On the Block

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


In developing a blueprint for the future of Virginia Key and the Miami Marine Stadium, city planners wanted to make sure they didn't limit input, as they had for Dinner Key. So this past January, the city paid four experts from a nonprofit organization called the Counselors of Real Estate (CRE) to come to Miami. City staff noted the group featured some of the nation's most brilliant minds. CRE members helped redesign the New Orleans waterfront and counseled the city of Gdansk, Poland, on assembling a master development plan for an island.

The CRE experts included Maura Cochran, a redevelopment specialist from Hartford, Connecticut; Owen Beitsch, an Orlando authority on family entertainment facilities; Richard Perkins, an environmental consultant from Boston; and Marty McIntyre, the company's director of marketing and public relations.

A walk in Bicentennial Park inspired Greg Bush to fight for its preservation
A walk in Bicentennial Park inspired Greg Bush to fight for its preservation

To solicit ideas the four met with more than forty individuals, including three local developers, four hotel managers, three tourism officials, all the Miami commissioners, and the mayor. They spent a day touring the 37-year old marine stadium and the remainder of the 1000-acre island on foot and by boat. They sipped beers at the legendary meeting place, Jimbo's.

It wasn't the first time visionaries had tried to come up with a grand idea for the island. City planners have proposed everything from a golf course to a site for the World's Fair on the key. Since Hurricane Andrew smashed the stadium in 1992, the city has allowed the structure and surrounding land to languish. Commissioners issued an invitation to developers to submit ideas in 1995, but there were no takers.

On January 24, after spending $4500 of taxpayers' money on incidentals, the four consultants unveiled their plan. They crowded into a tiny conference room on the third floor of the Miami Riverside Center along with city administrators and representatives from the Sierra Club and the Urban League, who were eagerly anticipating the results. The lights were dimmed, and the proposal was beamed onto a white wall. It was, unsurprisingly, a city-built marina including hundreds of boat slips in the 168-acre basin. The experts suggested demolishing the stadium and replacing it with shops and apartments. There also was talk of creating a large pavilion, where musicians and other entertainers could perform. The consultants provided no estimate for rent the city could collect from boaters. "The marine stadium is a physical impediment to the development of the site," Cochran explained. "This is a unique environment that could be the last major use of waterfront in the city."

Three developers who met with the consultants expressed interest in the site. They included: 1) Jim Courbier of Equitrac Corporation and the Pier 5 Boatmen's Association. The Pier 5 group, which is composed of tour operators and charter fishing boats based at Bayside, sued the city in 1985, contending they had been treated unfairly. The case was settled when administrators agreed to build a $1.5 million pier at the city-owned Miamarina, which is surrounded by Bayside; 2) Adair Ratliff, of Marinas International, Inc., a subsidiary of Westrec, Inc., the world's largest marina operator. The company is a bidder in Miami-Dade County's effort to privatize its docks; and 3) Ron Krongold, the downtown developer who also inquired about Dinner Key. (Only Krongold confirms he held discussions with the group, but he has not decided whether he is interested. Courbier and Ratliff did not return two calls seeking comment.) Hotel chains Marriott and Sheraton also have contacted the city about building on the key. And lurking in the background is Wometco, owner of the Miami Seaquarium, which has eyed the marine stadium property for expansion since the late Eighties.

Commissioner Tomas Regalado, who heads a recently created economic-development committee, was uninspired by the planners' proposal. "I was very disappointed with it," says Regalado, who envisions a water park on the site. "I would not like to see a hotel or condos." More can be done after an old landfill on the key is cleaned up and the county's water treatment plant is removed. "The marine stadium needs to be developed," Regalado adds. "What? Are we going to leave it to the raccoons?"

But there may be a hitch to any redevelopment program. Back in 1963, when the county permitted the city to build the stadium, Dade County commissioners required preservation of the Virginia Key site as a park. "I don't have a problem with development. But [city commissioners] seem to focus on giving away public park land to developers," notes the Urban Environment League's Greg Bush. "There are many plots of land within the city that are not waterfront. Why not develop the inner city?" The answer again: money. Developers salivate over the bayside property because they can easily sell hundreds of condos and make millions of dollars by offering dramatic views of the bay.

In the inscrutable language of real estate experts, Donmez argues that the Virginia Key proposal will include parks. "You will have open space, but you also have complementary development," he explains. "That way the land is better utilized."

In the end there's likely to be debate, even among political leaders. In 1997 Mayor Joe Carollo dubbed the key a "crown jewel." Leasing it out would rescue Miami from its fiscal malaise. But Winton, the only commissioner with whom the mayor speaks regularly, favors building only on the stadium site. "I just flat don't see development on the rest of Virginia Key," he opines.

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