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

To make matters worse, Carnival and RCI share prices have plunged some 60 percent this year. Securities analysts warned that the cruise-ship supply seemed to be ahead of demand. In response cruise companies cut fares to keep their ships full. However, Assistant City Manager Bob Nachlinger is not concerned about the sector's prospects. “I'm structuring a lease arrangement where we have a certain rental,” he said, “and I get the same rental whether there is one cruise ship there a year or one every day. The people paying that land lease are the ones who have to worry about the future of the industry. I'm only leasing land.”

Work crews created Watson Island with muck and sand they dredged while deepening Government Cut for ships in the early Twenties. By 1925 Miami planning director John B. Orr had proposed putting three slips for large ships on the south side of the 87-acre spoil island after the construction of the MacArthur Causeway, which bisects the island along a northwestern-to-southeastern axis. Chalk's International Airlines, a seaplane service, also arrived in the Twenties. Two decades later the Miami Outboard Club and the Miami Yacht Club built clubhouses on the eastern side, north of the causeway. Beginning in the Forties, Goodyear blimp pilots sometimes moored at a nearby hangar.

Scene from Maritime Park @ Watson Island: Looking toward downtown
dan cowan - port of miami
Scene from Maritime Park @ Watson Island: Looking toward downtown
Scene from Maritime Park @ Watson Island: spacious and uncrowded terminal interior
Scene from Maritime Park @ Watson Island: spacious and uncrowded terminal interior

The state turned the island over to the city in 1949, with the proviso that its land “shall be used solely for public purpose.'' The boat clubs acquired a neighbor in 1961, when Japanese industrialist Kiyoshi Ichimura donated the Miami-Japan Garden. But the garden fell into ruin after years of city neglect until, by the late Seventies, it attracted no one but the homeless. Dade Helicopter began using the barren land mass as a base in 1976. Goodyear left in 1979 but the choppers and Chalk's remain.

During the Eighties the island became a tabula rasa for several money-making fantasies. Mayor Maurice Ferré pushed for a theme park on Watson Island but couldn't win backing from state planners, who were skeptical of the public financial benefits and concerned about its environmental impact. In 1986 Mayor Xavier Suarez supported a proposal by John Meyer, a private developer with ties to Miami's renowned Arquitectonica architectural firm, for construction of a massive marina, hotel, and boating exhibition center on the island. Among potential investors were former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and Jorge Mas Canosa, the late president of the Cuban American National Foundation. Then-city Commissioner Joe Carollo scuttled the deal by presenting evidence that another investor, English catering company executive Albert Abela, had contracts with the national airlines of several communist countries. (At one point Mas Canosa challenged Carollo to a duel. Carollo suggested they use water pistols, and the dispute evaporated. But the megamarina project tanked.)

As mayor, Carollo has promoted more development projects for the island than he can hit with a Super Soaker. In 1995 voters narrowly accepted a bid by privately run Parrot Jungle to relocate to a twelve-acre spread north of the causeway and west of the boat clubs. The following year Carollo backed a 60-year lease for the Pinecrest-based tourist attraction that would bring the city $200,000 per year. With the mayor's prodding, the city's real estate department is marketing about 23 more acres -- south and across the roadway -- as a “prime site” for a 300-room resort hotel, a yacht marina, a convention center, shops, and an “entertainment destination.” In addition the city commission recently gave the Miami Children's Museum permission to explore a piece of that parcel as a possible new home. And on another five acres the city has plans to build an unusual five-million-dollar complex that Carollo and the commission approved in 1997. Financed in part with state transportation money, the complex would feature a three-story office building for the Greater Miami Visitors and Convention Bureau and an aviation facility for Dade Helicopters and Chalk's. Next door would be the cruise terminals and ships.

Does this sound like a formula for unexpected turbulence? The Federal Aviation Administration thinks so. FAA guidelines for aquatic landings call for avoiding locations “where large swells occur or are frequently created by deep-draft vessels or tugboats.” Pete Ricondo, a Miami-based aviation consultant, relayed that information in a letter to the city's Erdal Donmez this past April. He also expressed concern that cruise ships could block flight paths of the helicopters. But Ricondo also conceded that the FAA sometimes issues waivers for “deviations” between an airport's operating environment and the agency's guidelines. The city is revising its aviation center plans to give the aircraft more leeway.

More leeway is what Miami-Dade port director Charles Towsley is after, leeway to dock huge cruise vessels on public land. He's counting on public credulity, hoping that Miamians will swallow the argument that the port could easily become an industry loser -- despite the fact that it serves 1.2 million passengers per year more than its nearest competitor.

Cruise lines pumped about $25 million into the port last year, roughly half its income. But apparently that's not enough, and Watson Island is the key to increasing the figure. “We said, “There's an opportunity here,'” Towsley explained, “and that's when we started down the road to talk to the city [and said], “We're not looking to take your prime development opportunity. We're looking at about a three-and-a-half-acre footprint here.'” But a site plan on file at the port and city indicates that the cruise terminal project actually would cover three times as much land: 4.6 acres for one terminal, 3.2 acres for the second, and 3.1 acres for the parking area. Another drawing indicates “seaport uses” would encompass 14.7 acres.

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