Miami-Dade County

Fate of Riverside Wharf on Miami River up to voters

One of the signs along NW S.River Drive photographed on Thursday, March 3, 2016, supporting the proposed development of an area along the northern shore of the Miami River. The Garcia family would operate a raw bar in the project, planned on the site where they currently run a commercial fishing operation.
One of the signs along NW S.River Drive photographed on Thursday, March 3, 2016, supporting the proposed development of an area along the northern shore of the Miami River. The Garcia family would operate a raw bar in the project, planned on the site where they currently run a commercial fishing operation. hgabino@elnuevoherald.com

Retailers and real estate developers are sold on the eastern leg of the Miami River as an up-and-coming culinary and entertainment destination on the verge of a break-through.

But are voters?

That’s a key question leading up to the March 15 election, when developers Alex Mantecon and Guillermo Vadell will learn whether plans to build Riverside Wharf, a 58,000-square-foot complex of restaurants, will sink or swim. Their $30 million project is privately financed and includes some private property, but they need voter support because their project also includes three-quarters of an acre of city land.

“We want to make this into a real gem of a location, not necessarily high end,” Mantecon said in an interview. “What we’ve basically assembled is the perfect mix of amazing cuisine, waterfront dining, easy access by car, boat or foot, and essentially to have everything be focused on the water views and fresh fish.”

We want to make this into a real gem of a location.

Alex Mantecon

The upcoming referendum has been about nine months in the making, going back to the early summer when the city sought competitive proposals for two adjoining parcels of public land on the river just west of Interstate 95. The city has leased the property for decades to the Garcia family, which currently operates a commercial fishing operation on the site, but Mayor Tomás Regalado’s administration decided it was time for a bigger vision.

Mantecon and Vadell’s Riverside Wharf LLC was the only bidder to respond, possibly attributable to the odd configuration of the city’s properties, which contain less than 60 feet of street frontage, limiting what could be built. The duo solved that problem by designing their project across both the city’s land and adjacent land owned by their MV Real Estate Holdings LLC. That allowed them to plan four two-story restaurants seating a combined 1,200 diners, a fish market and an outdoor plaza capable of hosting parties.

Their project didn’t receive the warmest of welcomes. Initially, Regalado’s administration wanted to reject the proposal and start the competitive process over. But city commissioners voted late last year to support the Riverside Wharf and place the project before voters this month. Regalado, who once referred to the complex dismissively as “just another restaurant on the river,” now says his initial reservations are gone.

Mantecon “showed me the renderings. He showed me he’s going to do a public boardwalk and that everything is private money,” said Regalado. “So I’ve been asking the people to vote yes.”

On the ballot, voters will see that Mantecon’s company will pay a minimum $195,000 annual rent and spend at least $7 million on improvements on the city’s land, including the expansion of the public river walk. His lease is good for an initial 30-year term with two additional 10-year options.

What voters won’t see is that the project includes about 10,000 square feet of submerged land and dock space big enough for about 20 vessels. Mantecon and Vadell also designed the East Coast Building across the street, allowing for synergy with the proposed restaurant complex.

They also partnered with lobbyist Manny Prieguez, whose family owns a small piece of property on the other side of the city’s land, to connect a public river walk all the way from I-95 to the Southwest First Street bridge. Mantecon says there are also roughly 1,000 parking spaces at the complex or within a block, enough to hold the crowds he expects will frequent the plaza.

Mantecon, who is working with local commercial broker Koniver Stern to fill the retail space in his complex, hasn’t said yet which restaurants will move in. He has indicated that the Garcia family will continue to operate a fish market on the site and will operate one of the four restaurants as a raw bar. The family will continue to operate its current restaurant farther down the river.

“We want to keep the Garcias on board. For us, it’s a pleasure to create a fisherman’s wharf where the fish being caught in our local bay are going to be presented and fed to the different restaurants in our project,” said Mantecon, whose company has invested at least $16,000 in campaigning for the referendum.

The city’s project is just one among a number of new commercial, hospitality and retail establishments opening on the eastern portion of the Miami River. It is in an area where the Melo Group is planning to open a Sushi Samba as part of a larger project. Across the river, developer Avra Jain is renovating the Miami River Inn, and the Chetrit Group and Ari Pearl are planning the $1 billion mixed-use Miami River complex.

One thing leads to another and all of a sudden we start to look like all these other cities that have these fabulous waterfront lifestyles.

Avra Jain

Directly to the east, Miami’s administration is talking about unloading its riverfront headquarters in a potential land swap while river real estate is hot, and the city is also trying to reopen the old and abandoned Fort Dallas property.

Lyle Stern, the retail broker working with Mantecon, described the area as a “great new frontier for Miami dining, one of the few water accessible areas in a water town.”

Jain, the owner of the River Inn, said she’s excited about what Mantecon and other developers and entrepreneurs might bring to the river, including David Beckham, who is planning to build a soccer stadium a few blocks to the west.

“One thing leads to another, leads to another, and all of a sudden we start to look like all these other cities that have these fabulous waterfront and riverfront lifestyles,” Jain said. “I think it’s a positive project.”

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