Developer backs out of plan for bigger Watson Island project

08/09/2013 3:25 PM

08/09/2013 5:12 PM

Developer Jorge Perez of the Related Group announced Friday that he is pulling out of a plan to develop Watson Island, citing the potential for a protracted, bitter approval process.

The announcement was just as surprising as the revelation only two months earlier that the superstar development team would join Flagstone Island Gardens, the developers who originally won approval to build a smaller yacht marina, shopping center and hotels on the publicly-owned island.

Along with the partnership, Related had brought forward a dramatically larger-scale proposal for developing Watson Island: more than doubling the amount of retail square footage to 500,000, increasing the number of hotel beds from 605 to 705, and adding 100,000 square feet of convention center space.

All of this would be squeezed onto the island, only accessible by the MacArthur Causeway — an already-clogged entryway to South Beach from the mainland.

Miami Beach residents and officials said Related’s plans would create a traffic nightmare for their city. Beach residents, well-known for their activism, quickly formed a coalition against the bigger, denser proposal. One Venetian Islands resident even sued the city of Miami for public records regarding the plan. Beach commissioner and mayoral hopeful Michael Góngora called a press conference and similarly promised to take the city to court regarding the development. City Manager Jimmy Morales, at the behest of residents and council members, went to a public meeting in Miami where Watson Island was to be discussed — much to the chagrin of Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who reportedly pulled the item off the agenda.

Watson Island is owned by the city of Miami, where a referendum is required for private development of public waterfront land. Flagstone’s plans were approved in 2001, but the development stalled. Flagstone blamed the 9/11 terrorist attack, the economic downturn and construction on the causeway.

In a statement emailed Friday, Flagstone wrote that site work construction would being in 2014 for a “more conventional plan consistent with Flagstone’s pre-existing approved design.”

A squabble had erupted over whether the denser development proposed by Related would require a new referendum and other approvals. Sarnoff also suggested Miami Beach was improperly butting into his city’s affairs.

Said Perez at a press conference on Friday on Watson Island: “I had very, very strong friends on both sides of the bay that I listened to very carefully, that said, ‘Hey, Jorge: You have to think this over because the increase in density that you want might require changes in planning and zoning approvals and so forth, and there is going to be a lot of opposition on both sides of the bay.’ ”

He added: “This is not the time to embark on what could become a major lawsuit between what should be very good friends. So I have decided because of that, to pass until such time that the cities and the people in those cities have a greater time to think about what they want to do with this great piece of land.”

On Friday, Góngora’s opponent, businessman Philip Levine, stood by Perez as he made his announcement. In fact, Levine’s campaign sent out the press release announcing the press conference.

“I played a very small part in this,” Levine said at the press conference. “I went to Jorge Perez and said to Mr. Perez, ‘This is what’s going on: People are very, very concerned.’ And Mr. Perez, being a very responsible citizen of Miami, took it upon himself to take a look at this and make his own decision.”

Also at Friday’s press conference was Sarnoff, who urged that the development of Watson Island should move forward. He said the construction of a marina would help recapture business that Miami-Dade County has lost to neighboring Broward County. He also offered “an olive branch” to Miami Beach.

“Rhetoric is fine and rhetoric is good. But at the end of the day, conversation is better and finding a place for all of us to agree is really where we need to be,” he said.

Morales said in a telephone interview on Friday: “I have always had a very good relationship with Marc personally and with the city of Miami, and I accept the olive branch.” He laughed.

“We have a lot of common issues that we need to work on in the city of Miami and Miami Beach, and I look forward to working cooperatively with them.”

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