Miami-Dade County

On David Beckham's former dream site, a plan for a marina

A birds-eye view of Port Miami in this 2007 file photo. The southwest corner sits opposite from where the cruise ship is berthed.
A birds-eye view of Port Miami in this 2007 file photo. The southwest corner sits opposite from where the cruise ship is berthed. Al Diaz / Miami Herald Staff

David Beckham’s first choice for a soccer site would be transformed into a mega-yacht marina, expo center and office hub if a development group can secure a no-bid lease on nine acres of prime waterfront at PortMiami.

Backed by three county commissioners, the proposal by Miami Yacht Harbor seeks to take over a fuel-spill facility’s port lease and then secure a new agreement for 90 years on the same waterfront that launched Beckham’s soccer quest in early 2014. Plans include a commercial center with offices geared toward maritime businesses, restaurants, duty-free shopping, about 800 hotel rooms for cruise passengers, and an expo center to host trade-industry events.

The proposal already faces hurdles: A spokesman said Mayor Carlos Gimenez opposes the plan and wants a competitive process for picking a developer to jump-start the county’s efforts to develop the port’s southwest corner.

As outlined in legislation sponsored by Commissioner Bruno Barreiro and heading for a committee vote Thursday, Miami Yacht Harbor would negotiate to lease the nine-acre site without Miami-Dade opening up the deal to other bidders. Two prominent figures in Miami-Dade political circles, former legislative aide Opal Jones and airport concessionaire Bill Perry, are on the development team.

In an interview, Jones said the county’s dormant plans for developing the southwest corner call for the kind of fast-track proposal Miami Yacht Harbor is offering.

“They have been trying to develop the port for years,” said Jones, who served as chief of staff to Betty Ferguson, a county commissioner in the 1990s and 2000s. “How many times are they going to go out and ask people to build this property?”

Miami Yacht Harbor’s bid promises to revive an ongoing debate about commercial development at the county-owned PortMiami, which is counting on real-estate revenue to ease a fiscal crunch brought on by a $1 billion debt load. Heavy borrowing is paying for the new port tunnel, dredging project and other expansion efforts at the cargo and cruise center.

Downtown Miami sits across the bay from PortMiami, and the city’s commercial real estate industry opposed the port’s push to transform the southwest corner into a new commercial center.

The port’s development strategy, based on a 2011 master plan, was a central part of then-director Bill Johnson’s trip to Asia in 2014, when he told developers and investors to prepare for a bidding process that summer. But the idea stalled and the port never solicited proposals. Those plans included a convention center, hotels, condos and offices within a 4-million-square-foot cluster of high-rise buildings, parking garages, green spaces and other facilities.

Paul Lambert, a port consultant who analyzed the finances of developing the southwest corner, said in an email Monday that Miami-Dade risks missing out on the current development boom by dragging its feet on the project.

“The window is certainly still open,” wrote Lambert, “but if the County is hoping to realize that value during this growth cycle they better act quickly.”

Barreiro, whose district includes the port, said he was frustrated by the administration’s lack of progress on the southwest corner and doesn’t want a prolonged process. “If we were to go out today and look for interest, it would be a year-and-a-half or two years,” he said. “I’m putting forward a good-faith effort to try and get something done.”

Other developers are pursuing the port’s southwest corner.

A Chinese consortium expressed interest to port officials after Johnson’s Asia trip, port executives said. A group called Destination 305 hired several leading lobbyists, including Al Dotson Jr., Vicky Garcia-Toledo and Sylvester Lukis, to advocate for its southwest-corner plans. The group met with Juan Kuryla, PortMiami’s director, earlier in the year.

In a May interview, Kuryla said the project was a mixed-use development that included tourist attractions designed to lure cruise passengers. “It’s just another idea someone has for that property,” he said. “We’re looking to put out [a request for proposals] to gauge interest.”

Several people close to PortMiami leadership said the mayor’s office has taken the lead role in lining up developers for the southwest corner. Jones said that when the Miami Yacht Harbor team met with Gimenez this summer, Kuryla was not present. Instead, he had met earlier with Gimenez and the deputy mayor who oversees the port, Jack Osterholt, and was leaving as the proposers walked in.

“I’m not sure why,” Jones said. “Juan Kuryla walked out of the room right before us and shook our hands.”

Gimenez told Miami Yacht Harbor at the meeting he wanted a competitive process, Jones said. Michael Hernández, Gimenez’s spokesman, said in an email that Kuryla might have had a scheduling conflict but that the port director is taking the lead on developing the southwest corner.

“Mayor Gimenez opposes the item,” he said of Barreiro’s resolution. “The mayor supports a competitive process which is being crafted by PortMiami Director Juan Kuryla.”

One of the registered lobbyists for Miami Yacht Harbor is Simon Ferro, the former ambassador to Panama and partner at Gunster Yoakley. His son, Alex Ferro, serves as Mayor Gimenez’s chief of staff.

Hernández said Kuryla and Osterholt have responsibility for port issues and both report directly to Gimenez. “Alex Ferro is not involved in this process in any way,” he wrote. “There is no conflict.”

Gimenez backed Beckham’s push for a soccer stadium at Port Miami, but the plan folded amid opposition from the cruise industry.

port soccer stadium
A rendering of the soccer stadium David Beckham wanted to build at PortMiami.

Port administrators also were cool to the stadium idea, citing the county-owned port’s soaring debt load in arguing for commercial development that would generate significantly more revenue than Beckham’s team was willing to pay. Now Beckham is pursuing a stadium deal with Miami and Miami-Dade next to Marlins Park in Little Havana.

Barreiro’s resolution, co-sponsored by Audrey Edmonson and Dennis Moss, calls for Miami Yacht Harbor to assume the county lease with Marine Spill Response Corp. The company occupies the lone building on the southwest site. Miami Yacht Harbor would pay to move the spill center elsewhere on the port as part of its new 45-year lease with Miami-Dade. That deal would include an option to renew for another 45 years.

Barreiro’s resolution, which would need approval of the full 13-member county commissioner, instructs Gimenez to negotiate a lease with Miami Yacht Harbor, as well as secure an agreement with Miami authorizing the proposed development. As the original owner of the port site, Miami can block development projects that aren’t considered port-related.

Tomás Regalado, Miami’s mayor, said he wasn’t aware of the Miami Yacht Harbor proposal but said the southwest corner should be used for port facilities rather than commercial development.

“We were promised jobs, jobs, jobs with the dredging,” said Regalado, whose daughter, Raquel Regalado, is running against Gimenez in the 2016 race for county mayor. “In this community, we’re all hoping to see the port expand as a port. Not as a playground.”