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.

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."

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."

Why not just leave this land alone?
Because it's an 80-acre battered and environmentally barren piece of ground that is not going to mushroom into a primeval forest by itself. It's a complete wreck. Something has to be done. Do we want to spend a lot of money replanting the area just to build a forest for the raccoons? Or can we do it and put it to a public recreational use? If we can do it in a way that combines an economically viable use with an environmentally friendly restoration of the site, I think it's a win-win. That's why the eco-campground is built around the fundamental concept of revegetating and restoring the site.

Why not simply bank it and create a nice public park later, when the city has the money?

What's to be gained by waiting? I'm not now or in the future going to project that it's going to be a simple thing to go to the taxpayers and say we need six million dollars to do it.

Doesn't the city's master plan call for a constellation of buildings and facilities?

There's probably a half-dozen buildings here already. There will be several more, if you count the laundry and the general store. There will be shelters for group camping, cabins. If you count eco-tents, which I hesitate to call buildings.

What is an eco-tent?
An eco-tent is a raised platform that has a tent and a wood-frame roof. It's a little tepeelike structure covered with canvas. It's got a little porch on the front. It has built-in beds and a little counter with a sink. You carry your water inside. It has a lightbulb. It may or may not have a solar panel. It probably doesn't have running water. It's probably linked to other eco-tents by a raised boardwalk in native-plant areas.

To many people this plan, eco-tents included, will sound familiar. In fact, it sounds just like the proposal voters rejected two years ago. How can the city propose building this campground again?

It went to the public and the public said no. There are those who say, "Well, isn't that the end of it? We've put it to the test and the public said no, so that should be the death of that." What went to the voters was a specific lease for a specific development with a specific set of partners for a specific plan. We did not say: "Are you in favor of a campground per se?" I go back to the Virginia Key master plan of 1982, which also had a lot of public input.

Few people know or care about what the original master plan says. They are more concerned that the public retain the use of the beach, that sensitive plants and trees will be preserved, that turtles and manatees will be protected. But you're talking about reviving the essentials of a plan that environmentalists opposed in the first place.

It won't be the same because it won't be the same amount of land to start with. It will be cut in half. Instead of 154 acres it will be 80. Frankly, the concern of the developers was "You're passing off to me a liability. Now I've got to maintain a public swimming beach, I've got to maintain and restore the hardwood hammock, then I have to maintain the picnic area." What we said was: "That's the price you pay for the campground." We thought it was a good deal for the public. But there were some people who were fearful of having that [public] area under private lease. Now we've said: "Take that out of the campground. Say it's a public park, and leave it out." The city could take the profits from the campground and maintain the beach.

But many in the public -- environmentalists, Key Biscayne residents, windsurfers who use the beach -- want to preserve this island as it is.

When you divorce this from developers and leases and commercial terms, and you just say: "Does it make sense to have, for the benefit of the people of this community, a publicly accessible campground done in an ecologically sensitive way on an oceanfront where none exists in Dade County," the very strong majority response I get is "Yes, that makes a lot of sense. What a wonderful idea."

Have you actually surveyed public opinion about this?
When we look at the state recreation plan and the county's surveys and studies on public demand for recreational facilities -- the fastest-growing demands -- camping is coming out high on that list. The state recreational open-space master plan and the Dade County master plan have long-range surveys and public-opinion analyses of trends, where the needs are. One of the biggest needs in this area is camping facilities.

But you're not talking only about a campground. What other plans do you have?

You add to that what I believe will be a sea camp on a five-acre tract [within the campground]. The sea camp could have pavilions with classrooms in them; it would have kitchens and dormitories woven into the whole campground area here. During the summer months, you would have youth groups; we would probably work with the school system. You would make that kind of sea-camp experience available to kids on a three-, four-, five-, six-day basis. It's classic.

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.

Luznar and many of his friends are convinced the city wants to close down Jimbo's, despite Luft's repeated assurances to the contrary. As he drives the rutted road that leads to the bait shop, Luft explains his concerns about Jimbo's. For one thing, Luznar pays very little rent for his makeshift wooden shop, and that, Luft claims, infuriates people who lease other waterfront properties from the city at premium prices.

In addition, the city owns the property and therefore is responsible for ensuring overall maintenance of the premises, including trash removal. But Luft says the city can't legally do any maintenance owing to the "conservation" zoning classification around Jimbo's, which prohibits any city work. "It's not our intent to change the basic function and activity that goes on there," Luft insists. "We're going to try to find a way, as sensitively as possible and with as little destruction as possible, to put it on a legal foothold."

Luft parks his car and ambles toward the custom-made bocce-ball court and cluster of tables outside the weathered building. The 70-year-old Luznar, nearly as rustic as his shop, wears a baseball cap and a red Jimbo's T-shirt as he greets Luft with a grin.

For the next ten minutes Luznar wheedles Luft with suggestions for the campground design, glowing reports of his bait business, and reminders of Jimbo's recent appearance in a segment of World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. He also stresses that his little operation along the lagoon is about the only place in Miami where people of all races and ethnic groups can sit down peacefully and share a beer and some conversation.

A few yards away an advertising photo session is underway amid a group of brightly painted small shacks now used as backdrops. Models, crew members, and clients mix comfortably. Jimbo's appears to be exactly the kind of urban meeting ground Jack Luft hopes to create on Virginia Key, and he certainly appears entertained by the scene. "You can't build places like this," he remarks, "they have to grow." He asks Luznar to sell him a cigar and would clearly like to linger. But his island tour continues.

It pauses at the sea wall behind the bait shop, where two boats are tied up. The concrete is cracked and some very hardy grass has colonized the dirt in the crevices. "It's on its last legs," Luft says. Gesturing toward shards of metal, blocks of cement, and coiled ropes, he chuckles: "This is a liability lawyer's dream."

He follows the lagoon's edge, stopping to kick empty beer cans or stare at little hills of rubbish -- bottles, plastic six-pack rings, paper plates. Massive squares of concrete form a kind of artificial coastline for a hundred feet or more. He asks whether environmentalists might want to save this particular shoreline. "These are natural chunks of concrete," he says with a smile, "formed 20,000 years ago.

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