Environmentalists seek to derail Miami's Watson Island marina/hotels complex
By Susan Stabley
An environmental watchdog group plans to oppose a $281 million retail-hotel-marina development on Miami's Watson Island that still needs state approval.
The State of Florida has asked for a hefty share of the profits from the Island Gardens project, under development by Flagstone Properties on the northwestern tip of the manmade island between mainland Miami and Miami Beach.
Since the state deeded Watson Island to the city for public use, any private entity must win approval of the Department of Environmental Protection, said this week.
"Nothing's decided. We're still talking," she said.
The deed restriction could come up for a decision within two months, she said. Cabinet agendas are posted two weeks before any meeting and any discussion impacting the land will be public. The decision would ultimately be in the hands of Gov. Jeb Bush, Attorney General Charlie Crist, Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher and Florida Department of Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson.
"We are going to do what we can to make this a public issue and try to draw a line in the sand to say 'this is enough'," said Ms. Liebman. "Enough giving away of public lands."
The state is also reviewing other deed deals it has with the city, scrutinizing as many as a dozen land deeds for thousands of acres in Miami. Questions arose last year while the city was working on a lease extension for the Rusty Pelican restaurant that is tied to a $4 million expansion on Virginia Key, which is also deeded for public use. The state could pursue a share of profits there or from other existing commercial ventures on Virginia Key.
In the case of Flagstone's Watson Island, the city is responsible for clearing the deed restriction with the state, according to its leasing agreement with the developer. Flagstone was vetted by city review and in 2001 voters gave it approval to build on Watson Island.
Ms. Liebman said the approval by referendum will be the biggest challenge to the Urban Environment League's fight to preserve Watson Island. But her group is familiar with such battles, having just successfully helped preserve waterfront land east of the American Airlines Arena.
Flagstone, led by Mehmet Bayraktar of Turkey, hopes to complete the Watson Island project in less than three years.
"We are kept abreast as to what is transpiring between the state and the city and we hope that they come to a resolution as soon as possible," he said via e-mail to Miami Today. "In the meantime, we are continuing to move forward with Island Gardens and are planning the grand opening for September of 2006."
Mr. Bayraktar, chairman and CEO of Flagstone, wrote that public access and public purpose was the main focus of the conceptual design. According to the language of the referendum that voters supported in 2001, the project must offer a mega-yacht marina, fish markets, hotels with timeshare units, a maritime museum, public gardens, cultural facilities, restaurants, retail and support facilities in exchange for a 45-year lease with two 15-year renewals at a minimum rent of $2 million a year.
During the approval process, Flagstone estimated that Island Gardens would create more than 2,500 permanent jobs and that construction would temporarily add 10,000 more.
In the documents Flagstone submitted to the city, the developers said they plan to partner with Fairchild Tropical Garden and The Historical Museum of Southern Florida for a series of gardens and a maritime gallery. A waterfront promenade is planned, as well as a children's playground and a model yacht basin, among other amenities. Public art has been promised from Miami area artists Jose Bedia, Michele Oka Doner and Maria Martinez-Canas.
If the project does get built, Ms. Liebman said, the public offerings should be built at the same time as commercial components. On Monday, she expressed skepticism of the promises, especially in light of what the developers had promoted for the two hotels.
Two hotel brands that were presented to city officials for Island Gardens - Regent International Hotels and Conrad Hotels Ltd.; Starwood Hotel & Resorts, which includes the W and St. Regis hotels; Hyatt; Hilton, and Six Continents Hotel.