An out-of-the-blue decision by Miami commissioners that could pave the way for developers Jorge Perez and Stephen Ross to substantially expand a long-stalled shopping and hotel project on publicly owned Watson Island has raised a squall of opposition on both ends of the MacArthur Causeway amid questions over whether city officials skirted public scrutiny to give the influential partners an inside track.
And its setting up what could be a protracted legal and political squabble between Miami Beach and Miami, in particular powerful Miami City Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff, the expansions leading public proponent.
Leading the charge are Miami Beach city officials, a coalition of Beach civic and neighborhood groups formed expressly to fight the expansion, and a Venetian Islands resident who has sued the city of Miami for allegedly withholding public records on the deal. Beach officials say they, too, are ready to sue the neighboring city if necessary.
Another vocal critic, downtown Miami businessman and longtime Downtown Development Authority board member Jose Goyanes, says Sarnoff, whose district covers downtown and Watson Island, has blocked the semiautonomous agency from reviewing the proposal by Perez and Ross.
The critics note that the proposed expansion would put a shopping mall the size of South Miamis Shops at Sunset Mall, a 700-room hotel and a 100,000-square-foot conference center on the edge of a small island with only one road on and off an already congested causeway thats also the main link to South Beach. Because the MacArthur will also become the principal entryway to PortMiami once the tunnel now nearing completion opens, some Beach residents and officials fear the causeway will be strangled in traffic.
But no one outside Miami City Hall knew about the Perez and Ross plan in the works for nearly a year, according to the developers until Miami commissioners tentatively endorsed the idea during a meeting last month. The meeting agenda gave no indication of the new proposal, which seeks to jump-start 12-year-old plans for the unbuilt Island Gardens resort, shopping and mega-yacht marina complex.
Its all being done in the dark, said Lyle Stern, a Miami Beach commercial property owner and broker who organized the civic coalition. There has been no due diligence, no public input, no urban studies.
Said Goyanes: The fact is, it is public land and a sweetheart deal. Youre sticking a 500,000-square-foot shopping center in the middle of the bay. Thats not too bright.
Goyanes and other local business owners are concerned the expanded project could stifle the burgeoning downtown revival should the Related expansion lure away customers from new and planned retail centers, including Swire Properties massive, under-construction Brickell CityCentre.
In addition, a long-standing, state-approved development plan caps the total amount of retail that can be built in the designated district covered by the DDA, which comprises downtown, Watson Island and the neighboring Brickell and Omni neighborhoods. If the city shifts some of that allowable retail space to Watson Island, the DDA says, that would leave the rest of the district with less than 200,000 square feet of new space for stores, a relatively paltry amount.