Spoiled Island

With no public input whatsoever, Miami officials have put together a deal to trade waterfront park land for massive cruise ship terminals and a lovely parking garage

Towsley and his deputy director are driven by a unique paranoia. “Miami is still the choice port [for cruise companies], no question about that, but it could become an also-ran easily,” Salahuddin warned. “The cruise companies could go to Port Everglades. They could go to Port Canaveral, which is growing.”

The Port of Miami, however, can't possibly fit all the new ships on Dodge Island -- not unless cruise companies stop building such huge vessels or company executives come up with more rational cruise schedules so the piers don't sit idle much of the week (most arrivals and departures take place on Saturdays and Sundays, when mooring space is extremely limited). “I was in Long Beach, the second-largest port in the country, and they measure their space in miles,” Salahuddin recalled. “They have miles. This port isn't even a thousand acres.”

But the two administrators aren't about to let physical limitations stop them. If Miami is to remain “the cruise capital of the world,” they contend, the port has no choice but to expand beyond Dodge Island. Towsley also acknowledged that cargo operations play a large role in the Watson Island proposal. If some cruise operations move across Government Cut, then Dodge Island will be able to expand its cargo business. The port is seeking “a paradigm shift,” Towsley explained, that will result in more land on the cargo side and “tighten up our land on the cruise side.” To that end the port recently commissioned a local engineering firm, Fredric R. Harris -- which also drafted Watson Island site plans -- to examine how Dodge Island could be used more efficiently. That analysis won't be complete for several months, but Towsley's appetite for expansion remains undeterred.

Assistant City Manager Bob Nachlinger wants to trade parkland for cruise-ship parking
Steve Satterwhite
Assistant City Manager Bob Nachlinger wants to trade parkland for cruise-ship parking
Port director Charles Towsley is ready to pack in as many cruise ships and cargo vessels as people can stand
courtesy port of miami
Port director Charles Towsley is ready to pack in as many cruise ships and cargo vessels as people can stand

To sell the terminal project, port officials and their consultants have come up with a stratagem they call Maritime Park at Watson Island. “It could be a real nice landmark for the city,” Salahuddin remarked recently while gazing from the window of a new terminal on Dodge Island across Government Cut at the proposed site. “Right now [Watson Island] is nothing. No one goes there. What else are you going to build there? Nothing.”

Some residents think the city could build a well-maintained park. John Brennan, chairman of the City of Miami's Waterfront Advisory Board, a citizens review panel, was appalled when he learned of the plan. “It's absolutely outrageous,” he groaned. “Watson Island is a park. We've already got so damn few parks in this city.” Indeed a recent study of park space in major U.S. cities by the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit conservation group based in San Francisco, found Miami at the bottom of the heap -- below Cleveland, Chicago, and Detroit. (Miami has 3.6 acres of park space per 1000 residents; New York City, by comparison, has 7.2 acres.)

“The City of Miami has been a notoriously irresponsible steward of its public lands,” repeated Don Chinquina, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society. “This sounds to me like more of the same.”

Unfortunately for lovers of bayfront parks and pristine waters, there isn't a port from Miami to Charleston whose administrators aren't trying to attract as much cargo and passenger traffic as possible. International shipping companies can just as easily decide to unload their cargo containers in Fort Lauderdale as on Dodge Island. And the competition for cruise ships is even more fierce among Florida's Atlantic ports. In this game the port director with the most efficient facilities, which usually means the most spacious ones, comes out the winner.

Nor is there a port about to try turning back the waves of Americans taking cruise vacations to the Caribbean. Last year 3,037,606 people boarded ocean liners at the Port of Miami. Port Canaveral, the next-closest Caribbean-oriented contender, trailed far behind with 1,860,224 passengers, followed by San Juan, Puerto Rico, with 1,813,728 and Port Everglades with 1,759,996.

Most industry analysts think demand will increase significantly over the long haul. Their reasoning: As baby boomers age, they will want to take more cruises. Assia Georgieva, an equity analyst at Southeast Research Partners in Boca Raton, summed up the bullish mainstream view: “Every five years or so we see a blip where, for a year or so, [cruise] pricing is soft. It's still difficult to determine what causes that. But the main reason is there are more new ships coming into service, especially in the Caribbean, so people can choose among more ships.

“It's more difficult to fill them,” she explained. “Supply outstrips demand. The bottom line is, cruise-ship companies reduce pricing. But that also helps more people get to know what the cruise industry is all about and actually [afford] to cruise. So I think with time you'll continue to see expansion of the industry, especially in North America, which is a stable market.”

But analysts have been wrong about Miami before. Throughout the Nineties they predicted more passengers would show up than actually did. The Port of Miami's cruise-passenger volume dropped seven percent, from about 3.2 million in 1997 to 2.9 million in 1998. The figure rose last year to 3.1 million, the same number of passengers who boarded cruise ships here in 1989, a full decade ago.

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