Developers seen preventing proliferation of vacant river parcels
By Risa Polansky
Threats to the future of the marine industry on the Miami River are making waves with industry proponents.
There's a chance the City of Miami could temporarily remove Port of Miami River protections from its comprehensive plan this month, leaving open the possibility for more residential development along the working river.
Some marine industry players fear the move could be fatal. Others say unused riverfront land needs to be occupied and the door shouldn't be closed to residential uses.
Fran Bohnsack, executive director of the Miami River Marine Group, told Planning Advisory Board members this week that, should they vote this month to remove the comprehensive plan's river element, "you have killed an industry."
About 105 marine-related companies operate in the vicinity of the river, she said. The Miami River Marine Group, a private port cooperative of cargo carriers and marine-related businesses, boasts 55 members.
At a meeting of the Miami River Commission's Urban Infill Working Group last month, Richard Dubin, vice president of Haiti Shipping Lines, called deleting river-specific elements "utterly not acceptable."
Munir Mourra, president of River Terminal Services, said the city is "leaving us all in a limbo here."
The move to alter the plan's protective river element comes after a panel of appellate court judges overturned commission-approved riverfront land-use changes that would have allowed for residential developments.
Follow your comprehensive plan or change it, the court told the city.
Administrators chose the latter, first crafting an amendment that would limit protection of the industry to a small area, then drafting another that proposes deleting the element altogether, with plans to create a new river element over the next three years.
The measure is to come up for an advisory board vote April 16.
If the specific river language is deleted, the comprehensive plan's coastal management element will still encourage "preserving traditional water-dependent and water-related uses," planning department spokeswoman Laura Lavernia said in an e-mail.
The move to rework the river-specific element is intended to avoid future misinterpretations by the courts, city officials say.
"For some people, they aren't misinterpretations," said Dick Bunnell of Bunnell Foundation, a marine contractor, at the river commission meeting last month.
Planning Advisory Board members this week asked city staffers whether eliminating the protective industry element is meant to drive marine business away.
"The intent is not to slight the marine industry," said Harold Ruck, chief of community planning. "We're not discouraging any of that… but we're arguing there are other uses that could be compatible."
Frank Castañeda, chief of staff for Commissioner Angel Gonzalez, whose district includes much of the river, said the commissioner agrees.
Mr. Gonzalez's "position is he's not opposed to industry on the river," Mr. Castañeda said.
"His problem is to keep abandoned property on the river with no use or reuse."
Some river properties were abandoned before residential developers bought them, Mr. Castañeda said, collecting trash and attracting vagrants.
When industry doesn't step up to take the space, he said, it makes sense to allow residential development.
"If the industry wants to fill it in, we don't have any objection to that," he said. "But don't keep property vacant."
Some land is empty now in the wake of the court battles.
Captain Beau Payne of P&L Towing confirmed riverfront properties have sat vacant in the past. "But some of them were used but have been bought by developers and then left empty."
Planning Advisory Board members did not specifically address this week whether they'd be amenable to eliminating river protections later this month, reserving comment for the scheduled vote.
Nina West did say that "the entire Miami River group of businesses is important."
Board Chair Arva Moore Parks said the same in an interview: "I think the marine industry is very important."
Board alternate Donna Elizabeth Milo said that, historically, once residents move in next to industry, complaints about noise and smells surely follow, sometimes driving businesses out.
Mr. Mourra of River Terminal Services said also that building residences along the working river has sent property taxes skyrocketing. "You can't even afford to pay them."
In a March 18 letter to Ms. Parks, Fred Kirtland, CEO of Miami River-based Merrill-Stevens Dry Dock Co., urged the advisory board to continue to protect industry on the river.
"We respectfully request that full consideration be given to a city of Miami Comprehensive Neighborhood Plan that will allow for the continuation of the marine businesses operating throughout the Miami River," he wrote, adding that his operation has a major expansion in the works.
That expansion is to create a repair and refit facility for mega yachts that "will capture this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure the long-term future of the marine industry on the Miami River and re-establish Miami as the most preferred location for mega-yacht repair in the Western Hemisphere."
The facility is to employ 500 once complete.
Other bright spots are also on the working river's horizon.
A long-idle dredge is back in the water, pushing forward the stalled multi-million-dollar endeavor to clean and deepen the river.
Dredging is essential to the working river's future, supporters say, and will mean more activity there.
And the promise of a mega-yacht marina on Watson Island could drum up business for river-based companies.
"The Miami River used to be rich with boat builders and shipbuilders," said Mike Hatami, head of Mirage Yachts. "One by one, they've (the city) decimated the working waterfront here."
Continuing to do so could mean the death of the industry, Mr. Mourra of River Terminal Services said.
"There's no ifs, ands or buts about it — changing from industrial to residential would not be economically viable," he said. "If they were to build those condos… they would try to force us to shutdown. Definitely it will drive businesses out."