Guess Who's Coming Back to Dinner Key?

Last week an old man in a golf cart handed out eviction notices at Dinner Key boat yard in Coconut Grove. The carpenters, mechanics, and sailmakers who received them will have to end their tenancy and move out by January 31, leaving the historic city-owned boat yard to the next chapter of its life.

The future of one of Miami's last, best, and most rundown pieces of public waterfront land was supposed to be settled today, January 16, with Miami commissioners awarding a 40-year land lease to one of two competing development groups. The first group, which includes movie star Sylvester Stallone, Grove condo magnate Manny Medina, and former city commissioner Rosario Kennedy, wants to turn the boat yard's rusting seaplane hangars into a six-million-dollar film and TV studio. Partners in the second group, among them State Rep. Carlos Lacasa, lobbyist Julio Rebull, Sr., and North Carolina sports team owner Felix Sabates, say they'll spend five million dollars constructing a large, modern marina. (The details of both proposals, and the controversy surrounding the contest, were chronicled in the New Times feature story "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Key?" last October.)

But the showdown vote was yanked from the agenda by Miami City Manager Ed Marquez a week ago Wednesday, ostensibly because Miami's elected officials are so busy solving the city's financial crisis that they haven't yet had time to consider the boat yard lease. The real reason: Hugh Westbrook, health-care tycoon and political heavy hitter, has decided he's interested in Dinner Key after all.

A powerful Democratic Party fundraiser and founder of Vitas Healthcare Corp., Westbrook dropped out of the bidding war two months ago without explanation, officially ending his quest to build a farmers' market on the bay reminiscent of Boston's Faneuil Hall or the French Market in New Orleans. Sources say that he was fed up with the city's selection process, believing it to be stacked in favor of the Stallone-Medina group, and that he was also distracted by unexpected delays in the sale of his multimillion-dollar home hospice company.

Westbrook's surprise return -- formally announced in a letter to the city last Friday -- is potentially very bad news for the other two bidders. Late last year an advisory panel ranked Westbrook's proposal well ahead of the Lacasa-Rebull marina plan, and just one point behind the Medina-Stallone movie studio scheme. Antagonists in the protracted boat yard fight, as well as observant bystanders, are now wondering why and how Westbrook came back.

"The surface explanation will be that he simply requested to re-enter the race," says a source within Westbrook's development group. "The true reason is that someone in the city administration picked up the phone and begged him to come back to the table. Whoever it was conveyed the sense that there was growing concern about the idea of a movie studio at Dinner Key. Maybe someone finally sat down and looked at the numbers and realized how little sense a studio makes on that site. So what happens when the studio doesn't work out? It's not difficult to figure that Manny Medina would very quickly offer up a plan to bulldoze the boat yard hangars and build a high-rise on the edge of the bay. Given the city's financial meltdown, it would be difficult to resist."

Medina calls this scenario absurd, and says he has no hidden agenda.
"I have no intention of using that property for anything other than a low-rise use, and I'll sign that in blood if you want me to," the developer declares. "First of all, even if we are successful, Manny Medina is not taking control of that property. I'm one component in a group. Second, you couldn't build a condo there because there are legal restrictions that prohibit it. Third, I'd be shooting myself in the foot -- a high-rise would block my view of the bay." (Medina owns Grove Hill, a 22-floor condominium directly across from the boat yard).

As for Westbrook's return, Medina says he's still absorbing the news: "I have no comment. I don't know why he's doing it. I don't know why he dropped out in the first place."

Carlos Lacasa, a principal in the other group fighting for control at Dinner Key, says he's neither shocked nor especially dismayed by Westbrook's reappearance. On November 13 he and his partners wrote to the city manager objecting to various glitches in the bidding process. Medina, the group complained, had failed to properly disclose financial information about himself and his partners as required by the city's May 31 request for proposals (RFP), and his group had misrepresented the nature of Miami-Dade Community College's participation in a proposed film institute. Privately the partners say they're also miffed that a movie studio was ever made an allowable element in the city's guidelines for proposals. The RFP originally identified a public market, a marina, and a working boat yard as some of the desired elements in any redevelopment plan. It was quietly amended in late June to specifically allow the movie studio idea after lobbyist Rosario Kennedy met with city officials.

"I suspect that Westbrook may have felt, as we have, that the Stallone-Medina bid was heavily favored and that there was no sense in going forward," Lacasa says. "My information is that the city manager took it upon himself or was told to initiate this."

Ed Marquez did not return several phone calls seeking comment for this story. While he acknowledged that he was indeed approached by the city, Westbrook wouldn't identify which official asked him to re-enter the fray. "We got nothing from the city beyond a reassurance that the process was going to be open, and that no decision has in fact yet been made on the boat yard," says Westbrook. "We think we'll get a fair hearing. Given that, we decided to come back in."

Westbrook's re-entry brought an abrupt halt to what had been moderate to furious lobbying and behind-the-scenes dealmaking by the two other bidders as the commission vote approached. Many observers believe the Medina-Stallone group had by last week secured the support of Mayor Joe Carollo and Commissioner Tomas Regalado, while the Lacasa-Rebull group had the tacit favor of Commissioners J.L. Plummer and Humberto Hernandez. The fifth member of the city commission, Willy Gort, remained inscrutable.

Meanwhile, two local citizens' groups -- the Cocoanut Grove Village Council and the Marine Council -- had decided against endorsing either boat yard plan, but they may now throw their support to Westbrook. "His proposal is the one that most accurately reflects the Coconut Grove waterfront charrette," says Village Council chairman Tucker Gibbs, referring to a series of city-sponsored brainstorming sessions begun in 1992 and intended to draw the public into a discourse about what the refangled boat yard should look like.

As late as last Thursday evening, Antonio Zamora, Jr., a representative of the Lacasa-Rebull partnership, met quietly with Medina in hopes of brokering an eleventh-hour deal that would serve the interests of both developers. The scheme: Medina would agree to back away from the boat yard, leaving the project to the Lacasa-Rebull group. In exchange, the Lacasa-Rebull partners would help persuade commissioners to give Medina control of the Coconut Grove Convention Center as an alternative (and larger) site for a movie studio.

"Everybody felt that with Medina's political connections and our political connections, we could make it happen," says a source within the Lacasa-Rebull group, who asked not to be named.

Those connections extend beyond the strictly local level. Felix Sabates, the group's principal cash source, is the brother of Manty Sabates Morse, a Dade County School Board member and president of the Dade Republican Party; her husband Luis Morse is head of Dade County's legislative delegation and speaker pro tempore of the state House of Representatives.

As a practical matter, the switcheroo, were it to come about, would be accomplished by getting politicians to grant Medina a management contract for the convention center rather than a lease, thereby avoiding the legal necessity of considering other bidders. Zamora and his partners call the plan the Melreese Solution, a reference to the way the city turned over control of its publicly owned Melreese golf course to a private business entity without considering bids from others.

In theory the brokered deal might succeed politically, because Miami is under tremendous pressure to increase revenues. The convention center lost $25,000 last year, while the boat yard is viewed as a chronic underproducer of revenue. On the other hand, handing Medina the convention center might enrage the public.

"There's a certain logic to this scheme, because there's more space at the convention center," says a source close to the boat yard bidding war who asked not to be named. "But I think the political mechanics are impossible. I just can't fathom that anyone thinks they could get away with this."

Lawrence "Monk" Terry, a Grove activist and former city marinas administrator, agrees. "On the basis of protocol, rationality, whatever, I would go completely bonkers," says Terry. "Because what it means is, Why bother to have an RFP process, why hire accountants, why form an advisory committee? This smacks of pure politics. It's not a win-win deal. It would simply be the city saying, 'Hey boys! We're still for sale!' I don't think that is very creative or particularly serves the interests of the community."

At this point the Melreese Solution may be wishful thinking on the part of the Rebull-Lacasa group; Hugh Westbrook's return to the bidding war is certain to make the deal more difficult to broker. And for the moment, Medina seems to be keeping his distance from it. "To be honest with you, I have not thought this through," says the developer. "My gut reaction is that it's not a bad idea, but I have to think it through from a theoretical to a practical level."

Meanwhile, evictions at the boat yard proceed, and the politicking surrounding the redevelopment deal has hit the street level. According to three witnesses, Renato Diaz, the city employee who posted the eviction notices, has also been handing out petitions militating against a movie studio at the old boat yard.

"This whole thing surpasses Kafka," snorts Jose Maria Cundin, an artist who's being ejected from Dinner Key. "Here I am trying to paint, and the next thing I know we're being not just evicted but kicked in the ass. What is going on around here?


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