Late one night in December 1902, after returning to his home overlooking Biscayne Bay in downtown Miami, Judge George Worley was shocked to see that Henry Flagler’s FEC company had constructed a large barbed wire fence for several blocks along the waterfront. He was so upset at his lost access to what he considered to be the public’s waterfront that he went to Budges hardware store, got a barbed wire cutter and tore down the fence. The FEC promptly put it up again and Worley cut it again and again until he was arrested. His case eventually wound its way up to the state Supreme Court that ruled in 1905 that the original plat dictated a public park along the waterfront. He won - but in recent decades battles for the public waterfront have gotten far more complex and the public understanding of the issues has gotten far more cloudy as wealth trumps public access.
Today, waterfront development in Miami has generally been forged through manufactured crises devoid of coherent long term planning. Miami Dade residents face multiple threats to what is left of our public waterfront. The issues remain complex and obscure to most residents. Yet this is a critical hour.
Look around our beautiful Biscayne Bay (if you can): Watson Island, Skyrise and Parcel B (waterfront of the American Airlines Arena) as well as the Marine Stadium basin at Virginia Key are all in the throws of complex development schemes that are taking away public waterfront land and access to beautiful Biscayne Bay – each to benefit a narrow set of wealthy or favored interests. Multiple lawsuits have been filed in the name of the public interest but the issue of standing by plaintiffs has been repeatedly used to thwart challenges towards government actions.
The loss of our public waterfront has been due, in large part, to the power of varied commercial interests – and their legions of consultants - who seize the initiative for land deals behind closed doors alongside government officials. Campaign contributions follow, public cynicism ensues, and public space is effectively lost. Years ago, for example, Miami passed the Carrolo Amendment, mandating public referenda on waterfront leases, but city officials established elaborate patterns of evasion such as using the Miami Exhibition and Sports Authority and “licensing” agreements.
The Marine Stadium area is a classic case in point.
Politicians fell over each other to champion the revival of this historic landmark in recent years; then financial scandal involving Friends of Marine Stadium ensued last December. Now, with little public input and ignoring explicit deed restrictions to the contrary, residents are about to be on the hook for a $16 m bond issue allegedly to benefit a one-time boat show next year that, in fact, could thereafter leave and return to Miami Beach. The pending arrangement (a camel’s nose under the tent as many see it) is clearly a ruse hiding far more intensive development of this sadly neglected land – also ground zero for sea level rise.
Such commercial use was specifically prohibited in the 2010 Master Plan unanimously passed by the City Commission and created by broad public outrage at an earlier plan promoted by the administration of Mayor Diaz. Since that vote the plan has been ignored by the city administration. The Master Plan also called for an island wide oversight/planning board to oversee coherent transportation, greater public access, a welcome center among other recommendations. Such a board has never been implemented.
City officials have admitted that the set up time for the Boat Show may be as long as four months which will adversely impact other aspects of the island- including Historic Virginia Key Park. And so far there are limited plans to rehabilitate the Marine Stadium itself - which might remain shut and, perhaps, set up to be destroyed.
A powerful argument in favor of the boat show has been that it is a major regional economic generator - which it is. Yet the gridlock of the proposed boat show that would be glumped at the Marine Stadium site - well over 600,000 square feet under 17 acres of tents- not to mention the horrors of parking - combined with the concurrent Coconut Grove Arts Festival – will surely work great harm to various local interests while keeping the public from the beaches for weeks. All for $1.5 million in direct revenue to the city from Boat show promoters?
As Miami Dade Mayor Gimenez has indicated, the location of the Boat Show might be better located at the Marlins Stadium where parking is less of a problem and far less infrastructure would be needed. A compromise might allow minimal use of the Marine Stadium basin- not the 500 plus additional boat slips now envisioned in the basin - which could easily become semi-permanent docks. Hello again camel!
Clearly, variations of Mayor Manny Diaz’s earlier grandiose commercial plans for Virginia Key are returning in secret and the Master Plan process has been revealed as a mockery of public involvement; an inside joke.
Other cities have done far better as they enlist broad public input into creating great recreational spaces and natural areas while planning their waterfronts as economic generators under broadly inclusive Park Conservancies and Trusts. Miami lurches from crisis to crisis without any overall waterfront planning vision whatsoever.
We need to break the culture of cynicism and deference to wealthy developers, residents and boat owners, as we build local consensus for a more compelling public waterfront. Where is the leadership and the vigorous public debate towards that end?
See the Master Plan for yourself on the city’s website. Also see The view of Peter Harnik of the Trust for Public Land’s on Trust and Conservancies.
Gregory Bush is Vice President of the Urban Environment League.