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

Commissioner Sanchez is quick to point out that he's not opposed to the terminals. He just wants to make sure the deal puts as much money into city coffers as possible. “The city needs recurring revenue so that one can continue to lower taxes and continue to provide good service and basically put more money where we should put more money, [like] into parks,” he explained.

Such illogic rattles John Brennan, chairman of the Waterfront Advisory Board, which reviews projects and makes recommendations to the city commission. He has not yet seen the video or any details of the Watson Island proposal. “You're going to take the park away so you can get recurring revenue for parks?” he asked. “Give me a break. Am I a bumbling idiot?” A majority of the ten-member waterfront advisory panel is opposed to the plan, he added. “In the first place, you start out with a wall that's about four stories high,” he noted, referring to the terminals. “The ships are at least twice as high. Well, that doesn't exactly improve your view of the water from anywhere along there.” But he doubts commissioners will heed his board's recommendation: “They thumb their noses at us all the time.”

The city's Parks Advisory Board also has been left out of the loop. “What kind of a public process has this been?” wondered Greg Bush, a University of Miami history professor who chairs the panel. “There's going to be a deal sprung. That isn't any way to do business in terms of long-term planning for the city.” Bush, who also is president of the nonprofit Urban Environment League, thinks the real estate department should foster a “creative and open” dialogue on all proposals for Watson Island. “I think any kind of a decision like this should come before the parks advisory board very early on,” he said, “and we should ask some very fundamental questions. Do we have enough park space as to the city's master plan? Is the park space that we have adequately maintained? Has this land been properly kept up?”

Scene from Maritime Park @ Watson Island: aviation component for Chalk's airline
Scene from Maritime Park @ Watson Island: aviation component for Chalk's airline
Waterfront Advisory Board chairman John Brennan hopes Towsley's ship doesn't come in with this project
Steve Satterwhite
Waterfront Advisory Board chairman John Brennan hopes Towsley's ship doesn't come in with this project
Waterfront Advisory Board chairman John Brennan hopes Towsley's ship doesn't come in with this project
Steve Satterwhite
Waterfront Advisory Board chairman John Brennan hopes Towsley's ship doesn't come in with this project
Waterfront Advisory Board chairman John Brennan hopes Towsley's ship doesn't come in with this project
Steve Satterwhite
Waterfront Advisory Board chairman John Brennan hopes Towsley's ship doesn't come in with this project
Waterfront Advisory Board chairman John Brennan hopes Towsley's ship doesn't come in with this project
Steve Satterwhite
Waterfront Advisory Board chairman John Brennan hopes Towsley's ship doesn't come in with this project
Two shipping firms and a terminal-operating company control most of Dodge Island
dan cowan - port of miami
Two shipping firms and a terminal-operating company control most of Dodge Island
Commissioner Johnny Winton thinks terminals and cruise ships on Watson Island would be "cool"
Steve Satterwhite
Commissioner Johnny Winton thinks terminals and cruise ships on Watson Island would be "cool"

Commissioner Sanchez does concede that the terminals would pose some drawbacks. “The one thing I do hate,” he allowed, “is for the Miami skyline to be taken away from people coming back from Miami Beach to Miami.” As for increased traffic flows: “That's the price you pay for development.”

Commissioner Johnny Winton told New Times he has not analyzed the port's rationale for expanding cruise operations to Watson Island. “I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “I've met a lot of the people over the years who do business with the cruise ships. There are some big companies in this town that do business with cruise ships, and they make a lot of money and employ a lot of people.”

While willing to cede public parkland to Towsley and the cruise industry, Winton is considering taking away a cargo storage area the port leases from the city on the mainland. Seaboard Marine, one of two shipping companies with contracts allowing them to control much of Dodge Island, uses the seven-block site, known as the Florida East Coast Railroad yards, located a block west of Biscayne Boulevard between NE 29th and 36th streets, to store empty containers. The commissioner is not convinced the port really needs the FEC yards over the long term. The reason? He thinks the port could make far better use of Dodge Island, an assertion the Harris study may confirm. “Frankly neither you nor I have seen a lot of creativity coming out of the port leadership of late or of old,” the commissioner acknowledged. “But that's part of their challenge, and hopefully, from a community standpoint, more and more pressure will be put on the leadership of the port to get after the creativeness.”

But Mayor Carollo and Arlene Weintraub, acting director of the real estate department, won't be pushing for such creativity, even if it might mean more parkland for the public. Though Carollo didn't respond to an interview request for this article, Weintraub spoke bluntly: “I grew up in Miami, and nobody ever goes over there,” she said, referring to the Government Cut side of Watson Island that could soon turn into cruise-terminal mayhem. Don Chinquina of Tropical Audubon laughed at her claim. “Of course people would use it if they did something to make it a real park,” he said. “What a wonderful place to take your kids. It would be a great place to sit and have a picnic lunch. Right now it's a big overgrown field that some helicopters land on.”

Johnny Winton, who anticipates the plan will win approval, believes the only public forum will take place at city hall the day of the vote. “My guess is that it's going to be announced ahead of time, before the city commission and the public will have an opportunity to speak pro or con at the commission meeting,” he predicted. “And then we will vote. Then it's either a done or an undone deal.”

The fishmongers and boaters who use Watson Island are wary, but don't appear to be organizing any anti-terminal armadas. “If you are a sardine and you're surrounded by big sharks, I don't think that's very good,” concluded Gonzalo Planas, chairman of the Miami Outboard Club. “I hope they leave at least a little park if someone wanted to have a picnic, for people who don't have money for a boat.”

Towsley is prepared for any maelstrom. If the proposal runs aground, he would consider taking his expansion dreams elsewhere. “I guess we could revisit Bicentennial Park,” he speculated. “But that's probably harder than Watson Island.”

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