Miami-Dade County

Miami’s $100 million marina expansion gets its own stage

RCI Group’s planned marina expansion
RCI Group’s planned marina expansion

In a move that doesn’t exactly foretell their future support, Miami commissioners chose Thursday night to set a special meeting to decide the fate of a planned $100 million marina expansion on Virginia Key.

Mayor Tomás Regalado’s administration has been pushing to redevelop two city marinas on the Rickenbacker Causeway for more than a year. In April, City Manager Daniel Alfonso settled on a proposal by a team led by RCI Group, the operator of the Miami Beach Marina. Under RCI’s plan, designed by Arquitectonica, the city would trade in two low-key facilities for a sleek, mechanical boat storage system, dozens of new wet slips for yachts, some marine-related shops and two new restaurants approved under a 75-year lease.

But two losing bidders quickly protested Alfonso’s decision. And now the proposed project — which would ultimately need voters’ support to move forward — is under fire by residents who spent years crafting a city-approved plan to create a greener, more passive Virginia Key.

On Thursday, commissioners were set to consider the protests filed by losing bidders Suntex and the current Rickenbacker Marina operator, Aabad Melwani. But instead of settling the matter, commissioners set a special June 22 meeting at City Hall to give the protests their own stage — shared by a second item to possibly scrap the city’s request for proposal, or RFP, altogether.

“What I’m seeing when I look at the tea leaves is an intent to get rid of an RFP,” said Chairman Keon Hardemon.

A special-set meeting will no doubt ratchet up already intense lobbying. The Suntex and Melwani teams have challenged the reasoning of a selection committee that reviewed the three proposals, and the former has claimed RCI Group should be disqualified due to a massive sewage spill at its Miami Beach marina in 2000. RCI, meanwhile, has dismissed the arguments and lobbed its own back at its competitors.

Particularly contentious, the issue of the sewage spill was raised after a deadline to file protests closed, leading to an unsettled disagreement over whether commissioners should consider the matter as part of the hearing on the protests. They were unable to decide two weeks ago, when Commissioner Francis Suarez was out. And Thursday’s meeting, scheduled for when five commissioners would presumably be on the dais, failed to resolve the issue when Commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort couldn’t attend.

Not helping, commissioners said: RCI Group and Suntex continue sending dueling letters to officials, the most recent sent Thursday afternoon.

“Please stop sending us letters,” said Suarez. “Please. For the love of God.”

In the end, the sewage spill or any problems with the committee’s recommendation could be moot. Commissioners seem equally concerned with a plan laid out by Regalado’s administration to build new marina slips in the Marine Stadium Basin, which conflicts with a publicly vetted Virginia Key Master Plan. The master plan, crafted through years of debate and input, also considers a more passive island that includes a park that no longer appears to be in the city’s plans.

Given those conflicts, pressure is mounting to reject the project altogether. Residents like Joyce Landry showed up Thursday night to call on the commission to reconsider the project.

”We’re going to get a Bayside Marketplace right in the middle of a place where we want natural, beautiful and a historic area,” said Landry.