Squeeze Play

When an influential developer wants to cram a size-10 project on a size-4 parcel of waterfront land, who can he turn to for help? The ever-accommodating Miami City Commission, of course.

Despite the importance of the development, commissioners didn't get to the matter until shortly after 8:00 p.m. But after six hours watching the commission vote on other matters, nearly all those who came to speak in opposition to the project already had departed.

Among them was Dan Paul, who views the site as critical to the waterfront promenade he has envisioned for more than twenty years. Paul, however, didn't have much hope he could persuade commissioners to reject the waiver; they are, he believes, too hungry for the tax revenue such big building projects can generate. "The public's right to enjoy the waterfront is furthest from [commissioners'] minds," he says.

Fran Bohnsack, executive director of the Miami River Marine Group, a trade organization for companies that operate on the river, also left after several hours of waiting. Bohnsack fears that approval of the project will make it easier for other developments to receive waivers to the setback, and so she attended the meeting to defend public access to the waterfront. People should have a chance to see a working river in action, she argues. Bohnsack also wanted to urge commissioners to think about the traffic chaos they would unleash by approving the project. Huge delays associated with the Brickell Avenue drawbridge already exist, she notes. Thousands more cars in the area will only add to motorists' current frustrations. "You aren't going to blame One Miami," Bohnsack complains. "You are going to point the finger at the big ship going through the drawbridge."

The One Miami site: Where once there would be a gracious promenade, there will now be a narrow foot path
Steve Satterwhite
The One Miami site: Where once there would be a gracious promenade, there will now be a narrow foot path

Nancy Lee, a Sierra Club Miami chapter board member, left at about 7:30 p.m. She had wanted to ask commissioners several questions, including this: "Why do we bother to have rules if every time we are just going to circumvent them?"

Miami River Commission Managing Director David Miller lasted until shortly before 8:00 p.m. The River Commission is an advisory board whose job is to review proposed projects that affect the river -- before they reach the city commission. After studying successful waterway paths in cities like Fort Lauderdale, Chattanooga, and Pittsburgh, the River Commission endorsed an ideal width of 22 feet for the proposed greenway. "It's not just a bunch of benches in front of a private building," says commission member Ernest Martin. "We want it to be more like Lincoln Road along the river."

Understanding that this width will not always be possible to achieve along the congested river, the commission set sixteen feet as the minimum width for a functional greenway. "So [walkers, joggers, and Rollerbladers] can pass without knocking each other into the bay," jokes Miller.

A week before the city commission was to review One Miami, representatives of the developer placed it before the River Commission for consideration as a last-minute agenda addition. Though rushed, the commission gave its conditional approval to the project. At the December 14 Miami City Commission meeting Miller had hoped publicly to present a letter to commissioners that concluded, "The Miami River Commission respectfully recommends the proposed riverwalk be widened to provide at least sixteen feet of clear, unobstructed walkway." Instead he gave his message to the city clerk before leaving.

Most of the discussion about One Miami before the commission involved protests by the site's neighbors, the Hotel Inter-Continental, the Miami Center office building, and the First Union Bank tower. They were concerned that the skyscrapers and parking garage would plunge their offices and pool deck into shade.

Only a few people were left to argue for the public. They included historian Paul George, hired by Miami One's powerful neighbors, and civic activist Blanca Mesa. George detailed the historical and archeological importance of the area around the site and bemoaned that this history is not valued. At 9:38 p.m. Mesa strode to the podium with the unenviable task of presenting the views of all the citizens who had left the chambers and the groups they represented. Chairman Willy Gort, though, refused to let her exceed her five-minute speaking allotment. "I've been waiting for five hours," Mesa pleaded. "Please let me finish my sentence."

Only after Commissioner Arthur Teele intervened was Mesa allowed to return to the podium. In response Gort stood up and walked from the dais. "We have lost so much of what is special," Mesa implored. "This waterfront belongs to all two million people in Miami-Dade County."

After further discussion, at a little after 10:30 p.m., Commissioners Johnny Winton, Arthur Teele, Joe Sanchez, and Willy Gort voted to approve the waiver with two conditions: The Related Group had to meet with the neighbors to try and rectify their concerns; additionally Winton insisted the developer work with city staff to make the project more "pedestrian friendly" before One Miami received its building permits. Results of the discussions with neighbors would be presented to the commission at the next meeting, on Thursday, January 11. (Tomas Regalado was the only commissioner to vote against the measure.)

Meanwhile civic activists like Dan Paul are in the familiar position of watching as their dreams are trampled upon once again. "It is," he says with disgust, "a blatant disregard for the popular will."

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