On the Block

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

So far the most credible response has come from an unexpected corner, the public sector. For at least a decade, Port of Miami officials, who run the largest cruise ship terminal in the United States, have searched for a place to expand from their Dodge Island base. The number of cruises leaving the port and the size of the ships has exploded in recent years.

Erdal Donmez and the port have been negotiating for about one year, and are presently hammering out the final details of an agreement. The plan includes two cruise ship terminals covering most of the island's southern half. If it is approved by Miami and Miami-Dade commissioners and the respective mayors, each building will be four stories tall and connected to a 700-car garage. In return for use of the ten acres, the port will pay the city about one million dollars per year in rent. In addition the city will collect garage parking fees. Groundbreaking is tentatively set for 2001, with the first terminal opening sometime in 2004.

Cruise ship terminals and Parrot Jungle aren't all that is in store for this island paradise. Donmez also hopes to attract public funds to build a new three-story building that would include a heliport, a terminal for Chalk's Ocean Airways, and offices for the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. A plan for a megayacht/hotel development on the island, which received no response in 1995, remains part of the city's blueprint, though there is no developer in sight.

"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

One of Donmez's central reasons for proposing to lease out the Watson Island space: "At this location you are already seeing cruise ships, so more cruise ships would be okay." That rationale doesn't fly with Commissioners Regalado and Teele. "Building cruise terminals is the easy way out," notes Regalado, a sworn political enemy of Mayor Joe Carollo. "I don't want another county land grab like the American Airlines Arena. I am opposed to doing it that way. We need to develop a vision for Watson Island."

Teele says the gambling cruise ship Casino Princesa pays the Bayfront Park Trust $800,000 per year for the privilege of docking at its sea wall. If one ship can generate that much money, the port should pay much more, he reasons. "No private investor in America would go into a deal if it's not profitable," notes Teele. "I think the city needs to proceed with caution. The city has a very mangled history of waterfront deals."

Winton, on the other hand, supports the port expansion. "Watson Island will never be a pedestrian area. You have to drive there. So I am open to what we need to do to attract business to the island," says Winton. "I am convinced the port is right."

The cruise-ship terminals and other developments are just the latest proposal for Watson Island. Other big ideas, from a Disneyesque theme park to a Statue of Liberty-size monument, to a boat-exposition center with a 300-room hotel have been suggested in the past. This time, though, plans seem more likely to bear fruit. The city recently installed four million dollars' worth of new water and sewer lines, roads, and ramps on and off I-395.

Some describe it as a green oasis surrounded by a desert of concrete and asphalt. Others see it as another prime parcel for development. But Brickell Park, two and a half acres of undeveloped bayfront land that the city commission put up for sale this past November, may be the next giveaway in Miami's grand land fire sale. The vote was 4-1, with Winton casting the lone dissenting vote.

Commissioners believed they were performing a good deed. They were disposing of a property that has been the focus of litigation for the past two decades, and they were donating two million dollars of the sale proceeds to the popular effort to save the Miami Circle, located just to the north of the park. The Brickell Area Association, which opposes the sale, is considering taking legal action against the city, but so far has done nothing.

The Brickell family, one of the area's pioneering clans, deeded the property to the city to be used as a park in 1923. During the Eighties the city tried to sell the land, which led to a lawsuit by the Brickell heirs. Under terms of a 1988 settlement agreement, the Brickell family was to give the city a parcel of land as compensation, then take possession of the property. But the family never met its end of the bargain, so in 1999 the two sides landed back in court. Sale of the land and division of the profits are part of the settlement.

Erdal Donmez, like city commissioners, supports disposing of the park and replacing it with a mixed retail and housing development. It's all part of his philosophy, he explains. "[The city] is not here to make the maximum financial use for the property, just to increase the tax base and revenue," he states. "That's where the challenge is. How much do you leave open? How much do you develop? You will have open space, but you also have complementary development. That way the land is better utilized."

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