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Development dreams and political schemes have a way of running aground on Watson Island. And they may be heading that way again soon. Since April of last year, Miami officials have been quietly working out a deal to bring a sprawling cruise-terminal operation to one of the city's most forsaken waterfront parks. Granted Watson Island today isn't much of a park. But in the Magic City, some public servants don't much serve the public, either.
By way of contrast, this year in Charleston, South Carolina, the mayor and city officials took a stand and blocked a state plan that would have brought towering gantry cranes, warehouses, and hundreds of trucks and cargo containers to a nearby island beloved by residents as a recreational destination. Miami's version of this “nearby island” has slowly decayed under long-term municipal neglect and a severely underfunded city parks department. But rather than try to transform Watson Island into an Intracoastal paradise, city officials instead are hoping to cash in on a county proposal to lease about ten acres of the island. The county-run Port of Miami wants to build two colossal ship terminals on Watson Island -- each four stories high, tall enough to blot out bay views -- to service the cruise industry's newest 1000-foot-long passenger vessels. Cruise ships currently moor across the Government Cut channel from Watson Island at the port's facilities on Dodge Island.
But this is not just a ten-acre land lease. Along with those 150-foot-tall diesel-belching leviathans would come all the accouterments: fleets of noisy provisioning trucks and passenger-packed buses, vans, and taxis, all trying to enter and leave the terminal area from the MacArthur Causeway. They would chug down new service roads and into a 700-car parking facility. The plan also would require channel dredging, which, along with the cruise industry's record of illegal toxic discharges, already makes Biscayne Bay's environmental watchdogs nervous.
The reason for two more terminals? Cash. “I have no compunction about being frank with you. I want the money,” Assistant City Manager Bob Nachlinger told New Times recently. “It's a good deal for the city.”
Nachlinger, who is in charge of negotiating the lease agreement with the county, has refused to discuss details of the bargaining, saying he doesn't want to negotiate in the press. But he revealed that he is close to sealing the deal and anticipates an agreement “sometime in the fourth quarter” of this year. The first of the two terminals would be built by 2004, the second by 2007. Under a phased-in lease, they would add about $2 million per year to Miami's revenue (the city's budget currently is $309 million) by 2008. City taxpayers would pay for the new parking facilities, expected to cost $8.4 million. The port, relying on state and county funds, would finance the 125,000-square-foot terminals, piers, and dredging -- projected to cost $82 million.
“It's a business opportunity,” explained Khalid Salahuddin, the deputy port director who is handling the negotiations for the county. Though he's lived in Miami for seventeen years, Salahuddin insisted he was unaware that Watson Island had ever been zoned as a park until New Times brought it to his attention.
But Erdal Donmez knew. As the director of Miami's Department of Real Estate and Economic Development, he was the city's point man on the deal until becoming an assistant city manager of Coral Springs this past July. “I don't think having a recreational park, a passive park, is the best use for Watson Island,” he maintained recently. “You need attractions there.” So operating like a real estate tycoon brokering the sale of a valuable chunk of private property, he kept details of the negotiations from city commissioners and citizens review boards. This past January, fully nine months after talks had begun, Commissioner Art Teele complained in the city commission chambers that the process had been “totally closed.”
And the process has remained closed. Nachlinger and Donmez's successor, Arlene Weintraub, are moving ahead to transform the island -- obstructing bays views, increasing traffic, and obliterating much of a city park in the process -- and they remain indifferent to outside opinion. “I'm only dealing with the economics of the situation,” Nachlinger insisted.
If and when an agreement is reached, city commissioners could approve the plan at any of their twice-monthly Thursday meetings, and with little public input. Then the city would rezone the proposed island terminal area by voting to grant a special-use permit. The county commission also would have to sign off on the deal, as would state officials.
You might think the Port of Miami, currently home to eighteen cruise ships, has enough of them. Next month two more are due to arrive. One, the 893-foot-long Victory, with a passenger capacity of 2758, belongs to Carnival Cruise Lines, the world's largest cruise operator. Royal Caribbean International, the second-largest, owns the other: the 1021-foot Explorer of the Seas, which carries 3114 passengers. Explorer is the same size as Voyager of the Seas, which Royal Caribbean debuted here last fall as the world's largest passenger ship, a fifteen-story floating resort.
The two Miami-based companies have 25 more maritime monsters on order or under construction, scheduled to enter service between 2001 and 2006 (fifteen are Carnival's and ten are RCI's). Norwegian Cruise Line, which home-ports four ships in Miami, is expecting another two. And Los Angeles-based Princess Cruises, whose Caribbean-bound liners embark from Port Everglades in Broward County and from Puerto Rico, has six new megaships ordered. How many would Charles Towsley, Miami-Dade's port director, like to see moored in Biscayne Bay? “All of 'em,” he replied.