Poor Virginia Key. Always up for grabs.
Can the barrier island fend off the latest gambit to cash in on its beauty?
A formerly quashed proposal to open a mooring field for 49 yachts in the Miami Marine Stadium basin is back, riling rowers, dragon boaters, paddleboarders, kayakers, triathletes and nature lovers who say a parking lot in the blue lagoon is incompatible with its purpose as an oasis for recreational water sports, dolphins and birds.
The city of Miami also wants to expand a launching area now reserved for non-motorized vessels into a triple-wide motorboat ramp, accompanied by a 90-space parking lot for trailers.
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In addition, a plan to build a boat ramp over a wild turtle-nesting beach at the North Point mountain-biking trailhead plus an adjacent 200-space parking lot is still lurking, alarming cyclists, wildlife conservationists and paddlers who frequent Jimbo’s Lagoon.
The city’s ideas for monetizing Virginia Key parkland are being raised against the backdrop of the Miami International Boat Show, a marine sales extravaganza that grows more massive each winter since it moved from Miami Beach in 2016. The Feb. 15-19 event — which boasts on its website that “The five biggest days in boating just got bigger!” — begins setup in December, driving pilings into the bay bottom, installing 900 wet slips and 270,000 square feet of floating docks across the water and erecting convention-center sized tents on land. It’s not removed until March, which means the boat show monopolizes that space for nearly four prime months per year.
“Virginia Key is a jewel, unique in its proximity to the urban core,” said Leah Kinnaird, a member of the Save Our Sisters dragon boat team. “It’s a playground for Miami. Let’s take care of it rather than chip away at it.”
So what, exactly, is the vision for Virginia Key? The 1,000-acre island with breathtaking views of Biscayne Bay and the downtown skyline is home to beaches, a nature preserve, two marinas, a sewage treatment plant, a landfill, MAST Academy, Seaquarium, the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration station and the historic, abandoned, graffiti-covered marine stadium. The Rickenbacker Causeway is popular with cyclists and runners and its sandy shoreline is popular with swimmers, waders and picnickers.
Former Mayor Manny Diaz declared that Virginia Key should be Miami’s Central Park. But there’s an unrelenting tug of war between its users and commercial development forces.
“The problem is that the city hires a consultant first and makes decisions behind doors, and then when the citizens find out what’s been planned undercover, there’s friction,” said Gary Milano, vice chair of the Virginia Key Advisory Board that was created to channel public input. Milano, a former habitat restoration specialist for the county, is also a steward of the key’s carefully crafted master plan. “What’s important is comprehensive planning — not trying to rush things through to make money.”
The master plan emphasizes environmental sensitivity and public access, but Miami Rowing Club member Joyce Landry worries that the city is constantly tempted to circumvent it. The city has already allocated $750,000 for design of the mooring field, which isn’t allowed under the master plan. The plan also called for the creation of a green flex park in the marine stadium parking lot. There would be a public boathouse, a soccer field, picnic benches. It could have been a cool waterfront space — the type you’d see in Brooklyn, Portland, Detroit or Toronto. Instead, the city spent $20 million black-topping the vast barren lot and installing electrical, plumbing and drainage infrastructure for the boat show.
“Everybody is trying to get a piece of this place,” said Landry, who spearheaded the defeat of a huge $100 million marina development plan in 2016. “The designs we see are always out of scale and dominated by concrete. It’s a shame that the priority to make this a beautiful area for the people has not come to fruition. We imagine the city of Miami looking across the bay and scheming, ‘Hmmm, what can we build over there next?’ ”
Daniel Rotenberg, director of Miami’s Department of Real Estate and Asset Management, argues that the city does want citizen input while balancing its budget needs by making the most of its properties when feasible. He pointed out that the size of the mooring field has been cut in half.
Landry met her fellow rowers for their usual 5:30 a.m. practice Tuesday. They had to launch around the boat show piers, which extend 100 yards farther east than they did last year. They had to alter their route as well to get around the piers that cover a third of the 300-yard wide basin.
Out on the water, the rowers were greeted by herons and ospreys. Dolphins often swim and leap alongside the rowers in a playful race. When the rowers cut through a school of fish, stragglers sometimes jump into their laps. Manatees amble through the lagoon, too. As the sun rose, painting a pink arc over the treeline and illuminating the glass towers of the skyline, the rowers leaned over their oars and paused to catch their breath.
“The kind of morning when you truly appreciate living in Miami,” said club member Sunny McLean. “No better spot to be than here.”
Virginia Key is a jewel, unique in its proximity to the urban core. It’s a playground for Miami. Let’s take care of it rather than chip away at it.
Leah Kinnaird, a member of the Save Our Sisters dragon boat team
The boat show presents a temporary obstacle. The rowers dread that a mooring field, with boats up to 60 feet long tethered in the middle of the basin, will create a permanent one. They’re concerned that motorboats, Jet Skis and water taxis — and their wakes — will create a safety hazard.
They are practicing in quads, but the eights need even more space, have wide turning radiuses and need to race abreast.
Aside from the 300 adult and youth members of the rowing club, the basin is used by school crews from Ransom Everglades, 200 members of three dragon boat teams, 200 members of the Kana Lui Outrigger Canoe Club, 90 members of a paddleboarding club, plus triathletes who practice swimming and other paddleboarders and kayakers who seek the flat water of the lagoon.
“Our oars are very long, we’re facing backwards, we have to account for currents and we need room for human error,” said rower Chris McAliley. “This is the only place in Miami where we can practice passive water sports. Power boaters don’t really know the passive boat community. We’re in very light and vulnerable sculls. To put a mooring field and boat ramp in here — it’s not a good mix.”
The city counters that the basin is already a congregating space for dozens of boats that anchor there for free. A mooring field would not only allow the city to collect rent but would enable it to regulate the basin population, reduce seagrass damage caused by dragging anchors, grounded boats and derelict boats, and prevent discharge of sewage by providing a pump-out facility.
The city also wants to address a chronic shortage of ramp space by enlarging the one next to the marine stadium, which skeptics say will create traffic problems on the Rickenbacker for left-turning vehicles towing trailers.
Mooring field opponents say the city should not compromise the environmental fragility of the area by adding traffic and pollution and should simply block the mouth of the basin.
“Place a line of buoys and forbid any anchoring,” McLean said. “Why do wealthy or transient motorboat and yacht owners who can use marinas have higher priority than the constituents who use the basin daily? We’re always talking about making Miami a world-class city, wooing Amazon. People want blue and green space.”
The questions persist for poor, exploited Virginia Key. What’s to become of the empty stadium and what operator would want to take it over if it can’t be used for four of the nicest months of the year because of the boat show? If the city can clear out the squatter boats anchored in the basin during the boat show, why can’t it be clear year round? Will the flex park ever be constructed?
“We have to stop the piecemeal approach and engage the ear of the city,” Kinnaird said.
The rowers who love Virginia Key say conflict is inevitable as the city has to find ways to make a buck on its land. Running the key like a conservancy similar to the one that oversees New York’s Central Park may be the only solution.
“Otherwise the holistic plan gets ignored and the city keeps going pell mell with these ideas that don’t make any sense,” McLean said. “We are tired of fighting them off.”