On the Block

In an act of audacious short-sightedness, Miami is offering its finest bayfront property to the highest bidder

Fast-forward to Miami 2015. A visitor from Chicago exits I-395 at Biscayne Boulevard and confronts a 23-story steel behemoth known as PIP (Pork Investor Park), home of the long-ago world-champion Florida Marlins. He heads south, hoping to catch a glimpse of that pretty bayfront showcased in the Internet travel brochures. But instead of blue water, he sees only the American Airlines Arena, home of the NBA's never-to-be champion Miami Heat. While passing the Port of Miami entrance, the tourist catches a glimpse of the waterfront: megacruise ships docked at Watson Island.

Next comes Bayside, followed by the Bayfront Park Amphitheater, including its overgrown, gaudy neon sign and gargantuan television screen. Sponsored by telecommunications giant AT&T, it announces the latest festival for citizens exiled from Caribbean nations. Continuing south on U.S. 1, the Chicagoan crosses the polluted Miami River and arrives at the former site of Brickell Park, where a Starbucks welcomes anyone seeking a cup of joe. He's not thirsty so he keeps moving south into Brickell gorge. At the entrance to the Rickenbacker Causeway, the driver looks east and notices the city's newest high-rise hotel on Virginia Key. Then, on Bayshore Drive, the driver becomes frustrated. Despite its bucolic name, this boulevard showcases only concrete. At historic Dinner Key, a gray parking garage is backed by other large buildings. Finally the Windy City escapee hangs a right on to SW 27th Avenue and reaches the Coconut Grove Ritz-Carlton. After a speedy check-in, he steps out on to the balcony of his $1000-per-night room and, ahhhh, takes in the shimmering blue of Biscayne Bay.

If City of Miami planners get their way, this trip will be more than future shock; many of the area's best publicly owned waterfront locations will be leased to the highest bidder. Wealthy investors and rich citizens will profit from developers' schemes, while the majority is turned away. On the market are Watson Island, Brickell Park, a chunk of Virginia Key, and the site of the little-used Coconut Grove Convention Center on Dinner Key. Although the commission pulled Bicentennial Park off the market in December 1998, Marlins owner John Henry has brought it back into play, meeting personally with city commissioners and urging state legislators to approve a cruise-ship tax to help pay for the building. Even an oddly shaped two-acre site on the Miami River may soon be rented away. In all about 123 acres of some of the the most expensive real estate in the southeastern United States -- and the last publicly owned waterfront parcels in Miami -- may soon be up for grabs.

"If it's vacant, it is not offering the maximum use for the citizens," says the City of Miami's Erdal Donmez
"If it's vacant, it is not offering the maximum use for the citizens," says the City of Miami's Erdal Donmez

Why are city commissioners rolling out the welcome mat to filthy-rich developers with plans for overgrown condos, sprawling marinas, and upscale retail projects? Simple. Cash. City leaders contend they need revenue to escape the financial crisis discovered after the 1996 arrest of corrupt city officials, including former City Manager Cesar Odio. Indeed much open land is simply wasted, argues Erdal Donmez, director of the city Department of Real Estate and Economic Development.

Two big-bucks builders with deep political connections have already inquired at city hall about the properties: Manny Medina, a Grove developer, and Sergio Pino, former chief of the political powerhouse Latin Builder's Association, and owner of Century Builders Group. (Both men confirmed they are interested but were unprepared to discuss details.) Armando Codina, former business partner of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and a real estate magnate of incomparable credentials, also has requested details on the city's plans, but does not anticipate bidding.

Development opponents such as Urban Environment League president Greg Bush charge the city is insulting its forefathers' legacy. He notes that Miami's efforts to preserve land for public use date back decades. In 1924 a 4000-foot-long sea wall was erected near downtown, east of Biscayne Boulevard, and dozens of acres from Flagler Street to NE Twelfth Street were filled with muck from the bay bottom. Although Bayfront and Bicentennial Park have long dominated the reclaimed land, developers have slowly taken over chunks of it for a shopping mall, an arena, a large hotel, and an office tower.

Bush's argument for preserving the public land is simple. In Miami, the fourth-poorest metropolitan area in the nation according to the last census, where most residents cannot afford to own a boat, buy a sports team's season tickets, or shop at exclusive stores, the waterfront should be accessible to all. "They never spend time developing parks or public spaces," notes Bob Weinreb, Bush's colleague at the Urban Environment League. "Who ever heard of a city having this wonderful asset that you can't see?"

Dinner Key, where Miami City Hall is located, is the waterfront property ripest for redevelopment. Its history provides some hints as to why builders find it so desirable. The key came into being around the turn of the Twentieth Century, when the federal government dredged Biscayne Bay and connected a tiny island to the mainland. The land served as a Coast Guard base until the Thirties, when Pan American Airways, one of the nation's first commercial aviation services, built a seaplane terminal there. In the Fifties there were several developments: Dinner Key Marina was built, the Pan Am terminal became city hall, and a hangar was transformed into the Dinner Key Convention Hall, which in the Seventies evolved into the Coconut Grove Convention Center.

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