Miami-Dade County

Surprise vote complicates Miami marina expansion project

An aerial view of the Rickenbacker Marina
An aerial view of the Rickenbacker Marina Miami

Miami commissioners still haven't decided whether to support or oppose a controversial Virginia Key marina redevelopment and expansion project. But they may have just complicated their ability to craft a deal should they decide they want to move forward.

On Thursday, in a surprise decision, commissioners voted 4-1 to block top-ranked bidder RCI Group from beginning negotiations with City Manager Daniel Alfonso for a 75-year lease on Virginia Key. They said those discussions should wait until they can hold a special July 20 meeting to decide the fate of a project that includes a robotic boat-storage garage, new restaurants and dozens of new boat slips in the historic Marine Stadium Basin.

The problem with that decision, however, is that the marina redevelopment has to be approved not only by commissioners, but also by voters. And Alfonso said ballot questions have to be sent to the elections department by Aug. 9 in order to hold a November referendum.

That would give the city and RCI 19 days to nail down an agreement dealing with hundreds of millions in gross revenue, and to craft a ballot question should commissioners decide to support the project and lease. If they miss that date, the city or RCI can spend about $2 million to host a special election, or wait until the next regularly scheduled election — in November 2017.

“You're putting us in an almost impossible situation,” Carter McDowell, an attorney for RCI Group, told commissioners.

Thursday’s vote came just hours after the end of a marathon special commission meeting Wednesday during which commissioners rejected protests from two losing bidders challenging the legitimacy of Alfonso’s decision to negotiate with RCI Group. With the challenges disposed of, Alfonso planned to begin negotiations in the hope of nailing down a lease agreement by the end of July.

Instead, commissioners returned to City Hall Thursday and voted in the morning to block Alfonso from beginning talks until they decide whether they support the project, which critics say ignores a community-vetted master plan guiding development on the island. The vote caught RCI off-guard, since the marina wasn’t on the commissioners’ agenda, and forced their attorneys to rush to city hall.

Commission Chairman Keon Hardemon, who voted against blocking negotiations, said frustrating the project would only benefit the current operator of the city’s Rickenbacker Marina, who would stay on site with an expiring lease should the city delay or reject RCI’s proposal. But a majority of his colleagues disagreed, and said the project is too important to rush a decision.

Commissioner Francis Suarez also dismissed warnings that commissioners were leaving too little time for negotiations.

“Nineteen days is more than enough time,” he said.

In other action, commissioners gave tentative approval to Moishe Mana's 24-acre Wynwood complex. Mana was seeking special zoning regulations in order to build offices and workshops for tech companies, a trade center focused on Latin America, and hotels and high-rise condos or apartments.