Heading into this week, it looked as if Miami city commissioners might sign off on two deals that would cede control over some of the city’s most valuable waterfront assets in exchange for political civility and more than $50 million in outside funding for long-sought projects.
But by Wednesday afternoon, a legal compromise for the funding and operation of shuttered Marine Stadium was all but dead, and a similar deal to fund an overhaul of Museum Park was under scrutiny.
On the eve of Thursday’s Miami Commission meeting, the village of Key Biscayne backed out of a proposed settlement agreement that would have quashed three lawsuits related to Miami’s courtship of the Miami International Boat Show at the stadium. Under the terms of the deal, the village would have paid for half the cost of a stadium renovation and an event space on Virginia Key, to the tune of $31 million. The city would in turn have placed the governance of the public site in the hands of a private conservancy controlled equally by board members appointed by Miami and Key Biscayne.
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The compromise would have given the city badly needed funding for a restoration of its historic stadium, and empowered the village to possibly force the Boat Show to find a new home after a 2017 event. But Key Biscayne Mayor Mayra Peña Lindsay said the village declared an impasse after determining that “certain demands from the City are simply at odds with the Village's core values” of protecting the surrounding environment and limiting the intensity of the site’s use.
“It’s unfortunate that the City of Miami does not share our vision,” she wrote.
Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who negotiated the agreement on behalf of the city over seven mediation sessions, called the village’s decision “grossly disappointing.” He said the talks fell apart over a fairly minute issue regarding how many days of events could go on during the month of December.
“A lot of work and effort went into it,” he said. “It’s a shame politics got in the way of good judgment.”
Barring a sudden turn of events, the village will likely seek to litigate two lawsuits against the city, which have been stayed for months because of state laws that dictate a series of diplomatic efforts when one municipality sues another. Meanwhile, the city will continue work on a $23 million outdoor park and event space where the Boat Show will place its upland exhibits if the show is hosted as planned over President’s Day weekend.
A lot of work and effort went into it. It’s a shame politics got in the way of good judgment.
Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff
Had the agreement worked out, the conservancy would have been the first of its kind in South Florida. It wasn’t until 2013 that the state created a law, pushed by Sarnoff, allowing municipalities to contract with nonprofits to run parks greater than 20 acres. In Miami, the law applies to two areas: the Marine Stadium campus on the Rickenbacker Causeway, and Museum Park just south of the MacArthur Causeway.
And while talks to create the former appear to be history, the Miami Commission still has a chance to approve the latter Thursday — should they want to.
A separate conservancy proposal championed by Sarnoff and pushed by the Miami and Knight foundations is still on the table, with purportedly $7.5 million in private commitments already behind it and more on the way if the proposal is approved. In a plan that tracks very closely to the Marine Stadium proposal, the city would retain ownership of the Museum Park while a nonprofit governs the 19 acres south of the two private museums and the FEC boat slip that separates the park from the AmericanAirlines Arena.
Under the proposal, a related but separate “friends” nonprofit entity would solicit and bank contributions from private and public donors.
The overarching goal is to reignite an old $50 million design for Museum Park, which the city built from the ghost of Bicentennial Park and re-opened in June of 2014. The cash-strapped city, however, scrapped the more expensive plan during the recession in favor of a $10 million, bare-bones project.
The design pursued by conservancy backers includes a new entryway for a park that can be hard to spot, as well as a fountain, lush foliage and a hill to provide elevated views of the bay. A waterfront restaurant is also on the table. The operating agreement to be considered by commissioners includes an initial 10-year term, and requires city approval of a development plan.
It stays public land. This isn’t a lease of any kind.
Rebecca Mandelman, the Miami Foundation
Rebecca Mandelman, the Miami Foundation’s point person on the project, says the conservancy would preserve the public aspect of the park, where now it is at times leased out to private events. She says though the conservancy will be a private operator, public participation will be key to how the park is designed and operated.
“That’s essential to this,” she said Wednesday during a meeting with the Miami Herald Editorial Board. “It stays public land. This isn’t a lease of any kind.”
But the possibility of ceding control of one of the city’s newest and most attractive parks to a private organization is raising concerns with some city officials, including Mayor Tomás Regalado, who will ask commissioners to hit pause Thursday to allow time for public gatherings and more discussion. Though Regalado’s administration has been at times accused of the same offense, he says he believes the Museum Park plan is a half-baked end-run around a city law requiring public referendums to lease waterfront public land.
“Whether [Museum] Park needs more money or isn't what it should be, that's another issue,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that we're jumping in an empty pool.”
The proposal also is facing resistance from City Commissioner Frank Carollo, who is chairman of the semi-autonomous Bayfront Park Management Trust, a public entity that currently manages and maintains Museum Park. Carollo notes that the conservancy would still seek some $25 million in public funds from the state, county and city, and that there’s no detailed spending plan to consider.
“We’re giving complete control to the conservancy in return for what?” he asked. “If you read the [operating agreement] there’s really not much.”
The Trust also disputes claims from conservancy backers that it has been anything but a good steward of the park, and penned a stern letter last month after hearing Mandelman and Sarnoff criticize events at the city and claim, incorrectly, they say, that aspects of Ultra Music Festival had been considered in Museum Park.
Carollo and Trust director Tim Schmand said they would welcome fundraising help, but believe their “continued managerial involvement is a plus as opposed to being phased out of the Museum Park operations in fairly short order.”
Sarnoff and Mandleman defended their comments Wednesday, and Mandelman said that the Miami Foundation hasn’t hosted public meetings because there has been very little to discuss so far. Charisse Grant, the Miami Foundation’s senior vice president for programs, says no one gets cut out under the conservancy agreement. Instead, she said, the public gets a better park.
“This is not a zero sum game,” she said.