Trying to take a third bite at an elusive bobbing apple, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado’s administration is now backing a $45 million bond issue to finance the long-promised renovation of the historic Miami Marine Stadium, a Virginia Key landmark that’s been shuttered and deteriorating since 1992.
The plan, scheduled for consideration by the Miami City Commission on Thursday, comes as Regalado and City Manager Daniel Alfonso make a push to hire architectural firms to restore the stadium and design a “flex-park” and maritime center next to it — elements first contemplated in a broader Virginia Key master plan a decade ago. Regalado, who pledged to make the stadium’s renovation a centerpiece of his administration, is term-limited and has only one year remaining in office.
“We need to launch a serious effort to get this done,” Regalado said in an interview. “We’ve seen that the commission is amenable, and we want to move it forward.”
The commission earlier this year turned down a Regalado plan to issue $275 million in bonds to cover the stadium renovation and a laundry list of other projects. Unlike that plan, however, the narrower $45 million proposal would not require a new property tax.
Regalado’s new approach won the endorsement on Tuesday of the Virginia Key Advisory Board, a panel formed by the city last year to guide use of the 1,000-acre, publicly owned and environmentally sensitive island, which is bisected by the Rickenbacker Causeway.
But the vote was conditioned on continued involvement by the board and the public in planning the stadium project, and was prefaced by a lengthy hearing in which panel members and members of the public questioned the city’s goals and the viability of its approach.
The crux of the issues: the lack of a clear use or operating plan for the stadium, concerns over potential commercialization of the site and its environmental impact, and the looming presence of the Miami International Boat Show, which has a five-year agreement with the city to stage its annual expo on the stadium’s expansive parking lots.
The city spent $18 million to repave the lots and install new utilities to accommodate the boat show, which made its Virginia Key debut in December. But the city failed to deliver on a promise to open a seven-acre, artificial-turf flex-park on the site once the annual show ended, prompting sharp criticism from parks activists.
Alfonso told the board that the city administration is now trying to deliver on the promise by issuing a request for bids from landscape architectural firms to design the so-called flex-park, which city planners described as an open space that would accommodate the boat show while also providing recreational space for the public the rest of the year.
“Ultimately, that is the million-dollar question: how to accommodate an event like the boat show and also have a space that’s very inviting to the public,” city planner David Snow told the board.
But some board members said they worry the city has seemed more focused on generating revenue from the boat show and other special events than on accommodating the public or providing a true green park. Several speakers expressed skepticism that the city’s idea of a flex-park is even workable given the need of the boat show for expansive hard surfaces to anchor large exhibition tents and truck boats in and out. The show also requires weeks to set up, hold and break down.
All of that would seem to exclude trees or natural landscaping, some speakers noted.
“Right now, what we have is bleak — a bunch of asphalt in one of the most beautiful places in Miami,” said Chris McAliley, a federal magistrate judge and environmentalist who rows in the stadium’s basin regularly. “It strikes me we’re talking about doing the impossible. We have a boat show that eats up four of the most beautiful months of the year. I don’t know how you call that a park. None of this is making any sense to me.”
Alfonso responded: “I don’t have the answers. That’s why were trying to hire an architect who perhaps can give us those answers.”
The city is also negotiating with Coral Gables architect Richard Heisenbottle, a preservation specialist, on a contract to develop a design for the stadium renovation. Preliminary estimates have put the cost of renovation at $37 million, though Alfonso said Tuesday that engineering inspections have raised “serious concerns” over the condition of stadium pilings that rest on bay bottom and suggested restoration costs could rise as a result.
Regalado’s $45 million bond plan also includes a vaguely defined 35,000-square-foot maritime center at the foot of the stadium that was included in a master plan for the island developed after significant public consideration under his predecessor, former Mayor Manny Diaz.
The center was meant in part to generate revenue to support the stadium and provide amenities to park users. Ideas for its use over the years have included a restaurant, a marine-oriented shop, kayak rentals, exhibition space and a small museum showing old boats. Alfonso said Tuesday it’s also needed to provide bathrooms and other services for the contemplated flex-park, but he added it could be excluded from the plan if the public doesn’t want it.
But he said those details can be worked out, in consultation with the advisory board, city commissioners and the public, if the commission authorizes the bond issue.
“Any plans that we have to renovate marine stadium is going to require what’s called money,” Alfonso told the advisory board. “At this point, all were trying to do is get the city commission to say we have money available. Then we can figure out what goes in here. We need a place to start. And I agree that you have to be involved.”
The bonds would be paid back with general city revenue and revenue from the stadium site — though Alfonso cautioned on Tuesday that income from the flex-park and stadium would never by itself be sufficient to cover repayment of the bonds or the cost of operating the facility.
He also said “one commissioner,” whom he did not identify, would ask on Thursday that consideration of the bond issue be deferred until next month. Alfonso did not state a reason, but advisory board chairman Greg Bush had also asked the city to put off a vote to give the public more time to consider the just-released plan.
Regalado has twice before failed to win commission support for more-ambitious renovation schemes. Beside the unsuccessful $275 million bond plan, the mayor had also backed an earlier proposal developed by a group of activists to bring in the Miami boat show and private investors to restore the stadium and redevelop the property around it. The commission rejected that plan as well, but gave the green light for the boat show to use the stadium parking lot for up to five years.
The neighboring Village of Key Biscayne, meanwhile, has sued to block the city’s plan for the site, claiming it would lead to large special events and create traffic nightmares for its residents on the Rickenbacker Causeway. Miami and Key Biscayne officials have been negotiating to settle the suit. Those are contingent in part on agreeing to limits to the number of events, Alfonso told the advisory board.