Virginia Key marina upgrading, parking garage stalled
By Yudislaidy Fernandez
A Virginia Key marina has $1 million worth of upgrades under way to improve services and meet lease extension terms reached with the City of Miami a year ago, but other plans to build a 600-space parking garage appear stalled.
Rickenbacker Marina operators are investing about $1.5 million to make aesthetic and structural improvements to the family-owned marina at 3301 Rickenbacker Cswy. that can store up to 500 boats.
Following the expiration of the marina's 25-year lease on close to 20 acres of city-owned land — including water rights — Miami commissioners agreed in May 2009 to extend the lease 7˝ years. In exchange, the owners agreed to pay no less than $360,000 in base rent and contribute at least $2 million for design and construction of the public garage.
But those garage plans appear stalled.
"It's at a standstill given the economic climate," said Aabad Melwani, marina president and owner. "The city has bigger fish to fry than building a parking garage even though it would be privatized."
The city's proposed Virginia Key Master Plan — a development overhaul of the 82-acre barrier island between Key Biscayne and Miami — includes building a five-story garage with 600 spaces to serve patrons of the Rickenbacker Marina and adjacent Rusty Pelican restaurant at 3201 Rickenbacker Cswy. and the public.
To build the garage, the marina would contribute about $2 million and the restaurant no less than $4 million, the city has said. Madeline Valdes, city public facilities director, didn't return calls.
Mr. Melwani suggests the city wait to see what happens with restoration of Miami Marine Stadium to identify other uses needed in the area before building a garage.
Since the marina and restaurant operators would be putting up the money for the garage, Mr. Melwani says he wants to make sure the funds are well invested.
With a 7.5-year lease, he says he's not willing to put millions into escrow to wait for the city to decide to build the garage.
Calls to Specialty Restaurants Corp., owner of The Rusty Pelican, were not returned.
Improvements are in progress at the 500-boat marina, which offers dockage for 200 vessels and dry storage for 300.
These include building the space for a new restaurant, realigning two 10,000-gallon fuel tanks and replacing the roof on the 19,000-square-foot building, Mr. Melwani said.
The new restaurant, Rickenbacker Fish Co., accessible by land and sea, should open its doors on the building's first floor in June.
"It's been something we wanted to do to attract a reputable restaurant, but we didn't have the time before to execute the build-out," he said, adding the restaurant is to occupy the space for 6˝ years.
Another upgrade under way, he said, is stabilizing the shoreline on the property's north side, which includes building a concrete seawall with a paved walkway behind it.
Outside of the agreed-upon renovations, he said, the marina is investing money to help restore native plant species, which includes mangroves restoration and replacing non-native plants with native species.
"We'll be doing that on our own in the interest of being good stewards of the environment," Mr. Melwani said "We'll be implementing that restoration project along the seawall."
Other upgrades include resurfacing the parking lot and installing a new aluminum fence around the 17-acre property to replace a chain link fence.
Already completed is repaving of the 54,000-square-foot dry storage area that stores 300 vessels.
The marina, which offers fuel and maintenance services, is also installing about 90 finger piers along its 180 slips. Mr. Melwani says these piers are to allow boats to park parallel, making it easier to navigate them in and out and for service providers like mechanics to access them.
The permitting process is also under way to restore the marina's loading pier to launch bigger boats, Mr. Melwani said. The 1995-built loading pier can't accommodate larger vessels that patrons are now bringing to the marina.
Currently, Rickenbacker operators pay $4,500 a month, totaling $54,000 annually, to use 1,440 square feet of the adjacent city-owned Marine Stadium Marina at 3501 Rickenbacker Cswy. to provide a boat launching ramp.
"But [the deal] is far from ideal because the city is charging us a lot," he said.
With plans in motion to restore Miami Marine Stadium after the county allocated $3 million in April to renovation, the future of the stadium and the surrounding area, which includes the marina, looks brighter.
The 1964-vintage, city-owned stadium has remained unoccupied and neglected for more than 15 years, after Hurricane Andrew damaged it in 1992.
A group known as Friends of Miami Marine Stadium has been pushing for restoration and has the support of Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who has promised to help raise additional funds from government entities and donors for the restoration. The funds are unlikely to come from the coffers of the city, which faces a major budget.
In its glory days, the stadium hosted events such as powerboat races, concerts, talk shows and presidential appearances.
Mr. Melwani, in business there for two-plus decades, said to attract more people to the stadium once it is renovated the area needs more public amenities, such as a park, restaurants and marine-related retail.
For example, he says, with three big marinas near the stadium, there's a definite demand for marine-related retail.
"Make sure whoever operates it [the amenities] is well-capitalized and manages well," Mr. Melwani said. "Along with the restoration [of the stadium], add other uses with synergy to draw more people."