Tomás Regalado has made improving Virginia Key a priority during his two terms as Miami mayor. But as his time in office nears an end, it’s beginning to look like much of a grand plan to turn a broad swath of the barrier island into a modern destination for boaters, tourists and locals will fall to his successor.
Even as city commissioners unanimously voted Thursday to take a second stab at revamping two aging public marinas on the west end of the island, the chances that a developer will be picked in time to make it onto the November ballot before Regalado steps down aren’t great.
After a first competition imploded over the summer, a second request for proposals was rushed back before the commission on Thursday with the faint hope of nailing the project down before the mayor leaves office. Administrators are preaching urgency, but even they are hedging their bets.
“We’re all anxious,” said Robert Christoph, Sr., whose RCI Group won the administration’s endorsement this summer to redevelop the Rickenbacker and Marine Stadium marinas before commissioners scrapped and restarted the selection process. “That property is 50 years old and it’s tired. Something has to be done.”
For now, though, the odds appear stacked against anything happening in 2017.
Following Thursday’s vote, the city’s real estate department will launch a competition with a requirement that bids be received by mid-May, giving them about two months to evaluate proposed developments, name a winner, negotiate a lease, dispose of any bid protests — there were two last year — and get commissioners’ seal of approval before they go on a summer recess in August. For context, last year’s solicitation took more than 12 months from start to finish.
We’re all anxious. That property is 50 years old and it’s tired. Something has to be done. Robert Christoph, Sr., RCI Group
In the meantime, the city is still likely to be burdened by some of the baggage that dragged down the last competition. The city’s conservation-minded Virginia Key Advisory Board remains critical of the project.
Much of the prolonged discussion among commissioners Thursday focused on ways to minimize the chance of legal challenges arising over the selection process that would force delays past election day. Regalado and other city officials say the city should not bear the cost of a special election.
One sticking point raised by potential bidders was that the site’s Civic Space zoning, strictly read, could preclude any construction at the marinas because they’re adjacent to a natural conservation area. City planning director Francisco Garcia said he did not expect a problem because a longstanding master plan for the island foresees renovation of the marinas. But Commissioner Francis Suarez proposed adding language to the Civic Space zoning rule explicitly allowing construction pursuant to a master plan, an idea embraced by the commission.
Commissioners also approved a series of other conditions, several of them proposed by the Virginia Key Advisory Board, including inclusion of a member of that body on the selection committee picking the marina developer and a prohibition on creating a Special Area Plan for the site. Special Area Plans, carveouts for large properties that allow planners and developers to depart from strict zoning rules and allow greater intensity of development in exchange for public benefits, are proliferating and have become controversial in some parts of Miami. That means there can be no hotel or residential development at the site, a possibility some activists had feared.
What I don’t want is someone to come later and ask for a bunch of zoning changes. Commissioner Francis Suarez
Clarifying what can and can’t be built on the site now will reduce the change of litigation and would also preclude the winning bidder from submitting a final plan that doesn’t meet the zoning code, Suarez and other commissioners said.
“What I don’t want is someone to come later and ask for a bunch of zoning changes,” Suarez said.
But commissioners declined to adopt some advisory board recommendations, including a request that the 75-year lease be reduced to 50 years. That, administrators told the commission, would make financing the project difficult if not impossible.
For Regalado, there’s a legacy aspect to the project. He’s finally secured funding for a Marine Stadium restoration after years of futile efforts, and the first small steps toward renovations are currently under way. He’s also landed a long-term relationship at the site with the Miami International Boat Show, which returns to Virginia Key on Thursday.
But the groundwork for his vision remains incomplete with the marina project uncertain, in part because the special obligation bonds the city plans to issue in order to pay for stadium renovations are to be funded in part with the money coming from the rebuilt marinas.
So far, commissioners have shown they’re not willing to rush the project onto the 2017 ballot. If that doesn’t happen, the winning bidder can cut a $1.5 million check to hold a special election, or wait until 2018. In the meantime, a legal settlement with Rickenbacker Marina Inc. ensures the current private operator will remain on-site for at least another year, paying roughly $1.2 million to the city.
Regardless, Regalado says his legacy is set with the stadium. He says the marinas are ancillary.
“I promised a stadium,” he says. “I never promised a new marina.”