Coconut Grove waterfront plan goes to Miami voters
10/19/2013 3:22 PM
10/19/2013 11:10 PM
On Coconut Grove’s picturesque but cluttered waterfront, a ramshackle marina, a seafood restaurant well past its prime and a funky if beloved watering hole known as Scotty’s Landing today occupy seven acres of choice public land next to Miami City Hall.
Now their leases are up and their long run is over. And what’s in the offing to replace them could forever change the spot’s simple, old-Grove vibe, which is sticking in the craw of village denizens with long-held Bohemian views and a default antipathy toward glitz and development.
The city and developers who won a bid to remake the place have ambitious plans for it: The developers would spend $18 million in private money to sweep away much of what’s there now, reconfigure and expand boat racks, and build a Shula’s steakhouse and two other new restaurants. They would also put a marine store in a refurbished hangar dating from the days when Pan Am flew seaplanes out of Dinner Key next door.
Their site plan would do something else Grove residents have long clamored for: open up water access and direct vistas from South Bayshore Drive to Biscayne Bay by creating a pedestrian promenade that would end at a new public pier.
The so-called Grove Bay proposal, which goes to Miami’s voters on the Nov. 5 ballot, is only one piece of a larger blueprint, years in the making and almost universally well received, that aims to revitalize and open up the historic village’s public bayfront, much of which now lies hidden and disconnected from the rest of the Grove by a jumble of buildings and boats and a series of asphalt parking lots.
A second, separate piece of the broader plan is slowly and simultaneously now getting under way as well. The city is tearing down the closed Grove exhibition center, a vast concrete fortress that blocks off Biscayne Bay from South Bayshore Drive, and will replace it with a 17-acre park, the new waterfront’s centerpiece.
A third piece hinges in part on voters’ approval of the Grove Bay proposal. The developers would be required to contribute $5 million toward construction of a three-story city parking garage, to be lined all around with 40,000 square feet of ground-floor retail. The narrow, 39-foot-tall garage would replace the surface lot fronting South Bayshore, as well as Expo center parking to be converted to parkland, and would sit well back from the waterfront so as not to obstruct water views, the city and the developers say.
Backers of the Grove Bay plan say it would make the Grove waterfront significantly more accessible and inviting to locals and visitors alike. They say it could also help boost the village’s nearby commercial center, which has been struggling in the face of competition from South Beach and South Miami’s resurgent downtown, by improving pedestrian connections and capitalizing on a unique water’s-edge allure.
“Miami is desperate for places where you can be by the water, to have a bite or a drink,’’ said Michelle Niemeyer, a neighborhood activist and member of the Coconut Grove Village Council, an elected advisory group that endorsed the Grove Bay proposal. “There will be more green space and broader and better pedestrian connections. It greatly improves what we have.
“Part of what’s really beautiful with this plan is that it redirects marina forklift traffic so that, going to the restaurants, you will no longer be walking through puddles of oil.’’
But the Grove Bay bid, which has the backing of Mayor Tomas Regalado and was approved by the city commission and various advisory boards in a series of public hearings, has run into an angry, last-minute blast of opposition from some Grove residents. In often-hyperbolic terms, opponents have branded the plan a “give-away,’’ a “scam’’ and, inaccurately, “a 120,000 square foot shopping mall.’’ The retail space, though substantial, is in fact half that amount.
The critics have also suggested the Grove Bay developers could build a casino on the site, seizing on a standard clause in the lease meant to stop anyone leasing city property from installing a gambling establishment without the commission’s OK.
A band of longtime Groveites, spearheaded by architect Charles Corda and Mango Strut co-founder Glenn Terry, has formed a political action committee to fight the measure.
Businessman Steve Kneapler, meanwhile, has filed two lawsuits claiming the city violated open-meeting laws and procurement rules in awarding the bid to the Grove Bay group, which also developed the Fresh Market and Grove Harbour Marina project just to the north. The suits are pending. Kneapler holds the contract for food and beverage sales at nearby Monty’s Restaurant, which could face competition from the Grove Bay restaurants, backers of the plan note.
Critics of the Grove Bay plan say it’s too slick, would overwhelm the site and block rather than open up water views. They contend the restaurants’ glass-and-steel design, by the renown Grove-based Arquitectonica, doesn’t fit in with the tree-shaded neighborhood. And while not everyone calls for keeping Scotty’s Landing — something city officials say they can’t legally do long-term without competitive bidding — they argue it’s better to leave things more or less as they are, or turn the whole area into a low-key park.
“The Coconut Grove waterfront is so cluttered with boats, and where’s there’s no boats there are mangroves, and you can’t see the water,’’ Terry said. “This is the prettiest spot in Coconut Grove. And it will be occupied by a Shula steakhouse with a banquet facility upstairs. This is not what people in the Grove want. It doesn’t have to be Scotty’s. But we can do better.’’
The opponents have also lashed out furiously at City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, a Grove resident, who has actively championed the project, directing insults at him and Grove Bay supporters in public meetings, in e-mail blasts, and in comments posted on the Coconut Grove Grapevine blog. The blog, written by Tom Falco, who opposes the plan, has become the site of warring, sometimes blistering comments both pro and con from Grove residents.
In an email to city attorney Victoria Mendez, Kneapler used an obscenity to refer to Sarnoff, drawing a rebuke from her.
The opposition has also led to some unruly public behavior. Some Grove Bay opponents became outraged when Sarnoff did not attend a meeting last week of the central Grove residents’ association at which he was expected, though the topic wasn’t on the agenda. Several people, at least some of whom were clearly inebriated, began shouting at and interrupting association board members, who vainly pleaded for order.
“We’re trying to save our neighborhood!’’ one man shouted before he was removed by police from the meeting room at the Coconut Grove Sailing Club.
Sarnoff, who sent a staffer to answer questions in his place, said he was at another residents’ association in nearby Brickell dealing with another contentious issue, the replacement of trees on the avenue’s median. Grove Bay opponents accused him of ducking them. But some Sarnoff allies said he was right to stay away, describing the meeting as “a mess.’’
The venom has extended to Scotty’s owner Scott Wessel, who issued a letter endorsing the Grove Bay plan only to be publicly labeled a “sellout’’ by some opponents. Grove Bay developers have pledged to rehire Wessel’s restaurant and marina staffers.
Some Grove Bay critics decry the boorish behavior. But they say longstanding mistrust of Sarnoff and other city leaders, who many in the Grove believe have often engineered sweetheart deals with developers that mess up city waterfront land, is playing into the opposition.
“They have a history of botching up public land. They’ve done such a poor job of developing the Grove bayfront in a poor and uncohesive way,’’ said Terry. “There seems to be no appreciation for open space.’’
Regalado, Sarnoff and the developers, however, say the opposition has grossly misrepresented the proposal, exaggerating its size and footprint while failing to mention the creation of the adjacent new park. The critics have insisted the Grove Bay plan violates the broader 2008 master plan for the waterfront, known as the Sasaki plan for the prominent landscape architecture firm that designed it. But firm managing principal Mark Dawson has written a letter endorsing the Grove Bay plan and noting that it improves on the Sasaki blueprint in some aspects.
“People are speaking from passion,’’ Sarnoff said of the plan’s critics. “People are not speaking from facts.’’
The Grove Bay group submitted a bid in response to an advertised request by the city, and won when its sole competitor dropped out. This was the city’s second attempt to secure a redevelopment plan for the site after an earlier effort fell apart. The group would get no city money, and would guarantee a minimum annual rent payment of $1.4 million to the city, with payments going up during the 50-year lease span if the project succeeds.
Under a legally binding proposal, the group would demolish the existing Chart House restaurant and Scotty’s and replace them with two mid-sized eateries, the Shula’s and a Peruvian seafood restaurant, within the same footprint. A canopy would join the two restaurants, framing an open view of the water and the new pier. A banquet hall and open-air public terrace would go on top. A new casual restaurant, mostly open air, would be built just to its south, where the companion marina’s storage racks now stand.
The choice of glass and metal for the buildings is not arbitrary, the developers said: It’s meant to echo the construction of the historic Pan Am hangars on the site, and provide customers and visitors with clear, panoramic views of the water.
The racks would be moved next to the developers’ Grove Harbour Marina just to the north, consolidating the industrial side of the operation and making pedestrian access cleaner and safer, they say. All trees on the site would be saved and supplemented with additional green landscaping.
The two Pan Am hangars on the site, both now badly deteriorated, would be renovated. One will continue serving as boat storage. All new buildings, including the garage, would be lower than the hangars so as not to obscure the protected historic structures.
Retail at the parking garage would likely consist mostly of stores to serve residents and park users, including a convenience store, yoga studios and bike rental outlets, the developers say.
Critics note that, with the exception of the successful Fresh Market, retail on the waterfront has not fared well. But the city and the developers say they expect sharply increased foot traffic and retail demand from park users, restaurant patrons and residents of the new ultra-luxury condo towers going up across South Bayshore.
“Our goal from the beginning was to bring people to the waterfront,’’ said Grove Bay principal Jay Leyva. “Our offices are right here, and I look out every day and see there is no one out there. We want to open it all up to the public.’’
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