Miami's great green hope: a front lawn on Watson Island
By Michael Lewis
Miami just can't keep its hands off public waterfront. It wants to develop every speck.
Despite having a so-called green mayor, green space isn't on the city's radar.
Today the city has a shaky deal with a little-known developer who has never done a project here to add a 50-slip mega-yacht marina, two hotel towers, 221,000 square feet of retail, ultra-pricey residences and a maritime museum on its Watson Island land.
The deal with Flagstone Property Group was set up eight years ago, but $1 million a year construction rents have never started — nor has construction.
And since May the developer, who told the New York Times he has already put $49 million into the project, hasn't even paid the $50,000-a-month holding fee to the city.
Now city commissioners are talking about evicting developer Mehmet Bayraktar and holding a referendum on another development on the site.
Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who in March told the New York Times "I'm an absolute fan of the idea" of the $640 million Island Gardens development on 11 acres of the city-owned island, told us last week that the luxury high-rise hotels and residences aspect of the project "never made much sense."
Commissioner and mayoral candidate Tomás Regalado told us that if the developers can't pay, the city should "terminate the contract and the project and start all over the process for a new project in the area."
But why build anything there at all? This is the city's front door, an island off downtown that could become a green recreational area in a growing metropolis. Why the urge to jump from one project to another on the last undeveloped green waterfront?
Money is the answer. Island Gardens is to pay the city $2 million a month when operating, material to a city that's struggling to close a $118 million budget gap by Sept. 30. But even if developers come up with funds and complete the project on schedule, it will be in 2012.
In fact, no new project would fill city budgetary gaps in the next few years. So Watson Island should be viewed as a long-term city resource, not a short-term budget fix.
And it's the last such resource Miami has. If Flagstone doesn't fulfill its bargain, the city should mothball the site for the future as public recreation space, not rush to develop for the sake of developing.
It's not like value will drain out of the land if the city doesn't use it right now for something else. There's never been a shortage of businesses wanting to get their fingers on Watson Island since the land was first dredged out of Biscayne Bay nearly 100 years ago.
Old-timers will remember Watson Island as the base for the iconic Goodyear Blimp, until the city evicted the blimp seeking other development. Years later, the city tried unsuccessfully to get the blimp to return.
Watson Island was also home to Chalk's seaplane airline service, wowing visitors as oft-photographed seaplanes splashed down in Biscayne Bay, until the city tried to evict Chalk's, then welcomed the airline back, then saw it depart.
In 1980 a never-built theme park was planned for the island.
In 1985 Miami's tourist fishing fleet moved there when development of the Rouse Co.'s Bayside Marketplace evicted it from downtown city-owned waterfront. That fleet was in turn evicted for Island Gardens, along with bait shops and marine services, departing Miami forever.
Also in 1985, First Miami Development Co., backed by big names globally, planned a Miami Marine Exposition Complex on the island, plans scuttled after then-Commissioner Joe Carollo implied that one famed backer had ties to communist Cuba.
In the 1990s alone the city planned an air transport center on the island, then vetoed it; sought a mega-yacht marina, then sank the plan; worked with a new Chalk's owner on a Watson Island Aviation Facility to include a heliport and headquarters for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau; agreed to a costly move of Parrot Jungle from Pinecrest to the island; considered a two-berth cruise liner expansion there for the Port of Miami; looked at an island home for the Miami Science Museum; talked of a naval museum centered on a light aircraft carrier, and considered the island for commercial marine activity.
No, the city just can't keep its hands off the island, or any of its waterfront land.
The 86-acre island on the MacArthur Causeway now houses the Miami Children's Museum, the city-owned Japanese gardens that nobody sees, Jungle Island (formerly Parrot Jungle), and land inappropriately ticketed for two parallel tunnels to the nearby Port of Miami so that cargo trucks can rumble past museums to expressways.
How much more can the city cram into the island?
Worse, how much more does it want to cram in to patch a broken budget at the cost of the city's long-term waterfront future?
If the Island Gardens project doesn't survive, with rent paid on time and a contract signed as planned by February 2010, commissioners — who have never done well cutting business deals — should look 100 years back and 1,188 miles northwest, to Chicago.
July marked the 100th anniversary of Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago, in which architects proposed replacing chaos and congestion in an industrial city with a formal plan anchored by a 20-mile green park along Lake Michigan. Much of that plan became reality, creating the front door of today's vibrant Chicago.
In that 1909 planning document, just two words in type are visible in the heart of that greenery: Yacht Harbor.
Commissioners, before you hunt for more projects to eat up our waterfront, take Chicago's example to heart and mind. We have squandered most of our waterfront, mostly with buildings that block public views to the bay. But if Island Gardens fails, much of Watson Island will remain — and even more if the ill-conceived tunnel plan falls apart at its Oct. 1 deadline.
Fortunately, as City Manager Pete Hernandez noted last week, due to the recession there's no real rush to develop now. Neither the city nor developers can afford to act. "There is no demand, there is no potential on that site knocking on our door at this time," he said. "So we'll have to sit tight and see how things play out."
The city should, in fact, sit tight for years.
Watson Island can always be developed. As history proves, in good times deals of every sort keep cropping up.
But if Island Gardens falters, rather than grab the first deal that comes along, why not restore greenery and fishing and parkland that the island once had, landscape our front door and make it both visually pleasing and a major asset as a public recreation area.
Commissioners, safeguard our waterfront legacy. Follow Chicago's example to gain an urban park that itself is an economic stimulus for a great city.