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

It was Towsley's predecessor, Carmen Lunetta, who first pushed for decimating a public park with cruise operations. In the mid-Nineties, near the end of Lunetta's seventeen-year reign, county-paid consultants designed Maritime Park: two or more megaterminals at downtown's Bicentennial Park, or what was left of it. The new “park” would have required the excavation of roughly the middle third of the old park in order to form a huge finger pier and a rectangular slip extending from the shoulder of Biscayne Boulevard to the water's edge. One cruise ship would dock there alongside an enormous terminal constructed on the pier in an already existing inlet (known as the FEC slip, which Carollo is now considering filling in). Another terminal would go on a city-owned bayfront parcel just east of a new basketball arena, where Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and Miami Heat executives, in their efforts to drum up public support for the arena before a fall 1996 referendum, promised a park with athletic fields.

The Maritime Park plan never materialized. Voters backed the arena, Lunetta resigned in July 1997 amid a federal corruption investigation, and Towsley left the number-two slot at the Port of Tampa and took control of Dodge Island in January 1998. The Port of Miami's master plan still names Bicentennial Park as a potential expansion site. “Carmen had always said that it takes three or four berths to make [Maritime Park] work financially,” Towsley noted. The port director now prefers the smaller, two-berth Watson Island site, because construction would be cheaper and quicker. It also would prevent a worsening of traffic problems on Biscayne Boulevard, now that the American Airlines Arena has been built.

Deputy port director Khalid Salahuddin concurs. “In that area it would have been too much,” he said of the Bicentennial plan. “It would have been just too crowded. That's 9000 on and 9000 off [figuring 3000 passengers per ship]. That's 18,000 people. And with all the cabs and the buses and the trucks coming in to supply [the vessels], it just would have been a nightmare.”

Scene from Maritime Park @ Watson Island: spacious and uncrowded terminal interior
Scene from Maritime Park @ Watson Island: spacious and uncrowded terminal interior
Scene from Maritime Park @ Watson Island: aerial view
Scene from Maritime Park @ Watson Island: aerial view

Instead the nightmare may move to Watson Island.

To sell the Watson Island proposal to city officials, Towsley and his staff gave a presentation early last year that included a five-minute video, Maritime Park @ Watson Island, prepared by Fredric R. Harris, the same engineering firm that was commissioned to study how efficiently Dodge Island is being put to use. Via computer simulation, viewers move through a terminal similar to the new RCI terminal on Dodge Island. It resembles a cavernous four-story airport terminal, complete with baggage-claim areas, ticket counters, and escalators. The bird's-eye tour then proceeds over the southwestern quadrant of the island, past a variety of buildings, including one that resembles a high-rise hotel. The presentation was a success, and by April 1999, then-real estate director Erdal Donmez opened negotiations with the county.

Expanding on the Maritime Park motif, Towsley insisted that the two megaterminals and a parking garage would improve the island site, which is now a tree-lined, litter-strewn lovers' lane with a wide-open view of Government Cut. “We would design a facility that would continue, and actually enhance, the use of the area as open space for the public,” he said. The pier, of course, would be off-limits when a cruise ship is docked, which would be much of the day during weekends. “When the ship is in port,” he explained, “the wharf needs to be sterilized; it needs to be shut off with ... control points for customs purposes. But when the ship isn't there, which is most of the time, the wharf is open to the public.”

But not the terminals. “Well, you know, not unless you have an event,” Towsley muttered. “We had talked with the convention bureau about the possibility of doing some joint marketing for certain kinds of events during the off-time, when the terminals aren't being used.” Which is most of the time.

If Donmez had had his way, the deal would have been signed, sealed, and approved by the Miami City Commission this past April. The commission, however, passed a resolution instructing Commissioner Tomas Regalado and the city's financial advisor to participate in talks that previously had excluded commission members. (Regalado did not return a call seeking comment.) Commissioner Joe Sanchez still feels ignored. “I believe the commission has been left out of that process,” he declared two weeks ago.

Whether the deal is a good one for the city is not clear. Initially Donmez insisted that the county pay $65 per square foot but eventually acceded to leasing part of the property for $50 per square foot. According to city records, the port has agreed to pay the city $100,000 per year during construction of the first terminal and a minimum rent of $788,336 per year for the land once it is built. The port would pay the city an additional $75,000 per year to retain rights to proceed with the second terminal. The city would receive $753,386 per year in rent for that parcel. The city also would share a percentage of dockage fees, which could bring Miami's total from the terminal project to about two million dollars per year. Towsley said that once he has a deal, he will begin to market the facilities to interested cruise companies. In 1998 Carnival and RCI signed fifteen-year leases worth $183 million and $160 million, respectively, for use of their Dodge Island terminals.

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