If You Sink It, They Will Come

Tuesday, April 25, 1995, was a good day for long-boarders and a bad one for Portuguese man-o'-war. Throughout the morning the surf near the Government Cut jetty came thundering in from the east, mean and green. Surfers in wet suits showed up on Miami Beach at sunrise to pick their way barefoot through the stinging sea creatures washed up by the gusting winds.

Up the beach at 44th Street, behind the Fontainebleau Hilton, a small crowd gathered on the sand to watch the sinking of the Tortuga, a 185-foot freighter destined to be the newest addition to Dade County's extensive artificial reef network. The sinking itself -- to be effected with fifteen pounds of dynamite -- figured in the filming of the Cindy Crawford/Billy Baldwin action vehicle Fair Game, a Warner Bros. movie due to be released that summer.

Miami Beach city commissioners had voted in November to spend $5000 in public money on the ship sinking. Two weeks before the event, however, they had upped the ante to $10,000 after discovering that Warner Bros. was considering moving the shoot to Broward County. The rationale for spending the money was the reasonable assumption that the scuttling, and the eventual movie, would generate direct and indirect publicity for Miami Beach, and demonstrate the city's friendliness toward the film industry.

The sinking was delayed more than two hours because of rough seas. Then, with the Tortuga riding at anchor two miles offshore, the director gave a signal and the cameras rolled. A film crew pyrotechnician flicked a toggle switch.

"I actually expected to see something much more spectacular," says Henri Spiegel, an entertainment lawyer who watched the explosion from a suite atop the Fontainebleau. "I thought there would be billowing smoke and fire. You heard the detonation, there was a flash, and the ship immediately started to list. Then it went down very slowly and smoothly, and that's what the filmmakers wanted. They used the right explosives and did it in just the right manner so that it would be protective of the environment."

Within minutes the freighter's pilothouse vanished beneath the waves and the Tortuga settled on the sandy bottom 110 feet down. Since then hundreds of scuba divers have explored the ship, and it has been used as a fishing destination by numerous local anglers. As expected, the sinking of the Tortuga receded favorably into the collective unconscious of assistant producers, location scouts, and professional cinematographers. But in the broader scheme of things, the worn-out vessel became merely one more chip in the odd mosaic of culture and history surrounding artificial reef creation.

From Pensacola to Key West to Jacksonville, Mother Ocean has swallowed an astonishing assortment of junk since 1918, the year Florida built its first official manmade reef. The underwater stockpile includes a small mountain of toilet bowls, truck tires, and shopping carts, as well as road-building rubble and concrete bike racks.

Two miles off Miami Beach's condo-dappled coast lies the Pflueger Reef, one of Dade County's ten offshore artificial reef sites. (There are seven inshore sites that hug the edge of Biscayne Bay, from Sunny Isles to Coconut Grove.) At Pflueger, in 110 to 330 feet of water, not one but thirteen ships are sleeping, the largest being the 210-foot-long Deep Freeze, a steel freighter. There's also a scattering of metal dredge pipes. Elsewhere beneath the waves off Greater Miami, a diver can explore mammoth Tenneco oil rigs, discarded FPL smokestacks, a collection of steel antenna towers, two M-60 army tanks, 500 tons of highway bridge, and a Boeing 727 jet. This past October county planners began seeking state funding to sink a new batch of material on the Pflueger Reef: a collection of radar towers left over from the Cold War, and the pastel pink municipal water tower that stands on the tip of southern Miami Beach.

Farther north or south along the Rolex Coast, even odder examples of reef creation pop up, ranging from the grotesque to the sublime. In the waters off Palm Beach in 1985, a publicity hog wearing a tuxedo dumped his Rolls-Royce off a barge in satirical response to Broward County's deployment of the Mercedes, a 197-foot German freighter, as an artificial reef. And off Key West, environmental artist Ann Labriola sank a 200-foot-long sculpture made of steel tables punctured with constellation designs. Named "Stargazer," the art reef immediately attracted divers as well as schools of bait fish such as blue runner, ballyhoo, and thread herring. Pilots say the sight of phosphorescent sea creatures glowing inside the reef at night is a stunner.

Artificial reefs try to be all things to all people. Officially, Dade County builds so many of them because it wants to replace a natural habitat all but destroyed by pollution, human population growth, and overfishing. "The Dade County Artificial Reef Program was established in 1981 with the primary goal of increasing the habitat available to marine organisms for the enhancement of Dade County's fisheries resources," a pamphlet published by the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) explains. At the same time, though, local government loves manmade reefs because they're instant moneymakers. In 1988 Walter Milon, a marine economist at the University of Florida, estimated that Dade's existing artificial reef system was worth roughly $17.5 million, with each reef generating an average of $122,000 annually in revenues from meals, hotel rooms, boat charters, and other expenditures brought in by reef visitors. Milon's study, based partly on surveys of what nearly 1200 sportsmen said they would hypothetically be willing to pay for new reefs, found that 28 percent of fishermen and 13.5 percent of divers had visited an artificial reef during the previous six months.

Fishing-boat operators and fishing clubs love artificial reefs because they attract bait fish and larger food fish such as grouper and snapper, as well as sport species like sailfish. Anyone with a hundred-dollar sonar or the proper latitude and longitude coordinates gains instant access to a pelagic Publix, if not a guaranteed platter of dauphin a la meuniäre.

Divers love manmade reefs for the sea life they attract, but also for their inherent drama. Like the promoters who bought and reconstructed London Bridge in the Arizona desert, reef builders know the visceral fascination attendant on large terrestrial objects that appear where they aren't supposed to be.

Moneyed America, from big corporations to private philanthropists, loves artificial reefs because they represent a politically correct project with zero apparent downside and oodles of good publicity. Besides affording an alternative disposal method for bulky industrial artifacts, there's usually an accompanying tax write-off.

Even the Pentagon loves artificial reefs. In 1993 a low-ranking army reservist solved the problem of what to do with 5000 obsolete tanks. Instead of expensively reducing them to scrap, the military, as per the reservist's scheme, began selling them to coastal states. The sale continues, and Dade County plans to add eight more of the 45-ton war machines to the two already resting off 40th Street on Miami Beach.

The growth of artificial reefs has been phenomenal. In 1960 there were only four sanctioned artificial reef sites in the Sunshine State. By 1991 there were 329. Don Pybas, a University of Florida marine extension agent who has catalogued artificial reefs for eighteen years, guesses that since the early Nineties about 30 more reefs have been added to Florida's Gulf and Atlantic waters. In the four years alone leading up to 1991, a whopping 119 sites were added, half of those in '87, the peak year. A full 31 percent of Florida's artificial reefs are made of ships, often renamed to honor people who have died under horrible circumstances: firemen who have died in the line of duty, drowned divers, a beloved veterinarian murdered outside his office by a schizophrenic drifter.

Fewer new sites have been established during the past five years. This fact might suggest the artificial reef craze is waning, but that's not the case. New material, bigger and more peculiar all the time, is being placed on existing sites. In Monroe County, after a decade-long hiatus, planners are preparing to blow up and sink their second-largest ship ever A the 510-foot Spiegel Grove, a retired U.S. Navy transport vessel. Deployment has been delayed by the discovery of cancer-causing chemicals known as PCBs onboard the ship, but plans call for the sinking to proceed toward the end of the summer. The rage for more artificial reefs is alive, especially in Dade County waters, which have been transformed in the past fifteen years from boring havens of moribund natural coral to a lucrative undersea Disney World of engineered spectacles that draw thousands of scuba divers from around the world, often luring them away from the Florida Keys.

At street level the idea of artificial reefs as a magical way to turn junk into beneficence has utterly captured the minds of some Miamians. "I have the cockpit from a Boeing 727 and a six-foot iron safe in the yard of my plumbing business," one reader recently wrote to the Miami Herald's Action Line. "I don't know the combination of the safe and I can't think of any good use for the cockpit. I would like to get rid of both, though, and someone suggested they might be used in an artificial reef. How can I find out?"

Without getting too specific, Ben Mostkoff, coordinator of DERM's fifteen-year-old artificial reef program, admits things may have gotten a bit out of hand at times. "There's a fine line between operating a landfill and managing a viable marine habitat," he declares.

While interest in manmade reefs continues to grow among recreational users, cracks in the happy orthodoxy surrounding artificial reef creation have developed between local governments, fishermen, and divers on the one hand and scientists and academics on the other. Some expert observers suggest that artificial reefs --t least as they've been conceptualized and constructed in the past --mount to an idea whose time has gone.

"I call it eco-pornography," snorts Jim Bohnsack, a research biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Miami, referring to the worst excesses of the past two decades. "My favorite example is a magazine ad I saw a few years back. A guy was saying, 'Send us your worn-out computer hard drives, we'll make an artificial reef out of 'em.'"

Don Pybas has an even better example: "One permit that was pulled, the guy was basically going to cremate people, seal the ashes in concrete cubes, and sink 'em. This was in Sarasota or Manatee County. I don't think it ever worked out."

Artificial reefs are nothing new. Documents dating from the late Eighteenth Century show that Japanese fishermen were already building them, having learned to capitalize on an important observation A that fish and other marine organisms are strongly attracted to alien objects. The first intentional manmade reefs in the United States were established along the South Carolina coast before the Civil War. By the turn of the Twentieth Century, charter fishing parties from New York City could visit an extensive network of artificial reefs off Long Island. Whether there was controversy attached to any of this early artificial reef creation is unknown, at least according to reef historian Bill Seaman, a University of Florida professor and author of Artificial Habitats for Marine and Freshwater Fisheries. Clearly though, Florida was a latecomer to the concept. It was only after World War II, when the state's population ballooned and people found themselves with more leisure time and money, that Floridians began to erect the things.

"When you look at the variety of cultural reasons that a country would build a reef in the first place, it's remarkable," notes Seaman.

In the U.S. artificial reefs have historically been built by recreational fishing interests as fish magnets. In the Mediterranean, by contrast, governments have used artificial reefs more as a conservation and restoration tool. Today they are often deployed as physical obstructions to block offshore trawlers from invading coastal sea grass beds that act as spawning grounds and fish nurseries. In the aftermath of World War II, the Japanese government built thousands of reefs and then deeded them to the poor and the landless in what amounted to a social engineering program. The creation of the reefs was a successful public works project, spurring a population shift away from the interior and stimulating a coastal economy. These days large corporations such as Mitsubishi and Hitachi maintain artificial reef divisions that research, manufacture, and deploy reefs the size of shopping malls as part of a vast public-private effort to increase the island nation's self-sufficiency. The reefs are used by commercial fishing cooperatives and benefit the seafood production industry, and are rarely used for recreation.

Some seaside countries have almost no history of creating artificial reefs; France has so far largely shunned the idea. Australia, on the other hand, has gone hog-wild with the notion, and has mirrored the U.S. during the past 30 years by deploying reefs principally for recreation, often using what Seaman calls "objects of opportunity" such as ships, construction debris, and other more intriguing jetsam of the industrial age.

Through the use of such objects, Seaman points out, America's history keeps finding its way into its artificial reefs. For five days in October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a perilous stare-down across the Florida Straits, and the world came as close to a nuclear firefight as it ever has. The diplomatic standoff known as the Cuban Missile Crisis began publicly when president John Kennedy announced the U.S.S.R. was building offensive missile and bomber bases in Cuba. It ended when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to withdraw weapons of mass destruction from the towns of Guanajay, San Crist centsbal, Remedios, and Sagua la Grande.

Soon after Kennedy's alarming October 22 television speech, the U.S. Army started building a ring of missile launch pads around Homestead Air Force Base, the better to secure it against attack by jet or warhead. The security precautions continued long after the crisis ended. Throughout the early Sixties, military engineers erected as many as a score of three-story concrete-and-steel towers at approximately eight scattered, isolated sites, from the Tamiami Trail to northern Monroe County. Big, square platforms atop the towers supported missile radar guidance systems. The missiles themselves sat nearby on smaller, shorter pedestals. The launch pads were supplied through the late Seventies, some armed with Nike-Hercules missiles, and later with newer, more-compact Hawk missiles.

Since their final decommissioning in 1981, about half the launch sites and the land they sit on have been sold at government auction, passing into private hands. A Franciscan mission in the Redlands owns five of the missile towers. Another government-owned quintet stands two miles south of the posh Ocean Reef Club on Key Largo. Still more of the rusting Cold War monuments hide in the woods near the Miccosukee Indian bingo hall off Krome Avenue, and near the Turkey Point nuclear power plant on the edge of Biscayne Bay.

"They're testimony to a different era, when you had Russian military advisers in Cuba and Soviet missiles pointed at Miami," says Capt. Bobby D'Angelo, spokesman for the 482nd Fighter Wing at Homestead Air Reserve Base. "Those were scary days."

It seemed fitting, then, with the Cold War over, to sink five of the defunct missile towers in the Atlantic to become Dade County's newest artificial reef. At least it did to avid fisherman and lobster hunter Wayne Kennedy, the president of the Ethel & W. George Kennedy Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization devoted to helping disadvantaged kids. In 1995 Kennedy, one of several adopted heirs to a Miami construction fortune, purchased 45 acres of land at SW 87th Avenue and 220th Street. Since 1987 the parcel had functioned as a wildlife center, but Hurricane Andrew put it out of business; before that it had been one of the army's Hawk missile sites.

In the shadow of five missile towers, Kennedy set up Bay Point Schools, a private rehabilitation center housing 40 teenage delinquents -- car thieves, junior drug dealers, and other nonviolent juvenile offenders. The school received funding through the federal AmeriCorps service program, and its students helped rebuild storm-damaged homes in South Dade, operating as the Interfaith Coalition for the Andrew Recovery Effort. These days Kennedy reports the students learn construction and culinary skills and spend time studying for their GED diplomas.

Bay Point is in transition. Kennedy is currently negotiating with the county to get a permit to upgrade the center's status from temporary volunteer work camp to permanent vocational school. The process is ticklish, in part because residents near the school aren't thrilled about the proximity of 40 kids with criminal histories. Kennedy decided in October that if he could improve the physical appearance of the school, it would be a plus, so he picked up the phone and called Mostkoff, the county's artificial reef program coordinator.

"The towers were kind of like an eyesore," Kennedy says. "I was getting flack from the neighbors because they looked like guard towers."

Months passed. Nothing happened. To jump-start the project, Kennedy recruited Homestead dentist Sam Porco, president of a South Dade sporting club called Fish and Game Unlimited and the man who had helped sink several reefs in the past. In early April, Mostkoff inspected the five missile towers. They had already been approved by his agency for placement on the Pflueger Reef site, but Mostkoff was waiting to get state grant money to pay for the expense of transporting and sinking them. He was also anticipating the donation of some barges and temporary storage space from a private firm on the Miami River. Mostkoff wanted a mechanical engineer to look at the towers and decide the best way to dismantle, clean, and anchor them.

"At the beginning of the project, I had asked for as much information as possible," Mostkoff notes, although he doesn't recall receiving much in the way of documentation. What Kennedy and Porco remember is government foot dragging. "The whole thing took way too long," Kennedy huffs. "Ben didn't return my phone calls. He had about as much enthusiasm as a dead frog."

Mostkoff wasn't returning Kennedy's phone calls because he was working through Porco, the designated point man. But Porco also became frustrated with the complexity of the project, and that frustration may have had a lot to do with the peculiar history and culture of artificial reef construction in South Dade. During the Eighties it became popular for private individuals and clubs to stage dramatic ship sinkings A sometimes blasting the ships with bombers borrowed from Homestead Air Force Base A and then name them after local luminaries. For example, the 287-foot freighter Doc DeMilly went down in March 1988, honoring a murdered veterinarian, the father of Homestead mayor Tad DeMilly. Seven months later two more steel-hulled cargo vessels were dumped: The 115-foot Hugo's April Fool celebrified South Dade billboard owner and sailing adventurer Hugo Vihlen, while the Berry Patch was dedicated to Roger Berry, a Homestead paint-and-carpet merchant whose only apparent claim to fame is the fact that he's a nice guy and a long-standing member of the Rotary Club. It was through these activities that Porco gained a reputation as a rainmaker, a hard-charging ocean enthusiast with the chutzpah and connections to turn reef dreams into reality.

But in 1990, partly in response to a tire-dumping incident off Panama City on the Gulf Coast, the federal government abruptly put the brakes on further reef construction by private interests. By instituting much stricter liability and management standards, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers imposed a de facto moratorium that blocked individuals from creating such reefs. Since then only local and state governments have been granted permits to build new reefs or to add to old ones. Well-meaning outdoorsmen such as Porco found themselves stripped of a certain prestige and power. And old habits die hard.

Mostkoff sighs. "This is a very emotional subject for a lot of people," he explains. "These particular reef sites were constructed by mostly private individuals, with a lot of toil. Sam [Porco] operates under this methodology where he wants to expedite whatever project he's working on."

A basic problem with Kennedy and Porco's scheme developed suddenly and unexpectedly. Last October, the same month Kennedy got the idea to turn the missile towers into a reef, Dade County filed a routine request to renew federal permits for five existing artificial reef sites in South Dade near Biscayne National Park, the location that Porco had been eyeing. Much to the surprise of local government and fishing and diving interests, the park announced it intended to oppose the request. So did the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, in whose waters the reefs sit.

Not having a permit means Dade County can't add any material to the five reef sites, which range from Fowey Light south of Key Biscayne to the mouth of Caesar's Creek off Elliott Key. A compromise between the county, the park, and the sanctuary limiting the types and amount of material eligible for placement on the reefs is now being hammered out, and the Army Corps of Engineers in Jacksonville is expected to rule on the rewritten permit application later this summer.

Dick Frost, superintendent of Biscayne National Park, says his opposition is twofold. The artificial reefs, some pre-dating the creation of the park in 1980, squat near park boundaries next to natural reefs. Hurricane Andrew and Tropical Storm Gordon demonstrated that pieces of artificial reefs can break off in rough weather and wind up in unpredictable places -- sometimes pummeling natural reefs. An entire ship, the Tarpoon, rolled across the ocean floor during Andrew and came to rest inside park waters. Farther north a barge off Key Biscayne was dragged 400 yards across sandy bottom, ascending from 68 to 38 feet underwater. Meanwhile The Spirit of Miami, the watery Boeing jet, broke into several pieces.

Frost's other point of opposition is more complex. Turn on your porch light at night and insects show up, drawn to the luminosity. Then come the lizards, hunting the bugs. Next the neighborhood cats arrive, angling for lizard sashimi. Instant food chain. Similarly, when a manmade reef is sunk, its shadows and crevices and current-altering bulk draw speedos and pilchards and other small fry. Then the food fish show up, grouper and snapper, mackerel and dolphin, wahoo and tuna. Then larger predators such as barracuda and sailfish. Eventually the reef takes on coral accretions and colonies of microorganisms that enhance the habitat.

The fact that manmade reefs attract fish is not in dispute. The question, as it has often been formulated, is whether artificial reefs are discrete ecosystems that act as spawning grounds and nurseries and actually add to the overall fish population, or do they merely draw fish from elsewhere, concentrating them in a place where they can more easily be viewed by divers and killed by fishermen.

"Since day one there's been a philosophical battle," Mostkoff states. "Do they merely concentrate biomass, particularly fish, or do artificial reefs actually increase fishery resources? I think that if they're constructed properly, artificial reefs are capable of doing both."

Frost disagrees, and so do some local scientists. "The literature is full of mixed opinions on a lot of this," contends the park superintendent, who fears that artificial reefs may steal fish away from struggling natural reefs. "So far the scientific community has not reached any generalized conclusions about artificial reefs. In the face of that, I have to err on the side of caution. The premise behind a national park is that we leave the natural system alone."

"I have seen absolutely no evidence of any increased production," adds Bohnsack, the National Fisheries Service biologist. "There simply aren't any definitive studies."

The closest thing to a definitive study, Bohnsack and others suggest, is a 1989 Bulletin of Marine Science monograph by Jeffrey Polovina and Ichiro Sakai. The two researchers used 30 years of data from a large bay in Japan to draw some rough general conclusions about artificial reefs. Because of a fluke in political boundaries and differing regulations, one side of the bay was rife with manmade reefs, the other almost devoid of them. The only detectable enhancement in the overall aquatic population on the reef side of the bay versus the other occurred in a single species -- octopus.

Bohnsack likens artificial reefs to saltwater crack houses: They attract a lot of fish, but it may not be healthy for them. "They build 'em like mad but they don't spend any money to study them," he complains. "A lot of these things are strictly for public relations. Other times they're building artificial reefs because no one's catching fish like they used to. But it's probably not going to help the problem [of depletion], and if they're not done properly, they could actually cause harm. At the very least, it takes a lot of money that could be better spent elsewhere, on studying and preserving sea grass or mangroves, for example."

Bohnsack cites studies of sea otter extermination in Alaska to illustrate the delicacy of marine ecosystems. With the otters gone, sea urchins proliferated, gobbling up all the available kelp. In the same way, Bohnsack believes, the poverty of South Florida fisheries is due to the removal of too many so-called top predators -- larger, older fish, exactly the kind fishermen hope to find on artificial reefs. "For every problem there's a solution that's simple, obvious, and wrong," Bohnsack says.

Bill Lindburgh, a University of Florida marine biologist, agrees: "Artificial reefs are not a panacea. You're not going to promote these reefs as prime fishing locations and then expect them to add much to the surrounding ecosystem. It's easy to operate under the assumption that there's an ecological or biological benefit because you see more fish. It's a reasonable but false assumption to think there's an overall increase in the fisheries stock. That's the common step in logic that's taken by the public."

Lindburgh, who has just concluded a much-awaited five-year study of the gag grouper and its relationship to artificial reefs near the mouth of the Suwannee River, thinks it's time to refocus scientific thought about manmade marine habitats -- in part because the attraction-versus-production question now seems insoluble. "The attraction-versus-production question may be an inappropriate phrasing," he theorizes. "What we're really asking at this point is whether, if the fish are gaining a biological benefit from settling on the reef, that's benefit enough to offset the increased fishing."

Nova Southeastern University professor Richard Spieler echoes his colleagues. "I think the aggregation-versus-production question is mainly of historical interest," he says. "We had a lot of people putting in artificial reefs with a lot of assumptions that weren't correct. It pointed out a need for research. Now there's a real research impetus, and the result is a belief that it's going to depend a lot on the species, the location, and the natural history as to whether you're going to get production or aggregation of a particular animal in a particular season at a particular site. I don't think there is a general answer to the original question. Rather, the question has become more complex."

Spieler points to recent studies of Nassau grouper in the Virgin Islands. The fish not only settled on artificial reefs, but they seemed to prefer them to natural reefs, growing fatter than the cousins they left behind in traditional low-tech coral neighborhoods. The implication is that Biscayne National Park superintendent Frost could be right in his concern that artificial reefs might recruit some reef fish away from the park's natural habitat.

Spieler also challenges the conventional wisdom that South Florida's manmade fish condos take pressure off its struggling natural reefs. "That sounds fine, but as soon as you examine it, it gets tricky," he ventures. Builders and managers of new reefs often claim that the underwater structures divert divers and fishermen from natural reefs. But Spieler points out that the deployment and marketing of artificial reefs may have resulted in a net increase in recreational use of all types of reefs. Many commercial dive boats make two stops during a day trip -- one at an artificial reef and one at a natural site. Overall the pressure on natural reefs may have increased.

According to Spieler, the extent to which manmade reefs are legitimate enhancers of the marine ecosystem is just beginning to be known. "We're hoping to come up with methodologies for artificial reef designs to enhance so-called bottlenecks in fisheries production," he explains. "Maybe, in a particular species, there are insufficient larval fish hatching in plankton, or insufficient spots for them to settle. Or maybe deep-water habitat is limited. We need to know a lot more about the life histories of individual species. It might be that we can use inshore modules [small, shallow-water reefs specifically designed for a certain species]. Or increase nursery grounds. Or actually dump larval fish in plankton.

"Artificial reefs are simply tools, like a hammer. You can use a hammer to build a house or smash all your mother's china. At this point we're moving away from exploitation toward management, or at least I hope we are. I think artificial reefs are here to stay. But not in the form we've seen them."

Lindburgh, Bohnsack, Spieler, and other scientists indicate they would like to see new reefs established, but only if they're based on better science. Or, alternatively, they'd be pleased to hear admissions from local governments and resource managers that the artificial reefs being contemplated may have nothing to do with science. They suggest that a new reef probably can't be a fishing hot spot, a diving spectacle, and a scientifically sound marine habitat all at once.

"We need to be honest with ourselves, put the cards on the table and take a hard look at this," Lindburgh says. "An architect and engineer won't go out and construct a building without consulting the owner and user about what it is they want."

"What the heck do they want?" Bohnsack gripes. "It's usually vague. That's fine, but let's be up-front with people. And be creative. They're doing some nice work in Cuba with what they call casitas, little habitats for lobsters. Here they kind of just throw things out and call it a day. We can do better than that."

In early May a fed-up Sam Porco got the go-ahead from Wayne Kennedy, assembled the Bay Point students, and issued them propane torches. The teenagers cut the five missile towers into pieces. Over the course of three days a private contractor hauled the pieces to a scrap yard on the Miami River. Porco says he and Kennedy had concluded that the towers were a safety hazard as well as an eyesore, and decided simply to get rid of them. As the disassembling concluded, Ben Mostkoff called to say he had finally received $45,000 in state grant money, part of it earmarked for the missile platform reef project.

Dan Shepherd, Miami Beach water and sewer superintendent, remembers his birthday eleven years ago not because his wife baked him a cake but because the phone rang and someone was dead. Specifically, an employee of Sunshine Painting, an Orlando firm that had contracted with the city to paint the South Beach water tower, located at the corner of Second Street and Alton Road. The worker, suspended in a bosun's chair inside the tower's bowl, apparently fell to his death after one of the structure's support rods pulled through the inch-thick east wall and released the rope from which he was hanging.

In 1991 the water tower was shut down for good. It was no longer needed because the city had installed a new system of high-pressure, twenty-inch water mains south of Fifth Street. Prior to that the tower had been used to intermittently boost pressure in the Beach's water pipes. Toward the end of its life, the 250,000-gallon tank and its 80-foot pedestal had become a headache for Shepherd. He worried about vandals contaminating the drinking-water supply. He worried about graffitists climbing up and getting injured. He worried about the increasingly expensive upkeep on the Twenties-era albatross A just painting it required 790 pounds of primer, and primer wasn't getting any cheaper. Even now Shepherd worries about the empty, rusting, 70-ton water tower. "If we have a hurricane, it's going to blow over," he predicts.

A solution to Shepherd's concerns has been proffered by the City of Miami Beach, the county, the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, and the Portofino Group, a large private land development company headed by German financier Thomas Kramer: Get rid of the pale pink mini-monument late this summer by adding it to an existing artificial reef.

The water tower and the tiny .16-acre triangle it stands on belong to the city but are scheduled to be deeded to the Portofino Group, developers of much of the land south of Fifth Street. As part of the development agreement signed by the city and Portofino in November 1995, Miami Beach agreed to scrap the tower, with Portofino paying for the removal expenses. (The parcel left behind can be used only for landscaping, public art, or as a "buffer," according to the deal.) Bruce Henderson, environmental coordinator for the City of Miami Beach, says the firm has now agreed to take the money it originally set aside to remove the water tower and use it instead to sink the thing as part of an artificial reef. The tower stands in the midst of ongoing building projects, including Portofino's 34-story Yacht Club condominium.

"As a result of the Portofino deal, I was approached to assist them in having the tower taken down," Henderson explains. "When I realized that the tower was going to be taken down and scrapped, I saw there was an opportunity to do something with it that might be more beneficial."

Starting in mid-June, a crane will be used to dismantle the tower in stages, with workers cutting the bowl into pieces. Later on in the summer the tower will be dragged down the street to a pair of donated barges, loaded up, and towed out to sea. Members of a Metro-Dade police demolitions squad will blow up the barges and sink the whole mess to a depth of approximately 160 feet at the Pflueger site, two miles from Miami Beach.

"The water tower is a structure that would otherwise be scrapped and take up landfill space," Henderson points out. "Now it will take its place alongside the Tenneco oil platforms and the ships as an ecologically friendly way to expose people to myriad opportunities for diving and fishing. In time it will be encrusted with corals and other organisms. It will have a life of probably 30 years or so before it disintegrates. It's different. It's a unique shape. It's a little avant-garde, if you will, which fits in with Miami Beach." Mostkoff and Henderson estimate the cost of removing and sinking the tower at roughly $75,000. The $45,000 in state grant money Mostkoff received for Kennedy's missile launchers will now go toward the water tower project.

But while the City of Miami Beach hasn't officially announced its plan for the water tower, the project already has generated opposition. "I'd much rather see Portofino Tower on the bottom of the ocean," mutters Mark Needle, a former member of the Miami Beach Design Review Board. "I think the water tower is a symbol of the historic district, what might have been done there. Dumping it in the Atlantic is one more sad step along the way toward the complete sellout of the southern portion of the island."

On April 8, Needle and other Portofino naysayers appeared before the Miami Beach City Commission in an effort to nullify the entire development deal the city had struck with Kramer's firm, asserting that the Design Review Board had approved the massive Portofino plan without adequate guidance from the commission. Sitting as a quasi-judicial court of appeal, Beach commissioners heard Needle describe Portofino's "shameful attempt to silence the airing of serious issues."

If Needle and his cohorts had been successful, the construction of the Yacht Club condo would have faced a long stall, and the South Beach water tower would likely have stayed put, perhaps for years. But they weren't. The commission, by a vote of five to three, upheld the original Portofino development plan. Needle and other members of an anti-Portofino group called the South Pointe Citizens Coalition vow to fight on against the firm's high-density vision of South Beach.

"The city also said that stray cats had outlived their useful lives too," Needle notes, "until people got upset and said, 'Wait a minute. Let's look at alternatives.' To me the water tower would make a great public visitor's center. People could climb up and get a view of the historic district. Has it been explored? I'd be willing to bet not."

Mostkoff acknowledges that the vagaries of local politics could still sabotage what he hopes will be the next addition to Dade's dazzling gallery of artificial reefs. With the South Dade missile towers now a memory, he could also lose the big water tank, leaving him with a $45,000 state grant and nothing to sink. Oddly, he notes, the Portofino Group has specifically requested that the new reef not be named after its chairman, Thomas Kramer. Representatives of the development company did not respond to requests for comment. "I don't know," Mostkoff muses. "I guess reefs aren't his thing. They can get complicated."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >