Miami-Dade County

Second go-around on Virginia Key marinas revamp may be running aground

An aerial view of the city of Miami’s aging marinas on Virginia Key. The Rusty Pelican restaurant, seen at bottom left, is not part of the marina refurbishment project.
An aerial view of the city of Miami’s aging marinas on Virginia Key. The Rusty Pelican restaurant, seen at bottom left, is not part of the marina refurbishment project. Miami Herald file

The city of Miami’s hurry-up effort to revamp a pair of aging public marinas on Virginia Key, a project nearly scuttled by controversy last year, appears to be listing again amid a fresh legal challenge by one of three bidders for the $100 million redevelopment.

Facing an excruciatingly tight timeline to get a contract before voters on the Nov. 7 ballot, the administration of outgoing Mayor Tomás Regalado has moved quickly this year with a new request for proposals that drew three bids by the May 24 deadline.

This video presentation to Miami-Dade County demonstrates the boat storage and retrieval system that would be used by a joint venture of RCI Group and Suntex Marinas.

Two weeks ago, an elaborate blueprint developed by a joint venture of RCI Group and Suntex Marinas nabbed the top score from a city selection committee, five points ahead of the second-place team, which includes the marinas’ current operator, Aabad Melwani. City Manager Daniel Alfonso then recommended the contract be awarded to the RCI team.

But the fast-moving train hit an obstacle this week when Melwani filed a formal bid protest after spotting what he contends is a fatal flaw in the RCI submission. Even if he does not prevail, Melwani’s protest jeopardizes Regalado’s aggressive timeline because it freezes all procurement until a hearing officer renders an opinion, something that can take up to 30 days.

The City Commission, which has to approve the awarding of the contract, meets on July 13 and then again on July 27 before going on summer recess until Sept. 14. Referendum language has to be in to the county elections office by Sept. 13 to make the November ballot. The city charter requires that any long-term lease of public waterfront property be put to a public vote.

The alleged flaw in the RCI bid stems from a last-minute change in the city’s request for proposals. With just under two weeks before the submissions were due, Miami-Dade County pulled back a piece of county-owned swale land along the Rickenbacker Causeway that was originally included in the swath of public property to be leased out for the marina project. That meant the parcel had to be carved out of the city plan.

The city gave bidders an extra week to redraw plans to account for the loss of the parcel. According to his bid protest, Melwani’s architects at Stantec scrambled to redesign their massive boat dry-storage building and step back its footprint, cutting out a corner of the structure. That meant the building lost 94 dry-storage slips, reducing the total to 582 dry slips. That loss, the protest claims, entailed a $27 million reduction in projected revenue over 15 years.

But the RCI group did not redesign, and its submitted blueprint shows its storage building clearly encroaching on the county land that was supposed to be excluded, Melwani’s challenge states. That violates the rules for submitting proposals and is grounds for disqualification, Melwani’s attorney, Richard Perez, argues in the filing.

The filing also argues that keeping the county land in its plan gave RCI an unfair advantage, allowing the team to keep a higher number of dry-storage slips as well as the resulting revenue in its proposal, and thus rack up a higher score from the selection committee than it could have otherwise.

Carving out the county piece would have required RCI to slim down its submitted total of 750 dry slips by 111 slots, with a revenue loss over 15 years amounting to $28 million, the Melwani team contends.

Melwani said his team enlisted a surveyor to check RCI’s site plan to confirm their suspicion that RCI’s storage building sat partly on county land that the city explicitly labeled as “not a part” of the project property.

“The city of Miami was crystal clear in delineating the boundaries. RCI turned a blind eye to those boundaries,” Melwani said in an interview. “They would not have won but for the extra dry racks, providing them additional revenue.”

Robert Christoph, Jr., a principal in RCI, called Melwani’s protest frivolous and said his attorney, Albert Dotson, Jr., is preparing a response.

“From the beginning, we have honored the process, and we are confident the city followed the process,” Christoph said.

Christoph also said it’s to Melwani’s advantage to stall the awarding of the contract because he can keep running the marinas, and earning revenue, in the meantime.

This is the second time that RCI won the top rank in its bid for the marinas’ reconstruction. Last year, the firm’s proposal beat out Suntex and Melwani in a bitter contest for the contract that drew accusations of back-room deals. But the Miami commission threw out the bids and told the city administration to start over. A commission majority concluded the way the bid request was written ignored a 2010 master plan for the island and resulted in oversized project proposals.

This video of a Tifon boat garage in Argentina demonstrates how boats would be stored and retrieved in the Marina Parc plan, a partnership that includes the marinas’ current operator, Aabad Melwani.

RCI then teamed up with Suntex for the second round, which also drew a fresh competitor, GCM Contracting Solutions of Fort Myers. GCM’s comparatively bare-bones proposal, though, finished well behind RCI and Melwani in the scoring.

Under the city plan, the winning marina contractor will cover all costs of construction and operation privately out of operating revenue. The city would receive a starting base rent of at least $2.15 million annually that would increase every year, plus a share of revenue, under a lease that could be extended up to 75 years.

The RCI-Suntex and Melwani teams drafted top Miami architectural firms — Arquitectonica and Stantec, respectively — to develop elaborate plans for marinas that would combine state-of-the-art, automated and enclosed dry storage and refurbished wet slips with cafes, restaurants and marine-oriented retail, a 2,600-foot-long public baywalk and facilities for kayakers and cyclists. Both plans also boast extensive landscaping, preservation and protection of mangroves and other natives species, soft “living shorelines” along the water, and “green” features such as water re-use and rooftop solar panels to help power operations.

GCM offered a $131 million investment and a massive dry-storage building holding 1,225 slots and a separate garage structure with an infinity pool on top.

The RCI group proposed an $80 million private investment that would keep and renovate the existing Whiskey Joe’s restaurant building and erect a new dry-storage building. The group projects the city would earn $60 million in revenue in the first 15 years of operation.

The storage building would be covered in slats made of engineered wood and would be lined with smaller structures housing shops and other active spaces along the edge of the Miami Marine Stadium basin. It would reduce the number of wet slips from the existing 190 to 162, but 94 of those slots would handle vessels over 60 feet in length.

The storage building would be elevated 20 feet above sea level, with two levels of parking beneath, to allow storm surge to flow through without damage. Its roofline would sit below 65 feet, lower than the adjacent Marine Stadium, so as not to overwhelm the historic structure. The jagged rooflines of the main building and ancillary structures emulate the famous folded-concrete roof of the stadium.

Arquitectonica GEO, the landscape-architecture arm of the firm, would be responsible for design of the grounds.

Melwani’s Marina Parc plan, a partnership with developer Key International, calls for a $113 million investment, but projects a lower revenue for the city of $37 million over the first 15 years. Melwani contends, however, that the revenue figure provided by RCI is misleading because it includes extra proceeds from the additional dry slips made possible by including the county land.

His proposal outlines plans to make half of the property “green space.” He, too, would erect an enclosed dry-storage building no taller than 65 feet and elevated over covered parking. The plan would shrink the number of wet slips to 174, but could handle vessels up to 120 feet long.

Unlike his competitors, Melwani’s plan identifies operators of a casual and fine-dining restaurant — the Garcia family’s La Camaronera brand and Japanese restaurateur Plan Do See, respectively. In contrast to both competitors, the proposal also sets aside space for several community groups, including the HistoryMiami museum, the Miami Waterkeep environmental group, and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center.

Melwani’s landscape plan is by Miami’s Raymond Jungles.

Both projects would be built in phases.

Regalado has been trying to get a contract awarded for the project before he leaves office. If the city can’t get a proposal endorsed and put on the November ballot, the winning bidder could pay for a special election or wait until the next scheduled vote.