Watson Island Coalition formed to Challenge Mega-development.
Residents and groups from both Miami Beach and Miami are joining together to push for an improved process and perhaps, improved project for tiny Watson Island on the MacArthur Causeway.
Dubbed the Watson Island Coalition, the loose affiliation is still in the formative stage.
“A lot of people found out about this at the same moment in time,” said Lyle Stern, one of the Coalition organizers. “We all realized the need to come together to demand and require some kind of process.”
Stern referenced a decision by the Miami City Commission just a few weeks ago to extend the deadline for development of Watson Island, allow massive expansion of a plan that, when it had a much smaller footprint, was approved by Miami voters, and also the inclusion of new development partners in the project.
“Most of us didn’t know anything about it until it appeared in the Miami Herald,” Stern said.
At issue is a controversial development plan that has languished for a dozen years.
Flagstone Property Group won the right to develop Watson Island in 2001 and voters in a public referendum – required by the City of Miami Charter for public-private partnerships on the waterfront – 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.
Members of the public weren’t the only ones surprised by the decision in Miami and the massive expansion of plans for the tiny swath of green space dotting the Intracoastal. Shortly after the plan went public, Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Gongora asserted his opposition and intention to try to find a way to scuttle the uber-development.
“I don’t think the Miami public has been able to vote on this project,” Gongora told SunPost. “The government is getting rid of beautiful green space and I don’t know if that’s what the public wants.”
The plans on the table today certainly do not resemble those approved by Miami voters and there are signs that parties in Miami will also seek to re-open the issue.
“Right now, the Coalition is a loose connection of neighborhood organizations on the Beach side,” Stern said. “I read in the newspaper that there are downtown merchants who are not happy. I imagine there will end up one umbrella group. There are people on the mainland who we aren’t allies with but with whom we can work and who I think have the same goals. It’s wrong to say someone put together this coalition – it’s a loose meeting of interested people.”
Still, Stern said the coalition would be heard.
“The whole goal is to try to establish whether or not our road system is enough for this development in Watson Island, but also the impact on Miami Beach residents and businesses – and those in downtown Miami,” Stern said.
Stern said that Flagstone’s initial, smaller vision, the one actually approved by voters, was planned years ago before more recent factors came into play, such as tens of thousands of new residents downtown and the coming Port of Miami tunnel.
“It’s hard to imagine the approvals previously granted are just permanent, despite so many changes and such a change in the scope of the project,” Stern said.
“Our goal is a unity of purpose on both sides of MacArthur Causeway to prevent an unconscionable expansion of the Island Gardens project on Watson Island that will gridlock MacArthur Causeway,” said coalition member and Miami Beach activist Frank Del Vecchio. “In the ultimate insult to the public, a June 13 vote by the Miami City Commission, pushed by chairman Marc Sarnoff, opens the door to developers Steve Ross and George Perez for a mega-mall on this small island in Biscayne Bay. Their plans would more than double the size of the development by adding 330,000 square feet of retail development, (total 550,000 square feet), another 100 hotel rooms (total 705), plus 100,000 square feet of convention space. A traffic nightmare would result.
“Downtown business leader Jose Goyanes is organizing fellow merchants in opposition, while Sarnoff is aggressively promoting the project and trying to pit Miami against Miami Beach,” Del Vecchio continued. “This phony conflict should fool nobody. Residents and businesses on both sides of the Causeway will be impacted by the traffic generated by this monstrosity.”
Stern made it clear that the City of Miami and the powerful Downtown Development Authority (DDA) have the right to determine development on Watson Island. To date, however, it has not yet been made public if the developer will compensate the City of Miami at a higher rate than initially agreed upon for the previous, smaller project.
Stern also has nothing but praise for the new development partners.
“I think Perez and Ross are substantial and qualified and I want them to build more in South Florida,” Stern said.
It’s just that Watson Island might not be the best site for building more.
When Gongora called a press conference to announce his opposition to the plan, he cited a study demonstrating the potential impact from traffic alone.
Gongora pointed 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.”
Whether or not the Watson Island Coalition can affect change remains undetermined. For that matter, it’s questionable if the City of Miami Beach can, either.
“We’re exploring potential grounds (and entry points) for a legal challenge,” Miami Beach City Attorney Jose Smith told SunPost. “Additionally, we are engaged in conversations with parties opposed to the transfer of development rights and who have standing to sue the City of Miami.”
A discussion on the topic was scheduled for the city commission meeting on Wednesday, July 17.