Beach Commissioner Has Watson Island Development in his Crosshairs
Commissioner Michael Gongora wants the City of Miami Beach to put its collective foot down in regard to the massive development plan for Watson Island – and he has officially placed the item on the city commission agenda for its July 17 meeting.
“I promised residents to safeguard their quality of life. I know this project will directly impact that quality of life in an extremely negative way,” Gongora stated in a press release announcing a press conference last week. “The MacArthur Causeway is already exceedingly congested, and by allowing the reconfigured plan to progress and achieve reality we will only exacerbate the traffic problem.”
At the press conference, Gongora announced his opposition to the project and his intent to seek legal means to scuttle it. Gongora said he has asked the city administration to explore the possibility of filing suit against the Watson Island development proposed by Flagstone Property Group, Related Companies and perhaps also the City of Miami. Gongora points to the increased traffic that will clog the MacArthur Causeway as a result of the reconfiguring of this public/private venture. The MacArthur Causeway is a primary access point into and out of Miami Beach.
At the press conference, Gongora noted how plans for Watson Island had changed over the 12 years it’s been an issue. “It’s morphed in that time from a primarily marina facility with public facilities and access and now includes massive retail and a hotel with no traffic impact study done,” he said. “With the configuration of the [I-95] HOV lane and the Port of Miami tunnel project coming online… we’ve seen that the MacArthur Causeway can’t handle it.”
Gongora points to a traffic analysis study done by Parsons Brinckerhoff in 2009 that says about 16,000 vehicles travel each day to and from the Port of Miami through downtown streets – of which 28 percent or 4,480 vehicles are cargo trucks. The volume is expected to increase to 70,000 vehicles per day by 2033.
“When the tunnel opens, that traffic will shift to the MacArthur Causeway further congesting an already clogged major artery with a more traffic featuring a significant trucking component. Adding the retail component will only make it that much worse,” said Gongora. “The MacArthur Causeway will see at least a 20 percent increase from the Port Tunnel alone.”
Flagstone won the right to develop Watson Island in 2001 and voters in a public referendum – required by the City of Miami Charter – approved the plan. However, since then, there has been no groundbreaking, the developer got behind repeatedly in rent payments and as recently as June, at least one Miami commissioner was floating the idea of putting the project back out to bid.
Then, in June, the Miami City Commission voted to extend Flagstone’s lease and also to give more time for construction to begin. In the meantime, Flagstone is partnering with the powerful Jorge Perez of the Related Group of Florida and Stephen Ross’ New York-based Related Companies to become co-developers of the estimated $1 billion project.
Today, the vision of the project – and the one actually approved by Miami voters – is substantially changed. Where once it was envisioned and pitched as a marina and hotel project with ample public facilities, the plan today resembles more common public-private development projects. Retail space has more than doubled in the plans, up to half a million square feet; hotel capacity has gone from a planned 605 beds to 705; and 100,000 square feet of “convention center” has been added. Perez told the commission that the project would be “somewhere between Bal Harbor and the Dadeland Mall.”
Groundbreaking on some components was expected this fall with the others phasing in over a decade.
Gongora points out that the project is not the one approved by Miami voters.
“I don’t think the Miami public has been able to vote on this project,” Gongora said. “The government is getting rid of beautiful green space and I don’t know if that’s what the public wants.”
Gongora said he has asked the city administration to explore possible ways to stop or to change the scope of the development.
It’s unclear, however, if there is a mechanism that could work.
“It’s too early to say whether we have standing or not and whether we could prevail on any legal challenge,” Miami Beach City Attorney Jose Smith told SunPost. “We also found Miami residents (with standing) who retained counsel.”
Assistant City Manager Joe Jimenez has also been looking into the issue.
“In researching this issue, we believe that primary responsibility for the DRI lies with the Downtown Development Authority,” Jimenez said. “Hopefully, the DDA’s process for consideration of this development will be transparent and open so as to allow the City of Miami Beach and its residents to express concerns over the project. I am also aware that property owners in the DRI, which is obviously in the City of Miami, do not want to lose their development rights to a single project on Watson Island.”
Gongora said he believes the City needs to use every legal mechanism available, whether it is going to the City of Miami Commission or to the powerful DDA. “We need to do something before they start, otherwise the traffic will become an issue.”
It’s unknown how Gongora’s commission colleagues will address the issue. One fellow commissioner, however, indicated that he thought Gongora’s worries about Miami voter approval for the Watson Island project somewhat ironic.
“I find it hypocritical that Michael is apparently opposed to a Watson Island project while he stands ready to sell our quality of life to a couple of developers to make a bundle of money by putting a 90,000-square-foot shopping mall and 800 room hotel at the convention center site,” said Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, a fierce critic of City plans for redevelopment of the Miami Beach Convention Center.