By Terrence McCoy
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The convention center was doomed to fail commercially almost from the day it opened. Although its location is picturesque, it is located about a half-mile from the Grove's business district, too far for many visitors to walk. As a result convention organizers and other commercial enterprises have rarely booked shows there. Recently the facility has hosted events like gun, car, and home shows, but has lost approximately $25,000 per year, according to city records. In 1998, responding to a demand by state overseers for more revenue, commissioners instructed the city manager to prepare a plan for redeveloping the sixteen-acre site.
After contracting consultants from the Northeast and holding several public hearings, Donmez and his staff last fall came up with a preliminary recommendation: The current center should be razed, according to the group's report. Four seven-story structures with an adjacent concrete garage should replace it. The buildings should include retail shops on the ground floor, offices on the second floor, and rental apartments or hotel rooms above.
But after the plans were apparently complete, dozens of people who live aboard boats at the 600-slip Dinner Key Marina claimed they had been kept in the dark. In December 1999 they complained to commissioners, who agreed to hold three more public hearings on the project. During spirited meetings the vessel owners questioned the need for more retail. After all, they reasoned, vacancy signs already adorned many Grove storefronts. And the mariners ridiculed the plans for office space, arguing that residents, not executives, deserve access to the waterfront.
In March City Manager Donald Warshaw directed Donmez to hire the nation's best-known marine business, California-based Westrec Marinas, to incorporate boat owners comments into the project. The marina management company has a somewhat dubious history in South Florida. In 1996 Westrec forfeited control of two Dania marinas, Thunderboat and Banyan Bay, rather than make loan payments on those properties. According to a trade journal, Marina Operator International, the company repeated the practice at three marinas in Europe that same year.
Donmez expects to present his final Dinner Key plan to the Miami City Commission before the summer. Commissioners will have to decide whether to solicit bids or order changes to the scheme. "We talked to residents, and they wanted the Grove's character and integrity maintained," Donmez says. "That excluded office towers and an urban entertainment center. They wanted a neighborhood ... [so] we will incorporate a dockmaster's office and parking for the marina."
Local developers, some of whom have garnered sweetheart deals for public land in the past, are already eyeing the site. Sergio Pino recently asked when the city plans to solicit offers. The former Latin Builder's Association leader, who regularly contributes to city candidates such as Commissioners Willy Gort and Tomas Regalado, teamed with a group of investors in 1996 to win a city contract to manage the Melreese Golf Course. The deal costs taxpayers about $25,000 per year, according to Miami Mayor Joe Carollo.
Commissioner Arthur Teele also notes that Manny Medina, who has built some of the Grove's high-end properties, including Terremark Center, has made inquiries. Like Pino, Medina is a regular contributor to city candidates, including Regalado. In 1986 Medina won a contract to pay Miami about one million dollars annually to lease the popular Monty's restaurant and park cars on adjacent city property for free, which activists like Weinreb contend was a bargain. In 1991 Medina sold the lease and restaurant to Steven Kneapler.
The property is drawing interest from more than just the usual suspects. South Beach redeveloper and Design District investor Craig Robins has contacted several lobbyists about bidding for the property, says a city hall source, who declined to be named. Ron Krongold, a local attorney and real estate investor who recently redeveloped a site on South Miami Avenue and SW Second Street, approached freshman Commissioner Johnny Winton in January about building on the key, Winton reports. And a representative from a company called ZOM, Inc., an Orlando-based developer with offices in Boca Raton, mingled among a crowd of boat owners at a January public meeting on the project. (Robins and Krongold confirm they are interested. The ZOM representative declined to comment on the company's intentions for the property.)
Erdal Donmez has only a rough sketch describing the city's vision for the site. He does not know how much money the redevelopment will bring to city coffers, nor does he have a current appraisal of the site, which he argues should be done after the city commission selects a preferred project. "We are appraising the actual project instead of the land," he says.
Weinreb fears the city will cut a deal that pays taxpayers far less than the appraisal for the convention center parcel. "These deals never give the city an honest return," Weinreb complains. "In the past [private developers] have developed city land and they don't have to pay taxes. Just look at Monty's [restaurant].... That's prime waterfront property."
Winton, who represents the district that includes all of the city's bayfront land, supports Dinner Key redevelopment. Unlike some of the other properties on the block, it is already paved over, he reasons. But Donmez's preliminary plan for tall buildings bothers him. "I hope that we end up with a New England fishing village," says the commissioner. "No halls. No big-box retail. No high-rises. I want the buildings back from the waterfront with a fair amount of green space. I see people walking their dog, Rollerblading, riding their bike. And that area needs to be linked by the waterfront to Peacock Park and Monty's."