David Beckham's Stadium Spot Already Home to Artificial Coral Reef, Says Marine Biologist

Less than a week after David Beckham unveiled his ambitious plan for a Major League Soccer stadium atop the FEC boat slip downtown, the location was back in the headlines yesterday. One politician was angry with other politicians for slipping the slip stuff past him, or something.

There is real news about the proposed stadium site, however, and it's that the FEC boat slip isn't the empty bath tub full of "brackish" water that it's been made out to be. Instead, it's home to a thriving artificial coral reef, according to marine biologist Colin Foord.

"The developers are saying that filling this slip is like going from a Chevy to a Cadillac," Foord tells Riptide. "Well, wait a minute. There is a reef here!"

See also: Ten Things You Need to Know About David Beckham's Proposed Bay-Front Soccer Stadium

Last Thursday, Beckham's business partner Marcelo Claure and his real estate adviser John Alschuler laid out the group's plan for a 20,000-seat soccer stadium where the boat slip sits.

Alschuler dismissed concerns over filling the slip as tantamount to complaining that your Chevy had been upgraded to a Cadillac. Miamians wouldn't miss the slip, where the water doesn't circulate into Biscayne Bay and is "brackish" and dirty, he said.

(Indeed, the slip appears so stagnant that even opponents of the stadium plan prefer to focus on possible future uses of the site rather than what's there now.)

But under the surface, the slip is home to some amazing lifeforms, Foord claims. Instead of eating barbecue and attending the Heat game, the spiky-haired marine biologist spent his Memorial Day diving into the turbid water next to American Airlines Arena. Even Foord, South Florida's native coral nerd, was surprised by what he found.

"If you go to the FEC slip right now, it's full of garbage," Foord admits, "but it's not always like that. It's like that now because of the Port [of Miami] dredge."

Foord, half of the experimental science/art group Coral Morphologic, filmed his foray into the FEC slip.

"We've got lobsters, green moray eels, and phosphorescent brain coral down there, right along Biscayne Boulevard," he says in amazement. He says the slip -- and more generally Biscayne Bay -- is a unique ecosystem created by the mix of city sewer water and fresh ocean water pulled in through Government Cut.

Foord thinks more Miamians would be upset about saving the slip if they knew what they were about to lose. "With the Museum Park construction and the dredging, people haven't been able to appreciate it, so no one is really connected to it yet," he says. "But what other NBA team has brain coral, eels, and other tropical fish swimming under it?"

The sea creatures' habitat comprises limestone boulders dumped near the opening of the slip between 2006 and 2009. That was when the City of Miami paid roughly $12 million to upgrade the seawall around American Airlines Arena and the boat slip.

Critics of Beckham's stadium proposal are angry that his group hasn't offered to pay back the city for that (soon to be useless) expense.

But Foord points out that filling the boat slip would also mean destroying the artificial reef. He insists he's not against the stadium proposal or filling the slip, but he believes Beckham's group should at least replace the reef with another one nearby. Studying such "urban corals," he says, is key to understanding the effects that climate change is having and will have on both human and animal life.

Alschuler denies that filling the boat slip would affect any important marine life, however.

"There are no artificial reefs in the slip," he says in an email to New Times. "There is one 'artificial reef' in each of the two 'notches' on the eastern face of the Museum Park seawall, but that is it. And 'artificial reef' is really an over-characterization of what it is -- a pile of limestone boulders maybe 50x50 feet that serves primarily as a breakwater. The piles were there well before 2009 and will not in any way be impacted by what we are proposing."

Ben Mostkoff, whose Shoreline Foundation built the seawall and added the limestone boulders, says it technically isn't an artificial reef but rather "on-site mitigation which results in the creation of a habitat." He admits, though, "I'm being a bit of a nerd here. It's semantics, really. The result is very similar."

"Three layers of government -- county, state, and federal -- will review our requests to fill the slip," Alschuler adds. "As a result of that process, and our own commitment, we are confident that water quality and aquatic habitat will be improved by our proposal."

But Foord insists that, however dirty, the boat slip is home to some scientifically important marine life. He's not claiming it's a beautiful wildlife preserve or even natural to begin with, but it is unique.

"People should know what's down there," he says. "They need to be informed when deciding when to fill it or not. If the voters decide to fill it, it's a very reasonable caveat to say to the developers: 'Look, taxpayers paid all this money for this. There has to be mitigation.'

"This is not a Cadillac, filling in a coral reef that has as lot of potential." Foord says there are "plenty of places" where another artificial coral reef could be built, perhaps even better than the one in the boat slip. But he would like some reassurances from Beckham before the stadium project gathers steam.

"This is not a trash slip. And it's not a boat slip," he says. "It used to be a boat slip. Then all this money was spent to make it an underwater habitat. And they did a good job."

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