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Front Page » Top Stories » Miami Beach Officials Have Doubts About Watson Island Project

Miami Beach Officials Have Doubts About Watson Island Project

Written by on May 20, 2004

By Susan Stabley
A $426 million retail-hotel-marina project planned for Watson Island threatens Miami Beach’s "future sustainability," City Manager Jorge Gonzalez wrote in a letter to the South Florida Regional Planning Council.

Concerns about the project were outlined by Beach officials last week in response to Miami’s application to expand the downtown area’s Development of Regional Impact district to include part of Watson Island.

A Development of Regional Impact requires a process in which local, state and federal agencies analyze a major project in terms of effects on transportation, environment and public services.

The South Florida Regional Planning Council acts as a facilitator for such development requests and will make a recommendation to the state after collecting comments from area agencies, including affected cities, Miami-Dade County, the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Florida Department of Transportation.

Prompting the request to change Miami’s DRI is Flagstone Property Group’s plans to build Island Gardens on the northwestern tip of the manmade island that connects mainland Miami to Miami Beach via the MacArthur Causeway. The project includes two hotels with 605 rooms, 50 marina slips and 232,774 square feet of retail and restaurant space and a 4,000-square-foot maritime gallery.

The project could be incorporated into the existing development plan for downtown Miami pending recommendations from regional planners and approval of the state’s Department of Community Affairs.

Among Miami Beach’s concerns is traffic impact, said Mr. Gonzalez.

"MacArthur Causeway is the key linkage between Miami Beach/South Beach and the mainland, which makes it a key infrastructure asset to the region’s economy," Mr. Gonzalez wrote via e-mail to Miami Today.

Flagstone officials said Tuesday that they are aware of Miami Beach’s concerns and will send a response to the planning council with information asserting the sufficiency of the traffic study, which was submitted by Miami’s Downtown Development Authority.

Concerns over development of the manmade island is not new to Beach officials.

Even before the Island Gardens proposal, the city was worried about the moves of Parrot Jungle and the Miami Children’s Museum to Watson Island. The city fears further impact from proposals to build a headquarters for the Free Trade Area of the Americas as well as the hotel-retail project on the 86-acre island.

According to Mr. Gonzalez, Miami Beach officials have asked since 2002 to participate in discussions affecting the island.

Expanding the DRI district to include the Island Gardens project "will further exacerbate the adverse impacts already realized to date," Mr. Gonzalez wrote to the South Florida Planning Council. "The mayor and City Commission of Miami Beach feel this is an extremely important issue for our barrier island’s future sustainability."

The state wants the City of Miami to show how a massive $426 million hotel-retail-marina project benefits the public before it approves Watson Island for commercial use.

"The City of Miami still has to prove how the project is beneficial to the public," said Kathalyn Gaither of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Without state permission, Turkish developer Mehmet Bayraktar’s Island Gardens project can’t break ground on the northwestern tip of the manmade island that connects mainland Miami to Miami Beach via the MacArthur Causeway.

At issue is a deed restriction from 1949, when the state gave the island to the city for public use. The state – through a trust that oversees public lands composed of Gov. Jeb Bush, Attorney General Charlie Crist, Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson – must grant a waiver to allow commercial development.

City officials haven’t submitted information on public amenities in the project but will within a week, said Laura Billberry, assistant director of Miami’s economic development department.

The Miami City Commission has approved another request from the state, for a 15% share of the money the city collects in rent payments from the project.

That won’t take effect until Island Gardens is completed, said Ms. Billberry, when the state would get $300,000 from the $2 million annual rent. The city and the state may also be able to collect a percentage of the project’s gross revenues, she said.

The trust won’t meet to discuss the issue before August, said Ms. Gaither. The panel is scheduled to meet in June, but the issue won’t be ready until the city submits paperwork and the state reviews the deed restriction, she said. No meeting is scheduled for July.

Officials of Mr. Bayraktar’s development company, Flagstone Property Group, detailed a list of amenities Tuesday. Public components were part of a proposal reviewed by the city. Voters approved the project in a 2001 referendum.

"Flagstone’s design as well as public purpose, benefits and access have remained substantially unchanged," Island Gardens project director Joseph Herndon said via an e-mail Tuesday. "Still, over 60% of the development site is freely accessible to the public."

The developer has worked with area institutions to propose public amenities. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden has worked on the project’s planned garden, and the Historical Museum of Southern Florida has helped with a planned 4,000-square-foot maritime gallery.

Flagstone will make improvements – including landscaping – to the roadway around the property and under the MacArthur Causeway bridge, said Mr. Herndon.

The project’s main components are two hotels, 50 marina slips for megayachts and 232,774 square feet of retail space that includes an open-air fish market and a restaurant. At least six fountains, a performance stage and a reflecting pool are planned.

Flagstone will put together a calendar of events for residents from Miami and Miami Beach and create a trust to operate, maintain and repair public art, gardens, pools and fountains, Mr. Herndon said. The trust would be financed through operating revenues, he said.

An environmental watchdog group, the Urban Environment League of Greater Miami, has opposed commercial development on public lands such as Watson Island. League president Nancy Liebman said she is concerned that Flagstone’s planned public amenities are not "set in stone" through the property lease.

Flagstone attorney Judy Burke of Shutts & Bowen said there should be no concern because documents require site plans that include the amenities.