Still fighting what they hope are the last gasps of a years-long legal battle, the victors of a highly politicized bid to redevelop eight prime acres of the Coconut Grove waterfront say they are finally ready to take over the site.
Last week, an attorney for Grove Bay Investment Group wrote to Miami’s director of real estate that his clients plan to seize control of the public property immediately north of City Hall on Oct. 15. The parcel is currently home to Grove Key Marina and Scotty’s Landing, a beloved waterfront bar.
Grove Bay, registered to businessmen Geraldo Leyva and Eduardo J. Garcia, won a potentially 80-year lease as the sole bidder to build new restaurants, renovate the historic hangars and build a public pier. Their lease, approved by voters in a November 2013 referendum, requires them to invest $18 million in the property, and another $5 million into a municipal parking garage lined with retail shops on the corner of South Bayshore and Pan American drives.
Their project, dubbed The Harbour, is a large piece of a sweeping plan to overhaul and coordinate the mish-mash of properties that comprise Dinner Key, home to restaurants, marinas, sailing and yacht clubs and historic City Hall. But it drew some intense opposition and led to three lawsuits that dissuaded the Grove Bay team from pursuing The Harbour for almost two years. Without a new tenant, the city entered into month-to-month license agreements with marina operator Scott Wessel and CHLN, Inc, which runs a Chart House restaurant on the property.
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The plaintiffs behind the suits are attempting to keep their lawsuits alive after losing decisions by a trial court and the Third District Court of Appeal. But Grove Bay Investment Group attorney Richard Perez says his clients are “hopeful” that the matter will be resolved, so they asked the city to “anticipate” their taking of the property.
“The pending litigation between the City of Miami [...] and certain plaintiffs alleging defects in the referendum process has materially concluded,” Perez wrote in an Aug. 12 email to Miami’s real estate director Daniel Rotenberg. “We furthermore request your assistance in obtaining access to the Grove Key Marina and Charthouse Restaurant [sic] as necessary to facilitate a smooth transition of operations and prepare for the demolition of the buildings.”
Within hours of receiving the email, Miami’s chief financial officer, Fernando Casamayor, notified Wessel in a letter that he had 60 days to vacate the premises. The letter, first obtained by blogger Al Crespo, set off a wave of speculation over whether Scotty’s, where $4.50 Miller Lites can be guzzled in board shorts with views of the bay, would be gone in a few weeks.
Perez wouldn’t address specifics, but people familiar with Grove Bay’s plans say Scotty’s Landing won’t close in mid-October. Rather, the Grove Bay partners plan to operate some of the existing businesses for at least several months, which some believe is motivated more by existing profits than by a push to develop.
“I guess they got tired of waiting, and they saw that Scotty’s was making a lot of money,” said Mayor Tomás Regalado.
There’s also an outside shot that two lawsuits challenging the city’s award of the project could throw the whole situation into limbo. Activist Grace Solares says she has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court on a related case, and Grove businessman Steve Kneapler — who sat on a city committee that evaluated proposals — has filed for a rehearing with the Third District Court of Appeal.
“We had long assumed this situation would await the final result of the litigation,” said Norman Segall, an attorney for Wessel. “Apparently the developer has decided that they have the right and they already have a lease with the city, and that it’s their call that the risk of losing and having the rug pulled out from under them isn’t a great risk and they’ll push forward.”
If the project does move forward, plans designed by Arquitectonica and approved by the city anticipate two formal restaurants, a casual restaurant, a public bay walk, pier and docks, dry boat storage and some commercial space. Two historic Pan Am hangars would be restored.
“There are still some issues that need to get resolved through the court system and we’re very respectful of that process and making sure the process runs its course,” said Perez. “I think all parties are rightfully anxious to get moving on a project that has received all sorts of approvals, from the residents through the court system, down through the regulatory process.”
For years, in fact, legal problems have delayed the city’s efforts to redevelop the cluttered site. The city scrapped its first attempt to solicit bids, citing irregularities in the process. Wessel himself dropped out of competition after he was sued over millions in alleged back taxes and unpaid fuel fees (Miami was ultimately found responsible for the back taxes, and recently settled the fuel fee case by paying out money. Casamayor was at the time, ironically, the Miami-Dade tax collector.)
When the city went to bid a second time, Grove Bay Investment Group wound up the sole respondent after a second bidder dropped out.
With the project now apparently moving forward, City Commissioner Sarnoff said there should be optimism about Dinner Key’s future. On Sept. 15, the city expects to open most of 17-acre Regatta Park. And after many delays, the Miami Parking Authority says it is finally moving forward with plans for the parking garage.
Sarnoff said he’s been told that the developer plans to begin some demolition before the end of the year, and start work on the marina in the first quarter of next year.
“The waterfront of the Grove is pretty inaccessible. It’s filled with a little over 900 square yards of barbed wire. It’s an asphalt jungle filled with oil spills. It’s in decrepit condition,” Sarnoff said. With the new project, he said, “you present eating and park opportunities that truly don’t exist right now.”