A trust could protect city assets from the build-now disease
Written by Michael Lewis on July 2, 2014
As David Beckham tries to pluck a new downtown waterfront site for a soccer stadium, it’s time to create a trust to protect and beautify what little waterfront Miami has left.
For years, no matter who was in charge, city hall has seen it as a duty to put some project on every speck of waterfront, with top consideration to enhanced city revenue and lowest to preserving bayfront.
If land can be found, the city first looks at what to built to fill its perennially cash-short coffers.
While a city hunt for revenue is commendable, a myopic vision for the future is not.
Look at Watson Island, where two major projects on city land – a Jungle Island meeting facility and a wonderful children’s museum – don’t link to the bayfront. Both would have prospered elsewhere, and the city would have had an island for public use.
The third Watson Island project, a mega-yacht marina, will link to the water – if it actually is built. Meanwhile, the public has been kept off city land for 13 years as developers dithered.
Or take AmericanAirlines Arena. Whatever you think of handing city land free to a private firm, it’s clear that this bayfront site downtown has absolutely no connection to the water other than sitting there rather than in a more appropriate spot.
The list is long. The point is that whenever anyone suggests any use of precious city bayfront, questions now revolve around how much the user will pay rather than waterfront’s highest and best use – or preservation.
This sell-off-the-bayfront illness has afflicted every crop of officials. Perhaps its germs lurk in city hall’s water supply, afflicting whoever occupies the place.
Because of this, waterfront lands are in danger as long as city officials control them. The only cure is a protective shield: a land trust that would force whoever sits in city hall to win approval from independent trustees before monkeying with city-owned properties.
Such a trust should also seek funds for such city-owned sites as its Gusman Theater, Miami Marine Stadium and James L. Knight Center, as well as parks and municipal buildings.
But the most vital trust role would be to protect the waterfront. Visitors to Chicago marvel that its lakefront is both vibrant and public. Visitors to Miami ask how they can see the bayfront. What is wrong with this picture?
Mr. Beckham first wanted land on PortMiami and then Miami’s deep-water slip on Biscayne Boulevard and part of the new Museum Park. Both sites have been saved for now, but to what end?
The director of the city’s Downtown Development Authority says that on the county’s seaport land “something will be built and it will have to be a moneymaker.” If there’s waterfront land, the aim is to build and make money, but such lack of vision need not prevail.
The deep-water slip was a landing site of seaplanes and where Henry Flagler’s passenger steamships docked – both legitimate and picturesque moneymakers without big buildings. Visiting naval ships still dock there, and the city’s Bayfront Park Trust – which the city commission can overrule – seeks sailing events and sailboat exhibitions there, also logical uses. Why in heaven look to build something there?
The problem is not a lack of good bayfront uses, nor even that we need any uses beyond public enjoyment.
No, the problem is that whenever someone comes along asking for waterfront, city hall’s question has been “What’s in it for us?” Maybe commissioners think being a good steward requires getting the most possible for land rather than preserving it for future generations.
That’s where trustees come in, to protect assets rather than expand a city budget. Commissioners face constant pressure to add revenue so as to spend more for whatever needs they see. But that’s not conducive to preserving assets long term.
If a trust is a good idea, citizens must initiate a referendum. Every elected official in history thinks voters chose her or him to control things, not to let trustees do anything. So don’t count on elected officials to preserve and protect.
If such a trust is a good idea, start now – while any city assets remain to protect. Who knows what cockamamie idea will be next for the waterfront? Whatever it is, if promised enough money commissioners will listen attentively.