The sky's the limit: If the Port of Miami has its way, the number of cruise ships in Government Cut will go up and up
The sky's the limit: If the Port of Miami has its way, the number of cruise ships in Government Cut will go up and up
dan cowan - port of miami

Spoiled Island

Development dreams and political schemes have a way of running aground on Watson Island. And they may be heading that way again soon. Since April of last year, Miami officials have been quietly working out a deal to bring a sprawling cruise-terminal operation to one of the city's most forsaken waterfront parks. Granted Watson Island today isn't much of a park. But in the Magic City, some public servants don't much serve the public, either.

By way of contrast, this year in Charleston, South Carolina, the mayor and city officials took a stand and blocked a state plan that would have brought towering gantry cranes, warehouses, and hundreds of trucks and cargo containers to a nearby island beloved by residents as a recreational destination. Miami's version of this “nearby island” has slowly decayed under long-term municipal neglect and a severely underfunded city parks department. But rather than try to transform Watson Island into an Intracoastal paradise, city officials instead are hoping to cash in on a county proposal to lease about ten acres of the island. The county-run Port of Miami wants to build two colossal ship terminals on Watson Island -- each four stories high, tall enough to blot out bay views -- to service the cruise industry's newest 1000-foot-long passenger vessels. Cruise ships currently moor across the Government Cut channel from Watson Island at the port's facilities on Dodge Island.

But this is not just a ten-acre land lease. Along with those 150-foot-tall diesel-belching leviathans would come all the accouterments: fleets of noisy provisioning trucks and passenger-packed buses, vans, and taxis, all trying to enter and leave the terminal area from the MacArthur Causeway. They would chug down new service roads and into a 700-car parking facility. The plan also would require channel dredging, which, along with the cruise industry's record of illegal toxic discharges, already makes Biscayne Bay's environmental watchdogs nervous.

The reason for two more terminals? Cash. “I have no compunction about being frank with you. I want the money,” Assistant City Manager Bob Nachlinger told New Times recently. “It's a good deal for the city.”

Nachlinger, who is in charge of negotiating the lease agreement with the county, has refused to discuss details of the bargaining, saying he doesn't want to negotiate in the press. But he revealed that he is close to sealing the deal and anticipates an agreement “sometime in the fourth quarter” of this year. The first of the two terminals would be built by 2004, the second by 2007. Under a phased-in lease, they would add about $2 million per year to Miami's revenue (the city's budget currently is $309 million) by 2008. City taxpayers would pay for the new parking facilities, expected to cost $8.4 million. The port, relying on state and county funds, would finance the 125,000-square-foot terminals, piers, and dredging -- projected to cost $82 million.

“It's a business opportunity,” explained Khalid Salahuddin, the deputy port director who is handling the negotiations for the county. Though he's lived in Miami for seventeen years, Salahuddin insisted he was unaware that Watson Island had ever been zoned as a park until New Times brought it to his attention.

But Erdal Donmez knew. As the director of Miami's Department of Real Estate and Economic Development, he was the city's point man on the deal until becoming an assistant city manager of Coral Springs this past July. “I don't think having a recreational park, a passive park, is the best use for Watson Island,” he maintained recently. “You need attractions there.” So operating like a real estate tycoon brokering the sale of a valuable chunk of private property, he kept details of the negotiations from city commissioners and citizens review boards. This past January, fully nine months after talks had begun, Commissioner Art Teele complained in the city commission chambers that the process had been “totally closed.”

And the process has remained closed. Nachlinger and Donmez's successor, Arlene Weintraub, are moving ahead to transform the island -- obstructing bays views, increasing traffic, and obliterating much of a city park in the process -- and they remain indifferent to outside opinion. “I'm only dealing with the economics of the situation,” Nachlinger insisted.

If and when an agreement is reached, city commissioners could approve the plan at any of their twice-monthly Thursday meetings, and with little public input. Then the city would rezone the proposed island terminal area by voting to grant a special-use permit. The county commission also would have to sign off on the deal, as would state officials.

You might think the Port of Miami, currently home to eighteen cruise ships, has enough of them. Next month two more are due to arrive. One, the 893-foot-long Victory, with a passenger capacity of 2758, belongs to Carnival Cruise Lines, the world's largest cruise operator. Royal Caribbean International, the second-largest, owns the other: the 1021-foot Explorer of the Seas, which carries 3114 passengers. Explorer is the same size as Voyager of the Seas, which Royal Caribbean debuted here last fall as the world's largest passenger ship, a fifteen-story floating resort.

The two Miami-based companies have 25 more maritime monsters on order or under construction, scheduled to enter service between 2001 and 2006 (fifteen are Carnival's and ten are RCI's). Norwegian Cruise Line, which home-ports four ships in Miami, is expecting another two. And Los Angeles-based Princess Cruises, whose Caribbean-bound liners embark from Port Everglades in Broward County and from Puerto Rico, has six new megaships ordered. How many would Charles Towsley, Miami-Dade's port director, like to see moored in Biscayne Bay? “All of 'em,” he replied.

Towsley and his deputy director are driven by a unique paranoia. “Miami is still the choice port [for cruise companies], no question about that, but it could become an also-ran easily,” Salahuddin warned. “The cruise companies could go to Port Everglades. They could go to Port Canaveral, which is growing.”

The Port of Miami, however, can't possibly fit all the new ships on Dodge Island -- not unless cruise companies stop building such huge vessels or company executives come up with more rational cruise schedules so the piers don't sit idle much of the week (most arrivals and departures take place on Saturdays and Sundays, when mooring space is extremely limited). “I was in Long Beach, the second-largest port in the country, and they measure their space in miles,” Salahuddin recalled. “They have miles. This port isn't even a thousand acres.”

But the two administrators aren't about to let physical limitations stop them. If Miami is to remain “the cruise capital of the world,” they contend, the port has no choice but to expand beyond Dodge Island. Towsley also acknowledged that cargo operations play a large role in the Watson Island proposal. If some cruise operations move across Government Cut, then Dodge Island will be able to expand its cargo business. The port is seeking “a paradigm shift,” Towsley explained, that will result in more land on the cargo side and “tighten up our land on the cruise side.” To that end the port recently commissioned a local engineering firm, Fredric R. Harris -- which also drafted Watson Island site plans -- to examine how Dodge Island could be used more efficiently. That analysis won't be complete for several months, but Towsley's appetite for expansion remains undeterred.

To sell the terminal project, port officials and their consultants have come up with a stratagem they call Maritime Park at Watson Island. “It could be a real nice landmark for the city,” Salahuddin remarked recently while gazing from the window of a new terminal on Dodge Island across Government Cut at the proposed site. “Right now [Watson Island] is nothing. No one goes there. What else are you going to build there? Nothing.”

Some residents think the city could build a well-maintained park. John Brennan, chairman of the City of Miami's Waterfront Advisory Board, a citizens review panel, was appalled when he learned of the plan. “It's absolutely outrageous,” he groaned. “Watson Island is a park. We've already got so damn few parks in this city.” Indeed a recent study of park space in major U.S. cities by the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit conservation group based in San Francisco, found Miami at the bottom of the heap -- below Cleveland, Chicago, and Detroit. (Miami has 3.6 acres of park space per 1000 residents; New York City, by comparison, has 7.2 acres.)

“The City of Miami has been a notoriously irresponsible steward of its public lands,” repeated Don Chinquina, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society. “This sounds to me like more of the same.”

Unfortunately for lovers of bayfront parks and pristine waters, there isn't a port from Miami to Charleston whose administrators aren't trying to attract as much cargo and passenger traffic as possible. International shipping companies can just as easily decide to unload their cargo containers in Fort Lauderdale as on Dodge Island. And the competition for cruise ships is even more fierce among Florida's Atlantic ports. In this game the port director with the most efficient facilities, which usually means the most spacious ones, comes out the winner.

Nor is there a port about to try turning back the waves of Americans taking cruise vacations to the Caribbean. Last year 3,037,606 people boarded ocean liners at the Port of Miami. Port Canaveral, the next-closest Caribbean-oriented contender, trailed far behind with 1,860,224 passengers, followed by San Juan, Puerto Rico, with 1,813,728 and Port Everglades with 1,759,996.

Most industry analysts think demand will increase significantly over the long haul. Their reasoning: As baby boomers age, they will want to take more cruises. Assia Georgieva, an equity analyst at Southeast Research Partners in Boca Raton, summed up the bullish mainstream view: “Every five years or so we see a blip where, for a year or so, [cruise] pricing is soft. It's still difficult to determine what causes that. But the main reason is there are more new ships coming into service, especially in the Caribbean, so people can choose among more ships.

“It's more difficult to fill them,” she explained. “Supply outstrips demand. The bottom line is, cruise-ship companies reduce pricing. But that also helps more people get to know what the cruise industry is all about and actually [afford] to cruise. So I think with time you'll continue to see expansion of the industry, especially in North America, which is a stable market.”

But analysts have been wrong about Miami before. Throughout the Nineties they predicted more passengers would show up than actually did. The Port of Miami's cruise-passenger volume dropped seven percent, from about 3.2 million in 1997 to 2.9 million in 1998. The figure rose last year to 3.1 million, the same number of passengers who boarded cruise ships here in 1989, a full decade ago.

To make matters worse, Carnival and RCI share prices have plunged some 60 percent this year. Securities analysts warned that the cruise-ship supply seemed to be ahead of demand. In response cruise companies cut fares to keep their ships full. However, Assistant City Manager Bob Nachlinger is not concerned about the sector's prospects. “I'm structuring a lease arrangement where we have a certain rental,” he said, “and I get the same rental whether there is one cruise ship there a year or one every day. The people paying that land lease are the ones who have to worry about the future of the industry. I'm only leasing land.”

Work crews created Watson Island with muck and sand they dredged while deepening Government Cut for ships in the early Twenties. By 1925 Miami planning director John B. Orr had proposed putting three slips for large ships on the south side of the 87-acre spoil island after the construction of the MacArthur Causeway, which bisects the island along a northwestern-to-southeastern axis. Chalk's International Airlines, a seaplane service, also arrived in the Twenties. Two decades later the Miami Outboard Club and the Miami Yacht Club built clubhouses on the eastern side, north of the causeway. Beginning in the Forties, Goodyear blimp pilots sometimes moored at a nearby hangar.

The state turned the island over to the city in 1949, with the proviso that its land “shall be used solely for public purpose.'' The boat clubs acquired a neighbor in 1961, when Japanese industrialist Kiyoshi Ichimura donated the Miami-Japan Garden. But the garden fell into ruin after years of city neglect until, by the late Seventies, it attracted no one but the homeless. Dade Helicopter began using the barren land mass as a base in 1976. Goodyear left in 1979 but the choppers and Chalk's remain.

During the Eighties the island became a tabula rasa for several money-making fantasies. Mayor Maurice Ferré pushed for a theme park on Watson Island but couldn't win backing from state planners, who were skeptical of the public financial benefits and concerned about its environmental impact. In 1986 Mayor Xavier Suarez supported a proposal by John Meyer, a private developer with ties to Miami's renowned Arquitectonica architectural firm, for construction of a massive marina, hotel, and boating exhibition center on the island. Among potential investors were former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and Jorge Mas Canosa, the late president of the Cuban American National Foundation. Then-city Commissioner Joe Carollo scuttled the deal by presenting evidence that another investor, English catering company executive Albert Abela, had contracts with the national airlines of several communist countries. (At one point Mas Canosa challenged Carollo to a duel. Carollo suggested they use water pistols, and the dispute evaporated. But the megamarina project tanked.)

As mayor, Carollo has promoted more development projects for the island than he can hit with a Super Soaker. In 1995 voters narrowly accepted a bid by privately run Parrot Jungle to relocate to a twelve-acre spread north of the causeway and west of the boat clubs. The following year Carollo backed a 60-year lease for the Pinecrest-based tourist attraction that would bring the city $200,000 per year. With the mayor's prodding, the city's real estate department is marketing about 23 more acres -- south and across the roadway -- as a “prime site” for a 300-room resort hotel, a yacht marina, a convention center, shops, and an “entertainment destination.” In addition the city commission recently gave the Miami Children's Museum permission to explore a piece of that parcel as a possible new home. And on another five acres the city has plans to build an unusual five-million-dollar complex that Carollo and the commission approved in 1997. Financed in part with state transportation money, the complex would feature a three-story office building for the Greater Miami Visitors and Convention Bureau and an aviation facility for Dade Helicopters and Chalk's. Next door would be the cruise terminals and ships.

Does this sound like a formula for unexpected turbulence? The Federal Aviation Administration thinks so. FAA guidelines for aquatic landings call for avoiding locations “where large swells occur or are frequently created by deep-draft vessels or tugboats.” Pete Ricondo, a Miami-based aviation consultant, relayed that information in a letter to the city's Erdal Donmez this past April. He also expressed concern that cruise ships could block flight paths of the helicopters. But Ricondo also conceded that the FAA sometimes issues waivers for “deviations” between an airport's operating environment and the agency's guidelines. The city is revising its aviation center plans to give the aircraft more leeway.

More leeway is what Miami-Dade port director Charles Towsley is after, leeway to dock huge cruise vessels on public land. He's counting on public credulity, hoping that Miamians will swallow the argument that the port could easily become an industry loser -- despite the fact that it serves 1.2 million passengers per year more than its nearest competitor.

Cruise lines pumped about $25 million into the port last year, roughly half its income. But apparently that's not enough, and Watson Island is the key to increasing the figure. “We said, “There's an opportunity here,'” Towsley explained, “and that's when we started down the road to talk to the city [and said], “We're not looking to take your prime development opportunity. We're looking at about a three-and-a-half-acre footprint here.'” But a site plan on file at the port and city indicates that the cruise terminal project actually would cover three times as much land: 4.6 acres for one terminal, 3.2 acres for the second, and 3.1 acres for the parking area. Another drawing indicates “seaport uses” would encompass 14.7 acres.

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.”

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.

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?”

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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