Miami-Dade County

Port Miami expansion plans draw fire

A bird’s eye view of PortMiami, with the Miami skyline in the background, as seen in 2007.
A bird’s eye view of PortMiami, with the Miami skyline in the background, as seen in 2007. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

With its waterfront location overlooking downtown, Port Miami offers some of the choicest real estate in the city. And as more developers set their sights on the property, battle lines are being drawn over how the port should grow.

This week, the local NAACP chapter issued a letter criticizing elected officials for rejecting a black-led business group’s effort to obtain a no-bid development deal on the port’s southwest corner across from downtown Miami. Late last month, Miami Yacht Harbor failed to win the right to exclusively negotiate plans for a $250 million marina, hotel and trade center on the port’s southwest corner.

It “seems that some get accommodated in obtaining county business where as others only get the ‘rules’ quoted,” Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Miami-Dade branch of the civil-rights group wrote in a Sept. 13 letter to Mayor Carlos Gimenez. “As the old saying goes ‘to one’s friend one is helpful, to others quote the rules.’”

Backers of Miami Yacht Harbor noted David Beckham wasn’t required to compete when he pursued a soccer stadium on the same corner. An executive with the development group also is pointing to Royal Caribbean negotiating its own no-bid contract to build a new terminal at the other side of the port for the world’s largest cruise ships.

“Did any other cruise lines want to expand?” Miami Yacht Harbor executive Opal Jones wrote in an email this week. “Is this the best use of that property at this time? The same questions posed regarding MYH should be posed to this project... Just wondering why some are more equal than others.”

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Port director Juan Kuryla, an Gimenez appointee, said it made no sense to compare Miami Yacht Harbor’s unsolicited development effort with an existing cruise-ship giant negotiating for an expansion. He noted state laws grants ports the power to negotiate exclusively with cargo and cruise companies.

“Royal Caribbean controls 25 percent of the cruise activity worldwide. We’ve been working on growing their footprint in Miami for quite some time,” he said. “This is really a deal that any port director worldwide would do anything for.”

The NAACP letter does not mention the Royal Caribbean deal but notes that the same day commissioners rejected Miami Yacht Harbor’s proposal, they also approved three no-bid retail contracts at county-owned Miami International Airport.

Meanwhile, two commissioners are pushing back against long-time plans to develop the southwest corner at all. While port officials toured Asia in 2014 touting the potential for a large commercial center there, commissioners Rebeca Sosa and Jose “Pepe” Diaz are crafting legislation to freeze development efforts until leaders can fully consider the consequences on port growth from building out the mostly vacant land.

“We need to have real answers before we move a finger,” Sosa said during a recent meeting with Diaz on the port. “I know there are a hundred companies that want to build there. I don’t work for any of them.”

Sosa was a key player in blocking Beckham’s stadium plans at the port. He’s now pursuing a deal with Miami next to Marlins Park. Royal Caribbean led the charge against Beckham’s port stadium, which would have risen next to the cruise giant’s corporate headquarters on port land.

We need to have real answers before we move a finger.

County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa

Port officials are pushing a plan to let Royal Caribbean develop a new terminal on the northeast side of Port Miami that would be large enough to accommodate a member of Royal’s Oasis fleet, the world’s largest cruise ships. The port wants commissioners to endorse a draft agreement that would allow the Gimenez administration to conclude negotiations with Royal over an arrangement that could last 60 years. With a mega-ship expected, the deal is forecast to increase the port’s cruise traffic by 20 percent and draw an additional 1 million passengers a year.

The proposed Royal berth sits on the northeast side of the port, next to a fumigation facility tied to cargo operations. The southwest corner where the Miami Yacht Harbor is proposed has much shallower water and is considered unsuitable for cruise or cargo docks. A 2011 county master plan calls for commercial development there, but Miami-Dade has yet to invite builders to submit plans. That hasn’t dampened interest, with port officials reporting interest from around the world.

“I know several that are ramping up to make a play for it,” said Seth Gordon, a Miami public-relations executive representing a Chinese company with some early interest in the site’s potential. “I think there are enough aspiring marine-oriented developers around here that there will be a long list.”

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