Watson Island debate over development grows heated

Rendering of Watson Island and Stephen Herbits
Rendering of Watson Island and Stephen Herbits

Critics of a proposed $700 million hotel and mega-yacht development on Watson Island cited distrust of Miami’s city government and horrendous traffic as reasons for their opposition to the project during a forum held Wednesday night at the Miami Center for Architecture and Design.

The development, known as Island Gardens, was the main subject of the Urban Environment League of Greater Miami-sponsored discussion on traffic congestion caused by development. Island Gardens’ lone defender that night was Brian May, lobbyist for the Flagstone Property Group, who pointed out that 67 percent of city of Miami voters approved the idea of building a hotel and mega-yacht marina on public land back in 2001.

“It will be the first mega-yacht marina in North America and it will be an attraction that is second to none,” May said. “Some may feel that this is not a worthwhile [endeavor] and I understand that feeling. The problem is, that train left the station 14 years ago.”

But Flagstone arch-critic Stephen Herbits, a Venetian Islander who has sued to stop Island Gardens, said Miami officials are improperly allowing the developer to make major changes to its plans, which calls for two high-rise towers, with 605 hotel rooms, 50 boat slips 400-feet deep, and 220,000 square feet of retail. Those changes include increasing the number of parking spaces from 1,500 to 1,700 and allowing the project to be built in phases instead of all at once.

Such amendments should have forced the city to seek new proposals from developers wishing to build on 24 acres of city-owned land, Herbits, a retired executive for Seagram, argued. It will also allow the city to seek an annual rent of $7 million a year for the right to build on the 24 acres, instead of the $2 million per year lease the city has with Flagstone, Herbits added.

In response to his litigation, Herbits said the city attorney’s office has tried to use lawyers’ letters to intimidate him. He also said Miami officials have attempted to obscure public records, and accused Assistant City Manager Alice Bravo of misleading state officials of Island Gardens’ impact on the MacArthur Causeway with a flawed traffic report.

“A lot of people, including some very senior people in the city, have been advising me confidentially because they’re afraid of retaliation,” Herbits said. He added, to thunderous applause, that these same secret advisers tell him he has to win because “‘you have to stop the city of Miami from behaving this way.'”

Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco said his city can’t trust traffic studies initiated by the developer. So, it is conducting its own traffic study. He also lamented Miami officials’ lack of good neighborliness and transparency about a project that’s being developed right next to MacArthur Causeway.

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“I-395, that’s our neck,” Grieco said. “Miami Beach is the head.”

Frustration over Miami’s haphazard approach to development was also repeated by members of the audience. “The problem is that we have a morally corrupt and intellectually deficient government,” said Charles Corda, a Coconut Grove architect and activist. “They don’t care about the future. They don’t act on accommodating the density they’re allowing.”

Former Miami mayor Maurice Ferre said he was among the few Miamians who voted against development on Watson Island in 2001. At the same time, it’s impossible to stop future development, he said.

“The question is, ‘what kind of growth do we want?’” Ferre said. High-rise development is far more preferable, Ferre argued, than allowing urban sprawl to spill over into the Everglades.

But most major cities have infrastructure to accommodate that growth with subway systems and rail projects, Grieco said. “We are 20 years behind when it comes to public transportation,” he said.

Grieco later added that he wished that the county pursued a light rail Bay Link connection between Miami and Miami Beach a decade ago. Ferre, on the other hand, believes that a rail connection between Miami and Miami Beach is a pipe dream, and an expensive one at that.

“It’s never going to happen,” Ferre said. “No way will it cost less than $800 million, and where will it come from?”

A bus rapid transit system, on the other hand, is far more affordable and easier to set up, he said.

“They operate like trains,” Ferre said. “They go 55 miles per hour, guaranteed.”

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