Three mornings a week, Roger M. Bernstein and Bobby Altman push a two-man racing shell into Biscayne Bay and row in darkness on a former speedboat racing course between an abandoned stadium and a nature preserve.
They paddle until the sun rises, revealing breathtaking views of downtown that can be seen only from Virginia Key.
“It’s nice to be out there early. You watch the sun come up. You see dolphins and all kinds of birds, especially during migratory season,” says Bernstein, 72.
The friends have been doing this for 28 years, a period in which the 1,000-acre island has evolved into one of Miami’s most eclectic ecosystems. Today, Virginia Key hosts a historic black beach, a high school, causeway, sewage treatment plant, nature preserve, restaurants, and a man-made basin with two marinas, a rowing club and the famed but abandoned Marine Stadium on its southern bank.
Most days, the island’s many users co-exist with an odd synergy. But inevitably, friction arises between those who see Virginia Key’s untapped potential as a destination and those who want to keep its low-key atmosphere. It’s a recurring conflict that is coming again to a head at Miami City Hall Wednesday, when Miami commissioners will consider the fate of a $100 million marina redevelopment and expansion.
For the city and Mayor Tomás Regalado, the project is a way to boost Miami’s bottom line and turn the area into a draw for residents and tourists, as well as boaters. But critics see yet another gold rush and an effort to circumvent a green-friendly master plan crafted through years of public input.
The whole thing has been heisted
Greg Bush, UM professor
“The whole thing has been heisted,” said Greg Bush, a University of Miami professor who helped craft the current master plan, which guides development on the island.
Under the city’s marina plan, a team led by Miami Beach Marina operator RCI Group would raze most of what exists at Miami’s Marine Stadium and Rickenbacker marinas and build a sleek robotic boat storage garage, some shops and two new restaurants. The project also includes a public bay walk and boat ramp.
Projections provided by RCI’s team anticipate close to $500 million in gross revenue before expenses through the first 20 years, with $91.5 million in private profit. The city would earn close to $70 million in rent and percentage payments during that same period.
But a growing list of opponents see the marina redevelopment as the latest attempt to turn the area around historic Marine Stadium into a cash cow. In 2014, a $121 million redevelopment plan around Marine Stadium failed and instead the city built an exhibition space around the stadium in order to host the Miami International Boat Show. As that effort was under way, the city issued a marina solicitation that required that bidders expand new marina wet slips into the basin.
That infuriated those who made sure the city’s Virginia Key Master Plan kept the basin free from commercial intrusion. Dade Heritage Trust and the Miami Design Preservation League have also spoken out against the city’s plans in the basin, which shares the Marine Stadium’s historic designation.
I think it has to be very clear the wet slips are not part of the deal
Mayor Tomás Regalado
“It’s so short-sighted,” said Joyce Landry, a member of the Miami Rowing Club who’s been drumming up a crowd to attend Wednesday’s meeting. “We know how beautiful and rare this place is. To give it up would be a crying shame.”
Regalado believes there’s a simple fix: keep the marina project, but remove the slips in the basin.
“I think it has to be very clear the wet slips are not part of the deal,” he said, noting that voters will ultimately have to approve any lease agreement for the site. “But no one can say those two existing marinas weren’t part of the master plan.”
Brian May, a lobbyist for RCI Group, agreed.
“We believe the RCI proposal is very consistent with the Virginia Key Master Plan,” said May. “The only issue that seems to be a real problem is the slips in the north basin, and RCI has no objections to the city taking those out.”
Commissioners could do that Wednesday. But officially, they’re meeting to consider two protests filed by current Rickenbacker Marina operator Aabad Melwani and second-ranked bidder Suntex, who say the city’s recommendation that RCI Group rebuild its marinas was flawed. Approving either of the protests would mean throwing out the city manager’s recommendation. Denying the protests means upholding the recommendation.
However, commissioners — who have already spent hours debating how to handle the issue — added a second item to Wednesday’s agenda that allows them to kill the project entirely. If they do that, the city would continue to operate Marine Stadium Marina, Melwani would operate Rickenbacker Marina on an expiring lease, and Bernstein and fellow rowers would likely be pleased with the results.
“The right thing to do is to throw out the” solicitation, Bernstein said. “Develop a new one with community involvement, just like they did with the master plan.”