The plan to redevelop and expand the Virginia Key marina is headed back to the drawing board after a divisive and accusatory debate that sometimes made the Miami City Commission chambers feel more like a courtroom
The City Commission voted 3-2 at a special meeting Wednesday to reject the selection of a bidder for the project, throw out the project’s request for proposals and write new parameters for the bid. The city’s description of the project and the proposals it drew in response had gone too far beyond a 2010 master plan, said Commissioner Ken Russell and others.
“The marina [redevelopment], with this vote, will be delayed for years because we don’t have any other referendum possibilities until next year,” said Mayor Tomás Regalado, who had hoped to see the marina project on the ballot in November.
Commission Chairman Keon Hardemon and Commissioner Wilfredo Gort voted against restarting the process.
The decision comes nearly a month after the commission voted to block City Manager Daniel Alfonso from negotiating with the top-ranked bidder, RCI Group, operator of the Miami Beach Marina.
The RCI project called for a $100-million marina expansion on Virginia Key. It included a redesign of two city marinas complete with a robotic boat storage and mixed-use facility, a new restaurant complex and renovated bayfront walkway.
The commission also directed staff to study the feasibility of having the city manage the marina and handle its renovation, rather than partnering with a private developer.
Wednesday’s decision was spearheaded by Russell, who felt the initial bid was flawed and needed retooling. He argued that it did not properly incorporate a community-vetted master plan from 2010 and that it caused developers to propose a larger project than the community desired.
“If we truly believe that we are supposed to be serving the public then we need to stop, start over and take them into account,” Russell said.
Dozens of people spoke Wednesday on behalf of both sides, some supporting RCI, others endorsing Russell’s proposal to restart the process. Supporters of the top-ranked bidder said the group followed the city’s process and should have been allowed to proceed.
“Whose interest does it serve to go backwards as opposed to forward?” said Neal Preston, a boater with a business in Key Biscayne.
Carolyn Koslen, a Key Biscayne resident, said she was thrilled to see the marina bid go back to the drawing board and she hopes to see the waterways remain as clear as possible.
“For me, the less development the better. Any place or any time,” Koslen said.
Regalado said that after Wednesday’s vote his focus will shift to a proposed $275 million bond issue to fund renovations at the Miami Marine Stadium. The commission is expected to vote July 29 on whether that bond referendum will go forward. “We hope that people understand the Marine Stadium is a priority,” Regalado said.
Alfonso said it will likely take months for his staff to complete a feasibility study on the marina for the commission as they intend to look at what it would cost to manage not only the Virginia Key marina but others around the city.
Wednesday’s debate revisited allegations of cover-ups and back-room deals made during previous meetings on the marina expansion.
Al Dotson, the attorney representing RCI Group, characterized those allegations as straw-man arguments and presented an image of a scarecrow on a posterboard to the commission. He then proceeded to pull away magnetized “limbs” from the image to reveal his points.
He argued that the 2010 community master plan was not a mandate but a guideline. He said his clients followed the plan and made concessions to concerned residents.
“There was no issue with the process and the [request for proposals] and the Virginia Key master plan until somebody got selected,” Dotson said.
Allegations against RCI were also raised during a bid protest process by the second -ranked bidder, Suntex, who suggested that RCI Group should have been disqualified from the bid due to a failure to disclose its role in a major sewage spill at the group’s Miami Beach Marina about 16 years ago. The county’s environmental regulators said the 2000 incident didn’t contaminate any of Miami’s land.
Commissioner Francis Suarez, who voted in favor of restarting the process, said that while he felt RCI won the bid and did things properly, the “ugly and public” process was problematic.
“If you don’t do the hard work on the front end you pay for it on the back end,” Suarez said.