Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado isn’t on the ballot in two weeks. But he’s campaigning as if he were, visiting senior centers, appearing at homeowners meetings, and doing radio spots to stress the importance of the election.
Because while Regalado isn’t up for reelection, Miami voters will consider three important proposals when they hit the polls Aug. 26. And the stakes are sky high.
On the ballot: a 1,000-foot tower on the bay that brings with it a $10 million upfront payment to the city; the ability for city officials to directly negotiate bay-bottom leases with waterfront property owners; and extra leverage over developers who drag their feet after earning approval to build on city land.
“I’m out there actively promoting the three amendments,” Regalado said.
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The most prominent of the ballot questions is the proposal to extend the city’s lease with Bayside Marketplace to 99 years and allow for the construction of SkyRise Miami, a swooping tower proposed on a spit of land behind Bayside. The hairpin-shaped skyscraper is pitched by developer Jeff Berkowitz, who says SkyRise would become a global symbol of Miami’s prominence, akin to the Eiffel Tower.
“Clearly the community could use a new first-class tourist destination,” he said.
To break ground, he needs voters to approve the project, which would exist as a subtenant of Bayside. The decades-old market has committed to investing $27 million in renovations under an extended lease.
Most important for city government, public coffers would also receive $10 million if the project is approved, and millions more than what is currently slated to be paid out during the 46 years that remain on Bayside’s current lease. Berkowitz and Bayside operator General Growth Properties have also committed to pump $40 million over the life of the agreement into the quasi-independent Liberty City Community Revitalization Trust.
SkyRise, however, has its fair share of detractors, chief among them Coconut Grove architect Charles Corda.
Corda is seeking to quash the SkyRise ballot question in a lawsuit now before the Florida Third District Court of Appeal. He says the ballot question should have been split in two to separate Bayside and the tower, overstates the guaranteed money for the city in the deal and omits relevant information — like the potential for SkyRise to one day host a casino room.
An online petition is circulating to stop the project but has attracted fewer than 400 signatures. Greg Bush, vice president of the Urban Environment League, is among those who did sign.
“It will be a view of the water for rich folks and a rip off of the taxpayers,” he wrote.
As voters consider the massive development, another question on the ballot will remind them that some highly touted projects never materialize. Pushed on the ballot by Commissioner Frank Carollo, a proposed charter amendment would force developers building on city land to seek a second approval from voters if after four years the proper permits haven’t been secured.
Carollo points to Flagstone’s mega-yacht marina, hotel and retail project on Watson Island as an example of why the charter needs to be changed. Voters approved the project in 2001, but after 13 years Flagstone has only just begun the earliest stages of work to prepare for the marina construction. Meanwhile, new appraisals suggest the company’s $2 million annual rent set forth in its agreement with the city is more than $5 million short of what Flagstone should pay at fair market.
Carollo says voters should demand greater control over public land and better results from developers. He is working with a political action committee to promote the proposal.
“Voters can change their minds,” said Carollo. “If after four years with the developer not pulling permits or starting construction, they should have the option to say we should stop this project or we should go on.”
A third ballot question seeks to change the portion of Miami’s charter referring to the leasing of city land that lies underwater.
Currently, the city is required to competitively bid any lease of public land, whether above or below water. Regalado and the city’s administrators say that’s an overly cumbersome and problematic process for some 5,000 acres of submerged land that spans most the edge of Biscayne Bay from the Venetian Causeway down to parts of Brickell.
The problem, they say, is that waterfront property owners are the only ones who can legally build on the bay bottom behind their property. Two years ago, the city ended up in a lawsuit with Brickell Place, a condo association that wanted to rebuild damaged marina structures on the city’s submerged land. Ultimately, city officials say the state negotiated directly with the condo association, and the city lost out on money.
When the commission took up the issue, however, a small group of activists wondered whether the item’s passage would be a precursor to a marina bonanza on the bay. Laura Reynolds, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society, said the city is creating a process for extremely sensitive land laced with use restrictions.
“So, unfortunately, I don't think what you're proposing here is really in the public's best interest,” she told commissioners. “And the reason for that is we have protected our aquatic preserve for future generations to protect sea grass and for environmental purposes .”
But Regalado said the city is only mirroring the policy used by the state.
“It’s a good thing because we have a lot of areas with submerged lands,” said Regalado. “We need to control what we have as a vision for the city and the waterfront.”