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Efforts to redevelop Miami’s Coconut Grove waterfront face scrutiny

When Miami last invited businesses to submit proposals for a restaurant and marina on city-owned property, companies with outstanding property taxes were automatically disqualified.

The rule no longer exists, according to a revamped version of the request for proposals published this month.

That’s good news for the current operator, Scott Wessel. Wessel bid on the project last year, but has been involved in a legal dispute over $2.5 million in back taxes owed on the popular Scotty’s Landing restaurant and Grove Key Marina.

Miami City Manager Johnny Martinez insists the change in rules had nothing to do with Wessel or his business.

“Nothing is cooked for anybody,” he said, referring more detailed questions to Public Facilities Director Henry Torre, who declined to comment because of the ongoing litigation.

Still, critics are fuming over what they say looks like blatant favoritism. They point out that Wessel’s restaurant, Scotty’s Landing, is a favorite among Coconut Grove residents — and that Wessel’s lobbyist, Steve Marin, is a City Hall power player involved on Commissioner Francis Suarez’s campaign for mayor.

“In any city, the people drafting the [request for proposal] can always use creative writing to make one firm the eventual winner,” said Peter Ehrlich, an activist and one-time aide to Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff. “That’s apparently what they’ve done here.”

Wessel’s attorney said his client had “no input” into the city’s new request for proposals.

“We saw a draft about a week ago, maybe the week before, and expected that there would be some public comment on that,” Norman Segall said. “Then, they came out with this. We were caught by surprise.”

The city’s quest to redevelop the Coconut Grove waterfront has been one of the most closely watched projects in recent memory.

Scotty’s Landing is a popular burger-and-beer joint known for its laid-back atmosphere and views of Biscayne Bay. But with its lease about to expire last summer, the city issued a call for proposals from companies interested in taking over the waterfront eatery and its adjacent marina. Miami also asked for restaurateurs interested revamping the nearby Chart House restaurant.

Five teams made pitches to take over the casual restaurant and marina, including a team fronted by Wessel. But like many city of Miami projects, it soon became complicated.

Community members were outraged that the selection committee lacked anyone with marina or restaurant experience, or a connection to the Grove. One team was dogged by allegations that its marina operator overstated his experience on his proposal.

Wessel, too, came under fire when it was revealed that he had never paid property taxes for the restaurant and marina. When the county tax collector tried to collect the $2.5 million owed on the property, Wessel filed a lawsuit asserting he wasn’t responsible for payment. His lease, he said, exempts him from property taxes.

The lawsuit, which later came to involve the city, is ongoing.

In July, the city manager decided to scrap the proposals and start from scratch.

“The way it was handled was kind of a debacle,” said Suarez, the city commissioner who chastised city administrators from the dais. “The idea was to wait a whole year to give the administration time to get it right.”

Miami published a new version of the request for proposals last week.

The revision has other notable changes. For one, the city is now seeking one company to develop and run the marina, casual eatery and formal restaurant on the property, which abuts City Hall on Pan American Drive in Coconut Grove.

Martinez, the city manager, said it makes more sense to have one developer for the entire waterfront area.

“We would have better ideas and a better vision if we could have one property developed without any boundaries,” he said.

There is also a new plan to have the Miami Parking Authority build, operate and maintain a parking garage on Bayshore Drive. Whoever wins the contract will be expected to lease about 40,000 square feet of retail space in the garage.

Martinez said he is confident this procurement process will go more smoothly than the last round. He said he has talked with all five city commissioners regarding the new request for proposals.

Critics are not so sure, especially when it comes to the deleted provision about property taxes.

“It looks fishy to me,” former Assistant City Manager Frank Rollason said. “Something is obviously not right. Why would those changes be made?”

Businesses interested in the project have until May 10 to pitch their ideas. The proposals will be subject to administrative, financial and technical reviews, and then be heard by a five-member selection committee.

It will ultimately be up to the city commission to select the winner.

Segall said Wessel will try to win the contract.