After yearslong bidding battle, Miami faces legal challenge over marina referendum

RCI Marine and Suntex Marinas team sues city and current Rickenbacker Marina operator over redevelopment proposal

After yearslong bidding battle, Miami faces legal challenge over marina referendum
Rickenbacker Marina at 3301 Rickenbacker Causeway, Miami, FL with president of Rickenbacker Marina Inc Aabad Melwani (RMI Marina, Biscayne Marine Partners LLC)

Alleging the Miami City Commission showed “blatant and illegal favoritism” in awarding a multimillion-dollar marina redevelopment proposal to its competitor, a joint venture wants to torpedo a November referendum that would seal the deal.

Miami voters will be asked to approve the waiving of competitive bids and allow the city to negotiate a 45-year lease with Biscayne Marine Partners, an entity tied to the existing operator of Rickenbacker Marina. The developer would reconstruct the marina on Virginia Key into a mixed-use marina campus with slips, a dry dock boat storage facility, stores, restaurants and fueling facilities. The deal would also include two 15-year renewal options.

For nearly seven years, competing developers have engaged in a vicious fight to lease the city-owned 27-acre site at 3301 Rickenbacker Causeway. During that time, Miami commissioners twice rejected all bidders after protracted legal battles in Miami-Dade Circuit Court and state appellate court initiated by Biscayne Marine.

In the latest legal salvo, Virginia Key LLC, a partnership between Miami Beach-based RCI Marine and Dallas-based Suntex Marinas, sued Miami-Dade Elections Supervisor Christina White, the city of Miami and Biscayne Marine, which is led by the current operator Rickenbacker Marina Inc. The lawsuit, filed last week, also names Miami voter Arnold Douglas Pinkington as a plaintiff.

President of RCI Marinas and the plaintiff Robert Christoph Jr. (RCI Marine)

The complaint comes on the heels of a separate, $27.9 million federal lawsuit filed by the owners of Little Havana establishments Ball & Chain and Taquerias El Mexicano against the city. That lawsuit alleges Miami code enforcement and police officers were used by an unnamed city commissioner as his private enforcers in having both venues illegally shut down.

On Monday, City Manager Art Noriega suspended Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo, and will hold termination proceedings against him after he ran afoul of three of the city’s commissioners. In a scathing memo last month, Acevedo alleged two of them, Joe Carollo and Alex Diaz de la Portiilla, used the Miami Police Department and code enforcement office to go after businesses they didn’t like.

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Both lawsuits and Acevedo’s downfall suggest the city of Miami is run like the titular town in the Humphrey Bogart film classic “Casablanca,” where petty local government corruption runs rampant.

Despite coming out on top in two competitive bidding processes and beating back legal challenges by Biscayne Marine, Virginia Key LLC was freezed out of the current redevelopment proposal that is on the ballot, the latest lawsuit alleges. In July, the city commission voted 3-2 to place the deal on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Robert Christoph Jr., RCI Marine’s president, told The Real Deal that the past seven years have been a frustrating experience, given that his company was the top-ranked bidder in 2016 and again in 2017 when his firm teamed up with Suntex for the most recent competition. He said Virginia Key LLC also spent a lot of resources in civil court the past four years defending the city’s decision to select his team.

“Knowing what I know today, I would not have gone through this process,” Christoph said. “We look forward to presenting our case, and we feel we have strong evidence the city violated procurement rules. The city commission chose to ignore the results and award the company that lost both competitions.”

Virginia Key’s lawsuit is seeking a judge to order Miami-Dade County and the city not to accept the results of the Nov. 2 referendum because the ballot language is allegedly misleading.

Aabad Melwani, president of Rickenbacker Marina Inc., said that Virginia Key LLC’s lawsuit has no merit. “Their goal is to get these specious allegations in the media to hurt the campaign,” Melwani said. “Hopefully, voters see through that.”

Melwani noted that the city commission has the discretion to reject all bids and start over from scratch. “The city’s been at this for seven years and had nothing to show for it,” he said. “The city decided it should do a deal with the incumbent that satisfies the city charter requirements by going to a vote and letting the electorate decide. Now these guys are coming with this BS lawsuit.”