After years of talk, it looks like Miami is finally moving forward with a new vision for the gateway to Virginia Key, a jewel of an island north of Key Biscayne.
Hidden for decades behind a clutter of boat stacks, a hodge podge of restaurants and crumbling asphalt, one of the city’s greatest assets has long sat under-utilized. But work is under way to turn the area between the Rickenbacker Causeway and the Marine Stadium Basin from a helter-skelter collection of abandoned and moderately performing assets into a cash cow.
Rubble-strewn parking lots west of the Miami Rowing Club are being converted into an $18 million exhibition space that will host the Miami International Boat Show in February, while Miami continues to discuss putting an estimated $30 million renovation of the Marine Stadium and its operation out to bid. Meanwhile, with far less publicity, investors are lining up for a potentially lucrative renovation and redevelopment of 26 acres of submerged and dry land to the immediate northwest, where an old lease for the Rickenbacker Marina is expiring next summer.
Miami administrators expect to fetch more than $2 million a year, potentially tripling their income on a new 40-year lease with two 15-year options. They also want $3 million down for a municipal parking garage, as well as a commitment to increase the Rickenbacker Marina’s wet slips from 190 to nearly 500. Whoever emerges from the city’s competitive process in the fall will also get the run of the Whiskey Joe’s restaurant and the city’s Marine Stadium Marina, assuming voters approve a referendum.
Everything in the area is on the table. Well, almost.
Two assets are not included in the overhaul of Virginia Key: the Rusty Pelican restaurant, located to the far northwest on a spit of land that juts into the bay, and the Atlantica Seafood Restaurant and Fish Market — a rustic, somewhat notorious 6,000-square-foot eatery and lounge smack in the middle of everything.
Known as much for occasional bar fights, parties, lawsuits, and unpaid rent as its tasty mahi mahi, Atlantica’s exclusion from the city’s plans has prompted snickers from people familiar with both the bidding process and the fact that the venue is operated on the cheap and month-to-month by a connected family.
“The City is requiring a minimum investment of $25 [million] towards the redevelopment of one of the most coveted commercial water front properties in the nation,” one unnamed bidder wrote recently to the city’s Department of Real Estate Asset Management. “You have invited very credible developers, investors, and operators to participate in this bid. Why, with the importance and large capital requirement of this development, should a 3rd rate month to month licensee be allowed to remain on the site, to the detriment of the entire project?”
The city’s real estate department declined to directly respond to that question this month, opting simply to say that Atlantica, often referred to as the Bayside Hut, will not be included in the lease. But here’s one presumptive answer that comes up privately among those watching the process: The bar is operated by the family of attorney and former Miami Commissioner Armando Lacasa.
The family has been associated with the waterfront venue since 2008, when their Blue Green Bay Corp. entered into a management agreement with Bayside Seafood Restaurant, which holds a revocable license with the city. But city officials and the Lacasas dismiss the notion of favoritism as political gossip.
“I don’t think it’s about the Lacasas,” said Mayor Tomás Regalado. The mayor noted that Bayside Seafood Restaurant has held a month-to-month license since 1994, long before the Lacasas got involved. He said the bohemian restaurant, fish market and outdoor lounge has slid by on a short-term contract in part because it is easy to forget given that it’s located on a stadium access road and frequented almost exclusively by boaters. “I think it’s that no one looks at the place. To go there, you have to really want to go there.”
City Manager Daniel Alfonso and the city’s head of real estate said the property wasn’t included because it is run through a separate management agreement and exists on a different property folio than the Rickenbacker Marina.
Still, the venue has been the subject of sideways glances for years. In 2012, Miami commissioners talked about Bayside Seafood Restaurant having a sweetheart deal costing only $2,500 a month, the rate assigned in 1994. At the time, more than $40,000 in unpaid rent was owed the city, but the venue continued to operate under the same licensees despite the manager’s ability to evict them on 30-days notice.
Then-commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones called the deal a “hornet’s nest,” and noted that the Bayside Hut was occasionally the site of blowouts that drew thousands to the island, and thousands of dollars to the operators of the venue. One such party last summer drew 6,000 people — including minors — to the unpermitted, BYOB “Miami Cooler Wet Fete,” complete with foam pits, a water slide and eventually paramedics who had to transport about a dozen people to the hospital with alcohol poisoning.
After the event, Armando Lacasa’s wife, Veronica, apologized in writing, blaming a wayward promoter, but Alfonso ordered the operator to cease parties that expanded beyond the restaurant’s physical boundaries. The disastrous event wasn’t the first problem for the city involving the Lacasas. A legal dispute over the management of the venue’s outdoor lounge also dragged the city into court as a co-defendant for years to fight unsuccesful allegations of conspiracy to assist the Lacasas in taking over the entire venue.
The Miami Herald requested copies of the most recent agreement for the Bayside Hut this week, as well as information about whether money was still owed on the property, but received no response. Armando Lacasa did not return a message left Friday at his office with Genovese, Joblove & Battista, and attempts to reach the directors of Bayside Seafood Restaurant were unsuccessful.
The Herald was, however, able to contact Lacasa’s son, former State Rep. Carlos Lacasa, who is represented in past public documents as a shareholder of the family’s company. The younger Lacasa said he is no longer involved in the business, and simply hasn’t been removed from corporate records due to an oversight. He said the venue is run primarily by his step-mother and is a labor more of love than profit (city records show that gross revenues have been less than $500,000 in recent years).
Carlos Lacasa, who recently formed a team with Marine Stadium architect Hilario Candela to bid on the Rickenbacker Marina site, laughed at the suggestion that the city was keeping the Bayside Hut out of its plans to appease his family.
“I doubt that highly,” he said, chuckling. “You want to know the truth? I think my step-mom Veronica has done a great service for the Virginia Key marina. But for their willingness to operate that place there would be virtually no amenities for the boaters who kept heir boats there.”
Despite the city’s recent refusal to bid out the property, Regalado said he expects the city to either include the Bayside Hut in an expected procurement of the Marine Stadium site, or eventually include it in the Rickenbacker Marina bid through a change of boundaries.
“We’re looking at it right now, whether it’s included or left out” of the lease, said City Manager Daniel Alfonso.
The city’s current deadline for bids to be submitted is September 28. It’s unclear when they will solicit bids for the operation of the Marine Stadium.