Miami-Dade County

Plan to develop Miami’s Watson Island gets green light

A 13-year-old plan to develop Miami’s premier waterfront site, Watson Island, is once again being the given the green light after years of delays.

Miami commissioners voted unanimously Thursday for developer Flagstone to move forward with plans to construct a mega yacht marina, shopping center and two hotels on the publicly owned island. The state must also approve the plans.

Critics of the project say the city is giving away valuable public property at outdated rates and appraisals completed 10 years ago. Flagstone will pay $2 million in annual rent once the project is completed and a percentage of retail and hotel room sales.

Sam Dubbin, an attorney who represents Venetian Islands residents, said the land is now worth at least $110 million, nearly four times more than its appraised value in 2002.

“Why would the city subsidize a private developer?” he asked commissioners.

When voters approved the plan in 2001, it was billed as an economic engine for Miami, a project that would fill the city’s coffers with millions in taxes and revenues.

Those promises remain unfulfilled. The site is mostly barren.

Brian May, a lobbyist for Flagstone, said Thursday, the project will break ground on June 2for the marina portion. If the project does not begin by the June 2 deadline, some commissioners say they are ready to walk away and consider new plans for the site.

Flagstone, led by Turkish developer Mehmet Bayraktar, saw its development plans came to a near standstill after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and economic downturn. The developer was also beset by lawsuits.

May said the delays may have been for the best, saying the work on the PortMiami Tunnel nearby would have been an undue hardship on Flagstone’s project if construction was under way or completed.

Commissioner Frank Carollo, who was absent for the vote, said in an interview with the Miami Herald the city should have pulled the plug on the project years ago after the numerous delays.

“There always seems to be a reason from the developer why this project has not started,” he said, “It gets to a point where you have to cut your losses and move forward.”

Last year, Flagstone pitched a renewed and larger version of the stalled project in partnership with developer Related Companies. That idea quickly fizzled after Miami Beach residents and officials decried the potential traffic gridlock the larger proposal would cause on an already traffic-choked MacArthur causeway. Related pulled out of the partnership two months after the announcement.

Flagstone is back to its 2001 footprint with some modifications.

In other city business, the public infighting among Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel members, and claims that the board fails to investigate cases in a timely manner, has community members and the city commission calling for changes.

City commissioners voted to launch an independent investigation into the issues the agency faces. A five-member task force, to be appointed by the commission, will present its finding on the CIP’s problems and possible resolutions in late July.

The CIP “is not functioning; we need to get involved,” said commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort.

The board, created in 2002 to investigate complaints about the police department, is mired in controversy.

There are calls to fire the CIP’s executive director, Cristina Beamud, and the panel’s independent counsel, Charles Mays.

Meanwhile, years-old cases remain open and board members with expired terms are not replaced.