PUBLIC OUTCRY PUSHES DOWNSIZING OF WATSON ISLAND DEVELOPMENT.
In an abrupt about-face and under the specter of potential costly litigation and perhaps a tough battle for public approval of his vision, Related developer Jorge Perez announced that he was withdrawing from a development partnership that was to see tiny Watson Island transformed into a veritable mini-Manhattan.
Perez made the announcement at a press conference last Friday at no more appropriate a site than Watson Island itself. Only two months earlier had it been announced that Related would be joining Flagstone Island Gardens to finally push for completion of the 12-year-old development effort. Related’s entry into the picture carried with it expanded plans for the site – dramatically increasing its footprint on the tiny green spot on the MacArthur Causeway upon which Miami voters had approved, years earlier, plans for a smaller, marina-dominated project.
However, while Miami political leaders hailed progress on a long-stalled development project, Miami Beach residents and elected officials and some Miami residents bristled at the scope of the development and of the massive traffic impact it would have on the Beach. Still others rejected the idea that public approval of a smaller project 12 years earlier should still apply to a larger one in an entirely changed development landscape. Lawsuit threats ensued and Miami Beach Commissioner and mayoral candidate Michael Gongora was quickly at the forefront of efforts to stave off the project, holding his own press conference weeks ago to announce his plan to fight the development. Also leading the way for initial Beach efforts was Jimmy Morales, who was dressed down – in a procedural way – by Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, a development plan proponent and who was also present at Friday’s press conference.
But it was another candidate for mayor, entrepreneur Philip Levine, who was quietly on hand for the announcement and he has been both praised and criticized for his apparent role in Perez’s decision-making.
“This was not a Philip Levine initiative at all,” Levine told SunPost this week. “I’m not in government, but I used my relationship with a commissioner (Sarnoff) and a developer to communicate the sentiment of many Miami Beach residents.”
However, the Miami Herald noted in its coverage that Levine “stood by Perez” during the press conference and also claimed that the press release announcing the press conference was sent by Levine’s mayoral campaign. The Miami daily newspaper’s take on the situation disturbed at least one Miami Beach commissioner.
“For some reason, the Miami Herald didn’t properly cover the story,” said Commissioner Jonah Wolfson. “This is a great example of why Philip Levine is the type of leader Miami Beach needs as our next mayor. Concerned residents and activists sought out his help. Philip did not grandstand or pull a publicity stunt, as his opponent did. Philip quietly got to work on the phone, and the result is that the Related Group’s overdevelopment plan ended amicably. No member of this commission had anything to do with solving that crisis. It was all Philip Levine and City Manager [Jimmy] Morales.”
Wolfson’s version of how things unfolded jibes with Levine’s own.
Levine said he attended several meetings with concerned citizens opposed to the expanded project and saw an opportunity to resolve an issue that the city government, to date, could not.
“You can solve things by working with people,” Levine said. “The threat of a lawsuit by my opponent (Gongora) was working against what people were trying to accomplish. You don’t threaten a strong, successful, self-made man like Jorge Perez – he just [digs in].”
Levine also had strong criticism for the city commission overall.
“There were rumors out before the [Related joining the development team] announcement and that Related had its eye on this project,” Levine said. “You would think Miami Beach leaders would be more proactive. If I were a commissioner or mayor, I’d have been on top of this. Obviously none of those leaders were paying attention. In other words, they were asleep.”
Levine said that after hearing the concerns of many, he personally approached Perez, who was vacationing in Europe. Several additional conversations ensued.
“Little by little, Jorge began to realize that the project would not be good for Miami or for Miami Beach,” Levine said. “We had a number of conversations and I also spoke to Commissioner Sarnoff. But it was [Perez] who made the decision. I never claimed responsibility – I just took the message from the public directly to the source.”
Officially, Perez claimed at the press conference that Related was pulling out to avoid a lengthy approval process.
Levine’s competitors, however, saw the candidate’s role as grandstanding, and feel the Related decision was virtually inevitable.
“I think that it was clear that the City of Miami Beach was preparing for a fight over the development, that the previous referendum was several years ago, and that there would certainly need to be another referendum before any development could move forward,” said Steve Berke, a mayoral candidate. “I think it was made very clear to Mr. Perez that this was the case by Miami Beach residents and officials, and he was left with no doubt that this would be a long and costly venture if he were to pursue it at this time. Therefore, as far as I can see, Mr. Levine played no substantial part at all in Mr. Perez’ decision to stand down.
“For Mr. Levine to stand at that press conference and take any credit for Perez’ decision is bordering on the absurd,” Berke continued. “However, saying that; I am confident in the intelligence of Miami Beach residents who I believe will see through this piece of political theater, just like they see through Levine’s attempt to buy this election by spending unprecedented amounts of money on his campaign.”
Gongora was no more impressed.
“It is no surprise that my opponent thinks that a phone call – developer to developer – can stop the proposed multi-billion dollar Watson Island project,” Gongora said. “Clearly, he is attempting to take credit for something he had very little to do with and displays a complete lack of governmental experience if he truly believes this project is gone for good. It is off the table for now but if we do not stay focused this project can easily be brought back.
“What is significant about the Watson Island project is that Related and Commissioner Sarnoff thought they could get away with a massive expansion of the project without public input,” Gongora continued. “If not for the quick reaction by the City of Miami Beach administration and the support I received from my colleagues on the Miami Beach Commission to opposing the project, Related and their partners would have kept moving the project along. That is why I took an early stance against this proposed mega development.
“The decision to pull away from the project does not mean that it is over for this proposed development,” Gongora concluded. “Something will eventually be built there. What is important is that it not further congest the already over-capacity traffic on the MacArthur Causeway. We have to make sure they do not try and play bait and switch with us again. I know that the residents of Miami Beach are smart and I am equally certain that they see right through my opponent’s antics for exactly what they are: political grandstanding.”
According to a Miami Herald report, Flagstone issued a press release following the Related announcement that it would proceed with plans for its smaller vision.
“I’d imagine other developers would be wary to enter a deal when they’ve seen the biggest developer taking a pass,” Levine said. “We need to be vigilant and make sure the project goes forward appropriately.
“Of course, there are some questions,” Levine continued. “Why hasn’t the leadership of Miami Beach come up with a transportation project for MacArthur Causeway? And if my opponent (Gongora) and a few other commissioners were so concerned about the traffic situation, why aren’t they concerned with the convention center plan and the ‘Disney World’ coming there and all of that traffic impact?”
Many residents on both sides of the Causeway are pleased for the apparent resolution.
“A lot of residents in Miami Beach are celebrating Jorge Perez’s withdrawal from the Island Gardens mega-project on Watson Island,” said award-winning journalist and co-founder of the South of Fifth Neighborhood Association Gerald Posner, who was present for the press conference last week. “It was undoubtedly the super work of the Watson Island Coalition, a seamless blend of neighborhood associations and preservation groups, helped along by political candidates running for local office, all superbly orchestrated by Frank DelVecchio and Lyle Stern, that got out the unequivocal message that a mini-Dadeland off the Causeway was not welcome.”