If the Miami River is really dead, why do the bridges go up?
By Michael Lewis
Downtown, the Miami River can be an annoyance — you're driving across town, the bridge goes up and there you sit, waiting four or five minutes.
But out past Northwest 22nd Avenue, the Miami River is far different — it's a fast-paced economic engine that carries ships from 26 international terminals out to the Caribbean and back again, floating $4 billion worth of goods a year on its narrow, twisting back.
Much of that river, which handles as much shipping as the busy Port of Tampa and is Florida's fourth largest seaport, lies within the district of Miami Commissioner Angel Gonzalez.
"That river is dead," Mr. Gonzalez told the commission last week as he voted to remove marine industry protections along the river from the city's land-use plan. He'd rather develop condos and mixed-use projects there to help the area's economy.
What is it about $4 billion a year that Mr. Gonzalez doesn't understand?
Does he think developers will pump that much into condo towers and dump enough jobs into his district to replace all those that river shipping supports?
Does he think banks will scramble to finance towers while tens of thousands of condo units are still rising and planned projects near the river are handing their land over to lenders because they can't repay their loans?
Does he think that removing the "Port of Miami River" designation from city plans won't push marine terminals to sell out to future high-rises that might never get built, killing river shipping in the process?
Does he care? Do his fellow commissioners?
Anyone paying attention knows that the Miami River is a working river — even though the commission refused to allow that phrase in its plans.
Sure, people live along its banks. Sure, it fills with pleasure boats on weekends. Sure, it's pleasant to dine on the banks.
But the river that bisects the city is also a key cog in Miami's international business machine, which joins our burgeoning visitor enterprises atop this county's economic chart.
Entrepreneurial businesses knit together to make Miami-Dade's economy viable. The river's shipping industries are small — but together, they are a $4 billion industry, towering over almost any one enterprise in our county that isn't government related.
They're a different breed than what flows into the government-owned Port of Miami, a grittier group in an informal port. The Port of Miami is no place for these Caribbean-targeting ships, just as the Port of the Miami River is no place for the giant cargo ships from Europe and Asia. Both are vital to our economy, but they're very different.
Governance of the river, the lifeline of this Caribbean link, is complex. Thirty-three public agencies, including the City of Miami, have river responsibilities.
But the city alone by a three-person vote last week may have tipped the river balance. Marine industries are out, high-rise developments are in.
Fortunately, recent appellate court decisions on riverbank land use have three times rebuked the development-happy city. And maritime interests may appeal this latest attempt to tip the balance to the South Florida Regional Planning Council or the Florida Department of Community Affairs.
Certainly, there's ample reason for alarm along the river, and ample reason to yet again overrule the city commission's would-be developers.
So don't sound the death knell for the river marine industry just yet.
Because, despite Commissioner Gonzalez, that industry is still very much alive, adding three cargo terminals and a boat manufacturer in the past year.
And if the river is dredged to a 15-foot depth for its full 5.5-mile length as planned by next year, it will add more growth in marine activity. Today, with a channel depth of only 9 to 11 feet, fully loaded ships can only enter or leave the river at high tide — an artificial barrier to trade and profits.
Now the city wants to erect another barrier to international shipping by turning recreational boatyards and cargo terminals into developers' playgrounds.
Don't get this wrong: other projects have a place on the riverfront. We've already allowed downtown high-rises that will make great homes. In the future, we'll get more no matter what, because demand will be real and economics will dictate the land use.
But by making the Port of Miami River a nonentity in the city's planning, the commission is sending the strongest possible signal that a $4 billion industry that will balloon the day Cuba opens to free trade is being targeted for something our economy needs far less: more condos.
Riverfront living can be wonderful. But selling residents a water view that lacks maritime life is a bad deal for everyone — especially Miami's long-term economic health.
If Commissioner Gonzalez and his peers aren't careful, they'll really create their own nightmare: that dead Miami River.
That'll be the day those downtown bridges stop annoying motorists with shipping traffic on the river and our economy pays the $4 billion price.