By Michael E. Miller
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No property in South Florida attracts more dreamers than Watson Island. The 86-acre pile of gravel and weeds sits tantalizingly close to downtown Miami. Surrounded by the blue waters of Biscayne Bay and traversed every day by nearly 76,000 cars, Watson Island has long been a powerful magnet for people with grandiose development schemes.
There was the permanent Pan American exposition proposed in 1935. And a roller-coaster amusement park proposed in 1980 (not to mention a smaller amusement park pitched in 1983). A former Pan Am pilot pushed an 850-foot tower featuring a revolving restaurant at its peak and a disco and meeting facilities at its base. The late exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa was among the notables who backed a marina and hotel. All these ideas and many more (remember the dirigible base?) collapsed under their own bloated weight or evaporated in the miasma of Miami politics.
Yet the ideas keep coming. City planners recently proposed constructing a marina for luxury yachts. That retread appears to have tanked once again in the latest mayoral turnover. But hope, as they say, springs eternal. New York City developer David Plattner is living proof of that. His plan is the most fantastic yet. "It's called Mt. Miami," Plattner says during a telephone interview from his Manhattan office. "The mount is spelled Mt."
Here is Plattner's vision: a domed, 200-foot-tall ski slope blanketed in snow.
Seven such enclosed ski runs are operating worldwide, most in Japan, but Plattner scoffs at them. They are, he says, little more than snow-covered ramps inside cold buildings. His dreams are bigger. Much bigger. Last month he presented several Miami civic leaders with a videotape promoting a 27-acre, self-contained resort. Among the highlights:
*The ski mountain, with a 1000-foot run
*Tethered indoor hang-gliding from the summit
*An ice rink and a roller hockey rink
*Sleigh rides through a "winter wonderland theme park"
*Miami Summit, "the hottest new restaurant-nightclub in the sky"
*"Adrenaline sports" under the mountain, featuring something called basketball bungee jumping
And that's just the mountain portion. Plattner also plans a second, thermally controlled "aquadome," in which he envisions
*An indoor rain forest
*A tropical-theme restaurant featuring nightly dinner shows
*A 1000-seat theater featuring a Cirque du Soleil-type water ballet
*Water ski daredevils
*A high-tech, indoor/outdoor water park and wave machine for bodysurfing
Augmenting the two domes will be a 400-room luxury hotel and convention space, a shopping mall, a 500-slip marina, a museum of Latin music, a television studio, and a landscaped outdoor promenade. A high-flying gondola will link the mountain, the hotel, the aquadome, and the parking lot. Plattner's video trumpeted the creation of "thousands" of jobs and the generation of "millions" of dollars in annual tax revenues.
"It has got to be something absolutely outrageous in its design to complement Miami," Plattner explains. "It's not like a little ski ramp in a refrigerator. When you go inside and look up, you will see Mt. Miami covered with trees that actually shoot out snow."
And the most unusual aspect of the plan? Think money. In a city accustomed to being extorted by developers looking for handouts, Plattner and his associates are fully financed."We've raised the entire amount of money," he boasts. "We're showing up in Miami with $300 million. We're not asking the city for one penny. In fact, we are willing pay them -- to lease the property."
Perhaps because of his solvency, Plattner's pitch fell on receptive ears several weeks ago when he met with the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Beacon Council, and others. "I was excited when I looked at it," says bureau CEO Merrett Stierheim, referring to the Mt. Miami video. "It was different and visionary. It kind of blew me away, to be honest."
Adds bureau spokesman Mayco Villafana: "It is very exciting. Certainly if they can pull it all together, it has a tremendous possibility for downtown areas, as well as for tourism. These people were pretty much on the money. They were serious." (Beacon Council spokesman Dana Fernety declined to comment "on any ongoing projects until they have been officially announced.")
Plattner's background is as uncommon as his Mt. Miami proposal. A former organist at Yankee Stadium, he has produced rock concerts and Broadway shows. In 1990 he tried to market "You're on TV," an interactive television studio he debuted at the Church Street Exchange mall in Orlando. Plattner's wife manages the career of singer Bobby McFerrin.
"For the past 25 years I've been an entrepreneur," elaborates the 46-year-old Plattner. "My niche in entertainment has become the programming of real estate to make it an attractive destination for people. I come up with ideas and get the financing behind them. Then I market the final product."
Two years ago he tried to program a variation of the Mt. Miami experience. His company, Original Ventures, bid to develop the New York Coliseum, a prominent site near the southwest corner of Central Park. He called his $700 million vision a "futuristic amazement place." While it didn't promise a ski slope, it would have included an indoor wave pool for bodysurfing, a rain forest, a mall, and an exhibition space. In New York he proposed a 70-foot climbing wall; for Miami he proposes one 150 feet high, which he says will be the largest indoor climbing wall in the world.
When Plattner failed to win the Coliseum bid, he began scouting for other cities where he might realize his plans. Dallas and Houston were considered, but he fell in love with Miami. "Other cities are a backup," he says. "If Miami doesn't want it, I'll respect their decision and I'll go on. But I really believe that Mt. Miami should be born in Miami. It's an outrageously synthetic city. It's a juxtaposition of neon and natural. It's already a palm tree with neon on it. I see it as a palm tree with neon on a mountain covered in snow."
Stierheim wants Plattner to consider building Mt. Miami at another location, maybe adjacent to the ailing Metrozoo. Plattner adamantly refuses. "I am sold on Watson Island," he stresses. "I think [Mt. Miami] should be in the middle of things, not far away. I don't want the old Miami Arena or anywhere else. I don't want to save the world."
Watson Island also appeals to Bern Levine, proprietor of Parrot Jungle; he is scheduled to build a new version of his tourist attraction on 18.6 acres of the island's northeast side. Plattner's detailed plan, however, is news to Levine. "I'm surprised," he says, noting that he first learned of Mt. Miami last week. "I can't imagine that somebody would spend ten cents on us if they could go skiing right across the street. I do know that we have a height restriction on the island that prevents us from building anything taller than 55 feet. I see they want to build a dome that's 200 feet in the sky. Give me a break."
Plattner has not yet spoken with Levine, though architects for both projects met last Friday in New York. The ski resort, Plattner insists, will only enhance the allure of Parrot Jungle. "We're going to have a tropical rain forest. We could feature a few birds in there from Parrot Jungle," he ventures. "And of course we would heavily cross-promote with them. I'm not here to compete with anyone."
He hasn't yet spoken with any elected officials, either, though he says he has a good excuse. "I'll admit I'm having trouble figuring out who is in charge down there," he chuckles. "Suarez was the mayor and he knew about the project. Now your Mayor Carollo looks like he's going to be there for a while, and I've made an appointment to see him on Thursday [April 16]."
Carollo, who hasn't viewed the promotional video, says he is concerned about the height of the domes, but adds that he's keeping an open mind. "I believe that downtown needs another attraction for tourists," says the mayor. "I welcome a new idea and will certainly listen to any proposals."
Plattner wants to break ground on Mt. Miami as early as next year, an accelerated timetable that Stierheim finds unrealistic. The project would face design reviews and possibly a referendum, Stierheim cautions. But Plattner is in a hurry. "It sounds funny -- and it is pretty funny -- but the idea is to submit Mt. Miami for the year 2001 snowboarding world championships," he says, not joking. "It's totally possible. Granted, this is not a real mountain, but there are things snowboarders can do on our 'halfpipe' that they can do on any real mountain. This is going to be a world-class snowboarding facility.
"And if they do select it for the world championships," he adds gamely, "we just happen to have a hotel there as well.