As the Miami International Boat Show makes a splashy debut at its expansive new Virginia Key home this weekend, the site’s centerpiece — the historic, iconic Miami Marine Stadium — remains just as it has been for the past 23 years: shuttered and vandalized, the dramatic over-the-water grandstand and its soaring, folded-concrete roof serving as no more than a canvas for graffiti.
The city-owned stadium’s restoration was a central rationale for the annual boat show’s plan to relocate from the Miami Beach Convention Center, which is closed for reconstruction. A year later, though, the city of Miami has no plan for the stadium’s renovation and operation, and has not identified funding for the job, which is expected to cost at least $37 million.
In the same span of time, under the pressure of a deadline to get the boat show launched, the city mobilized big resources, transforming the stadium’s vast, pitted parking lot into a “flex park” to accommodate exhibition tents and a portion of its water basin into a temporary marina, all to the tune of $20 million.
Now preservationists who fought to save the stadium from demolition hope that the city will take on an equal sense of urgency about finally reopening it — a long-stated goal of Mayor Tomás Regalado’s administration.
“The city has been very busy with the boat show. That’s done,” said Don Worth, who for eight years has spearheaded a campaign to save the 1963 stadium, today widely regarded as a jewel of architecture and engineering. “This has been on the back burner. It needs to move to the front burner.”
This has been on the back burner. It needs to move to the front burner.
Don Worth, who wants to save the 1963 stadium
Local and national preservationists have launched a petition drive and they’re collecting signatures online and at a booth right smack in front of the stadium during the boat show. After 4 p.m. every day through Monday’s show close, the stadium grandstand will be lit up, while a giant video screen installed where the seats used to be displays a one-hour film compiled by Miami artist VJ Psyberpixie from clips of the facility’s heyday as a boat-racing and concert venue and its less-than-stellar, though still formidable, present.
The stadium has been cleared of growth that obscured its geometrically intricate front and its bare concrete got a partial cleanup for the show. Its sits behind a fence front and center on the showgrounds, a stark reminder of what could be. That’s a sight preservationists hope will spark renewed interest in the building and support for its speedy renovation.
“One-hundred thousand people are about to view the stadium up close for the first time in all its dilapidated glory,” said Jason Clement, community outreach director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has named the venue a national treasure and supported efforts to renovate it. “It’s going to catalyze everyone’s imagination.”
Regalado said the preservationists “are right,” and he vowed Thursday as he toured the boat show — where he signed the petition — to redouble efforts to get it open. Regalado promised details on renovation plans when he delivers his state of the city address on March 3. He said he would also support an ordinance to dedicate all revenue generated from use of the flex park to the stadium.
“I think the boat show will draw attention to the marine stadium, and the National Trust and Dade Heritage Trust will show there is interest to move forward, and quickly,” Regalado said. “Now with the National Trust involvement and political will, I think we can do it.”
Some boat-show critics, however, say they don’t believe the city is serious about restoring the stadium.
Key Biscayne Mayor Mayra Peña Lindsay, whose municipality is suing to stop the boat show’s possible permanent relocation to Virginia Key, says the city has used the stadium as “a red herring” to gain public support for the move. Village officials have been critical of Miami officials’ zeal in creating the flex park, which they contend signals that the city intends to hold large special events at the site regularly in spite of statements to the contrary, and they contrast that to the lack of progress on the stadium.
But Regalado notes that the city’s 2010 master plan for Virginia Key, adopted by the city commission after extensive public debate, calls for creation of the flex space both for special events and public recreation as an integral part of the stadium’s reuse.
“The flex park is not an excuse,” Regalado said. “It’s the first step.”
The idea to bring the boat show to the stadium site was developed by a group formed to push for its preservation, Friends of Miami Marine Stadium, which had been given control of the property by the city while it came up with a plan to save the building. Proceeds from holding the show on Virginia Key would help underwrite the stadium work.
The commission adopted the boat-show plan, but pushed out the friends group amid doubts over its financial plan and a proposal to pay two of its leaders, including the stadium’s eminent original architect, Hilario Candela, to design the renovation.
Worth — who split from the friends group in disagreement over its proposal — and other preservationists say they do believe city officials are sincere in wanting to save the stadium. They just wish they would make it a priority.
Once the boat show is done, I think then they’re going to really do some serious work on the stadium.
Chris Rupp, executive director of Dade Heritage Trust
“We are hopeful,” said Chris Rupp, executive director of Dade Heritage Trust. “Once the boat show is done, I think then they’re going to really do some serious work on the stadium.”
That, however, will depend largely on city commissioners, and that’s why they’ve been singled out for the petition drive, Worth noted.
“It’s up to the city commission to direct the administration to make this a priority,” Worth said.
The city has slowly been taking steps to advance the stadium renovation. In December, it belatedly put out a request for bids for architectural and engineering services to evaluate the structure and outline needed repairs. The city, which has extended the deadline for bids to Feb. 17, was at risk of losing a $1 million state grant to pay for the contract because of delays in getting it out.
A study of the stadium ground supports, underwritten by an $80,000 grant from American Express, is almost completed. Previous engineering studies have found the structure, closed after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, to be basically sound.
But Worth said much more needs to be done rapidly, including a long-postponed analysis of the grandstand pilings sunk into bay bottom, stabilization of the structure and development of an operational plan to ensure its financial viability.
Advocates, meanwhile, have identified sources of funding for nearly half the needed amount, including $3 million being held by Miami-Dade County, a $500,000 pledge from Gloria and Emilio Estefan and potentially up to $6 million from the Florida Inland Navigation District.
In addition, if the city commission approves an application for inclusion of the stadium on the National Register of Historic Places, and it’s approved by the U.S. parks agency, the building would be eligible for about $6 million in tax credits that would be applied to renovation.
But that application could be thwarted by another city action, Worth said: a decision to include expanded wet slips as part of a request for bids to improve two adjacent city-owned marinas on Virginia Key.
The additional docks would be in the stadium’s basin. But the stadium and its basin are regarded as a unified site, both of which are protected by historic designation by the city and also included together on the national register application, Worth noted. If the expanded marina alters the basin significantly, the application could be denied, Worth said.
He said preservationists will fight the expanded marina if it puts docks in the basin. A similar plan was considered and specifically dropped from the Virginia Key master plan.
“There will be major controversy around that,” Worth said. “Not only is it detrimental to the marine stadium, but it brings up questions of how public policy is made. Those plans cannot be changed arbitrarily by the administration.”
But Worth said most preservationists working to save the stadium are convinced that the boat show will prove a good partner in giving the building a new life.
“I see a good strategic partnership down the road,” Worth said. “This is a doable project. And that’s why we want to use the boat show to remind the city commission that people want this building back.”