement program but declined to accept it. "The simple answer to why I don't just retire is I'm trying to finish what I started," he explains. "I'm trying to pay back to a city that's been good to me for 28 years -- at a time when it needs people to give back. It's a difficult time for the city."

Of the projects Luft has recently initiated -- creating a farmers market at a refurbished Dinner Key boat yard, leasing Watson Island to Parrot Jungle -- the development of Virginia Key may be the most controversial. He faced the first round of citizen opposition this past April, when the proposal was scheduled to be discussed before the city's Waterfront Advisory Board.

City hall's commission chambers were packed with extremely agitated skeptics, including a sizable contingent there to show support for for Jim Luznar, owner of Jimbo's, the 43-year-old bait shop on Shrimper's Lagoon that has become a nationally known local institution. The advisory board failed to muster a quorum, so the official meeting was canceled, but Luft gamely went ahead and tried to explain his rationale for seeking zoning changes on Virginia Key. The crowd would have none of it, and the gathering quickly degenerated into a high-decibel free-for-all.

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