Plans to build a new Chalks seaplane base on Government Cut, stymied for years by litigation and zoning restrictions, may finally take flight.
Miami Commissioners voted Thursday to remove a major obstacle blocking the construction of a new Government Cut aviation center by rezoning the southwest corner of Watson Island. The 4 to 1 decision, with Frank Carollo dissenting, allows Chalks owner Nautilus Enterprise to seek approvals for its new headquarters.
Early seaplane base designs were unveiled publicly for the first time Thursday.
“We’re going to start doing an amazing seaplane base serving Miami and all our visitors and friends who come to Miami. We’re looking forward to it,” said Ignacio “Nacho” Vega, whose Nautilus Enterprises bought Chalks from its previous owner.
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Vega will have to return to City Hall for subsequent design approvals before he can build anything. But he presented preliminary plans Thursday at the urging of newly elected Commissioner Ken Russell, who was uncomfortable with the idea of rezoning the property without first knowing what Vega planned.
Vega showed commissioners a circular, nine-story building with a hangar and terminal on the bottom floor and a hanging garden in the center. Roughly 50,000 square feet of restaurant, retail and office space were included, an exhibition garden was planned on the fifth floor, and a media room and steakhouse completed the upper levels. The ninth floor was an observation deck, where people can watch seaplanes take off over Government Cut.
We’re going to start doing an amazing seaplane base
Ignacio “Nacho” Vega, owner of Nautilus Enterprises
Marin Kim, a lobbyist representing Nautilus Enterprises, told commissioners Vega is willing to scale back the project, which includes what looked like a 341-foot lighthouse. Linden Airport Services, which holds a 30-year lease for the other half of the up-zoned property, will also be allowed to build a heliport following Thursday’s vote.
Both operators have been working for years with the city’s Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority (MSEA), a semi-autonomous agency, to expand aviation services on Watson Island. Vega helped resolve a seven-year lawsuit between the agency and its former Chalks operator when he bought in, and his new 30-year lease was announced in 2014.
But that agreement didn’t take into account the citywide Miami 21 rezoning that converted Watson Island’s aviation hub to park space, blocking any new construction. In the meantime, following Russell’s election, commissioners discussed the city’s use of MSEA, which leases the Watson Island land from the city. Some critics see the city’s use of the agency — on which some commissioners and the mayor sit as board members — as a way to hand out long-term leases for waterfront land in a way that avoids a charter requirement for a voter referendum.
My goal is to fix the process but not to frustrate a business that operated under good faith under the letter of the law we had at the time
Commissioner Ken Russell
Commissioner Frank Carollo, who wants to abolish MSEA, argued Thursday that the entire 30-year chalks lease should be “null and void.” He said Thursday’s vote was the city’s last chance to give voters the chance to decide what happens now on Watson Island, even as commissioners expect to soon consider legislation that would force leases with MSEA to go before voters.
“In 30 years, we’ll have a referendum,” he said, dryly.
But Russell, who’d pushed back a vote on the seaplane base for months in order to give it deeper thought, wasn’t swayed.
“I don’t see massive over-development,” Russell said, explaining his vote. “My goal is to fix the process but not to frustrate a business that operated under good faith under the letter of the law we had at the time.”
In other news Thursday, Commissioners pushed a vote on historic designation for the sanctuary at St. Jude Melkite Catholic Church back to Feb. 25. Commissioners must vote again on historic designation after their first approval was quashed by the courts. The city’s preservationist believes the church remains a prime candidate for historic designation even after the court’s ruling, but the church’s leadership is opposed.
Russell and Mayor Tomás Regalado said during a news conference Thursday afternoon that they want more time to hopefully bring church leaders and a group of parishioners pushing for historic preservation closer together.