Can superstar developers Jorge Perez and Stephen Ross reignite long-stalled plans to build a luxury hotel complex, shopping center and mega marina on Watson Island?
The Miami City Commission is willing to bet on it.
Last week, the commission voted to give the project’s original developer, Flagstone Island Gardens, a lease extension that grants additional time to start construction. The move will allow Perez’s Related Group of Florida and Ross’s New-York based Related Companies to become co-developers on the project, which they say will cost more than $1 billion.
Related is pitching dramatic changes to the 12-year-old redevelopment plans. Among them: increasing the amount of retail space from about 220,000 to 500,000 square feet; increasing the number of hotel beds from 605 to 705; and adding 100,000 square feet of new convention center space to tiny Watson Island.
Most members of the Miami City Commission embrace the new vision.
“This is a project we’ve been working on for a long time,” Vice Chairman Willy Gort said Thursday. “Finally, we have someone local who is going to get it done.”
But Commissioner Frank Carollo raised concerns about delaying construction, noting that the project has already dragged on for 12 years without breaking ground — or bringing in the revenue that was once promised.
“We’re giving yet another extension and realistically, we’re getting nothing in return,” Carollo said, before casting the lone vote against the delay. He also pointed out Miami’s reputation for cutting sweetheart deals with developers, and went as far as to suggest that the project be rebid and put out to public referendum again.
Flagstone, led by Mehmet Bayraktar, won the right to develop Watson Island in 2001. The original proposal was based around the marina and hotels, and included a modest shopping area. The plans were approved by referendum — a requirement for all public-private waterfront development deals in Miami.
Flagstone has since been paying rent on the vacant land. Though the annual rate has fluctuated, it currently stands at $750,000. The rent was set to increase to $1 million annually when construction began, and rise again — and include a portion of gross sales — when the development opened for business.
Despite high hopes, the project stalled almost immediately. The developers blamed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the economic downturn and later, construction on MacArthur Causeway. Bayraktar fell behind on rent more than once, prompting threats from city leaders to kill the project.
Flagstone managed to hang on to the lease. Construction on the marina was supposed to begin in September, with the remaining work being completed in phases over the next decade.
City commissioners welcomed the news that Related signed a letter of intent to join the project. Perez’s Related Group is considered one of the top builders of high-rise condos in the Southeast. And the affiliated Related Companies, run by Ross, built the Time Warner Center in New York and CityPlace in West Palm Beach.
“Finally, I think everyone is more comfortable with the project now,” Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones said.
Speaking to the commission Thursday, Perez laid out his vision for waterfront shops that would become a tourist destination and also serve the residents of downtown Miami. The final product, Perez said, would fall “somewhere between Bal Harbor and the Dadeland Mall” in terms of luxury shopping, and include the convention center space, two high-end hotels and park space.