Miami Plans Court Action To Evict Watson Island Businesses
By Susan Stabley
The City of Miami is seeking a court order to evict tenants on Watson Island as developers prepare plans to build two more major projects.
"Due process requires that we seek and receive a court order to remove them from the premises," said City Attorney Alex Vilarello. "That order will call the sheriff to come in and remove them."
Watson Island, an 86-acre manmade island off the MacArthur Causeway between Miami and Miami Beach, is facing massive redevelopment after many attempts since a master plan was drafted in the early 1980s.
Not only is construction of a $47 million Parrot Jungle Island theme park nearing a July completion, but the new site of Miami Children’s Museum is well under way. The island’s Ichimura Miami-Japan Garden, built in 1961 but destroyed in 1992 by Hurricane Andrew, is to be resurrected in a $1.2 million endeavor that relocates the garden to an acre just east of the new Parrot Jungle.
But the two of the island’s largest projects still await a start.
A 30-year lease with two 10-year lease options has just been sealed for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau to move its headquarters to a planned $11.7 million Watson Island Aviation & Visitors Center. As part of the agreement, the city must evict by June 30 the Watson Island Fuel and Fishing Supplies or the bureau can back out of the deal. The Watson Island fixture of more than 30 years is owned by Miami native Martin Tritt.
Architectural drawings for the visitors center are about 65% complete, said bureau President and CEO William Talbert III.
On the northwestern quadrant of the island, Flagstone Properties has been approved to build its $281 million Island Gardens, composed of two high-end hotels, shops, restaurants and a mega-yacht marina. A referendum a year ago OK’d a lease of 13.4 acres for 45 years with an option for two 15-year renewals for the commercial development.
Flagstone attorney Judy Burke of Shutts & Bowen said the developer this summer would begin the permitting process.
Operators of three businesses received city correspondence telling them to leave Watson Island by Feb. 28 to make way for the proposed Flagstone Development but none has moved. The city sent letters terminating docking privileges for tenants at Watson Island Marina, including Casablanca and de Armas Pescaderia fish markets plus a business owned by John J. Waterman of Reward Fishing Fleet, also known as Blue Sea II, a sport fishing charter boat.
The four tenants, including Mr. Tritt, are represented by attorney Victor Rones and are in litigation with the city. Mr. Vilarello said the city plans to file counterclaims in circuit court.
Ms. Burke said the development company isn’t involved in the litigation among the tenants and the city. In fact, multiple letters since October 2001 between the Flagstone and the tenants that would be displaced detail numerous attempts to incorporate the existing businesses.
"We’ve met with them and talked about their needs," Ms. Burke said. "The correspondence speaks for itself."
But Mr. Rones described a different scenario than the one detailed in the letters.
"Everyone from the city gave us nice hugs saying, ‘You are all a part of this,’ but then they turn around and evict us. We went from hugs to being kicked," Mr. Rones said. "We are thoroughly confused."
Though letters from Flagstone repeatedly request to meet with the fish markets for information needed to design facilities within Island Gardens, Mr. Rones said concrete information was never given on how much the markets would have to pay to be in the project or where they would go in the interim.
"All we really ever wanted was to sit down with definite plan," Mr. Rones said. "It’s been like watching Jello get nailed to a tree."