Downtown Miami

To fill or not to fill? Miami commissioners will debate fate of FEC boat slip

A view of the FEC boat slip that Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo has suggested would be more valuable and useful filled as park land.
A view of the FEC boat slip that Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo has suggested would be more valuable and useful filled as park land. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The FEC boat slip is like a finger of Biscayne Bay reaching into urban Miami and gesturing to the harried public to come down to the water and gaze at its blue face.

But the historic slip, part of the original Port of Miami, is a target once again. Something about its unusual position, jutting toward Biscayne Boulevard between AmericanAirlines Arena and Maurice A. Ferre Park, makes it tempting as a plot to be converted from liquid to solid, from water to land. Miami commissioners will debate whether to fill the slip at their May meeting.

Commissioner Joe Carollo wants the slip to become part of the park — a 7.75-acre addition of green space. He’s introduced one resolution directing the city administration to take “all appropriate actions to fill the FEC Slip,” and another that would rescind a 2011 declaration that opposed any attempts by Miami-Dade County to fill the slip, a declaration that he sponsored.

Biscayne Green aims to make the city more friendly for pedestrians by temporarily transforming parking lots into parks in Downtown Miami.

Carollo said he changed his mind during his tenure as chairman of the Bayfront Park Management Trust, which oversees Bayfront and Ferre parks on downtown Miami’s waterfront. The slip is a man-made leftover from the past that serves no purpose and is an impediment, he said.

“It makes sense to fill it,” Carollo said. “It would be a signature piece of land. We would add more acres of non-commercial green space, we would be able to connect everything that is disconnected now and we’d have a grander park.”

Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo Roberto Koltun

Carollo envisions the long-abused Parcel B behind the arena as a genuine park — as promised by the county and the Miami Heat — with a pedestrian bridge connecting Bayside and Bayfront Park to Ferre Park.

“Demand that they finally finish Parcel B and we tie it all together,” he said. “Some people say, ‘Oh, no, you can’t fill it in.’ But we filled in other slips that were used for submarine training during World War II. We converted all of the old port to parkland, so why not this slip, too?”

The Trust voted 6-1 on April 23 to pursue a plan for filling the slip.

“The slip has always been underutilized,” said Ralph Duharte, a Trust board member for 22 years. “We have spent a lot of money on it and nothing has happened. It’s a beautiful but wasted area. I would like to see it evolve, so I voted in favor.”

But park advocates are opposed to the idea, as they were when the Miami Marlins considered building their ballpark there and when David Beckham and his partners considered building a soccer stadium there. Former Mayor Tomás Regalado told Beckham it didn’t make sense.

Former Trust executive director Timothy Schmand told the county it didn’t make sense. In 2011, he wrote a strongly worded letter discouraging a feasibility study, noting that the city had invested $17 million in improvements to the slip.

“The Trust views the deep water slip as a community resource, not a liability,” he wrote. “Its position, relative to Biscayne Boulevard, brings the Bay into the city and provides programming opportunities that are uniquely Miami. Visiting tall ships, military vessels, ‘round the world sailboat races, water taxi operators and the Miami Boat Show International have all recognized the slip’s value and expressed an interest in using the space.”

Schmand also mentioned sculpture and art installations on the site.

“Filling the deep slip is not an answer to any perceived obstacles we may encounter,” he wrote. “The slip is an opportunity to celebrate yet another uniquely Miami quality — there are no circumstances under which filling it makes sense.”

Biscayne Bay should be preserved, not altered, said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper, a non-profit environmental organization that advocates for swimmable, drinkable and fishable water.

“The slip is beautiful waterfront in our backyard,” she said. “We’re opposed to filling any portion of the bay. If the city backpedals and reverses its own policy, it creates a tricky, slippery slope removing protection for other areas of the bay that could be filled to create more waterfront land.”

Carollo doesn’t want to leave the slip be. Yet filling it would be a complicated, laborious, lengthy and expensive project. Estimates on the cost to fill 7.75 acres 23 feet deep range from $10 to $20 million. In addition, the city would have to refund grant money if it wants to undo the seawall, baywalk and bollard moorings that certain grants paid for. The Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND) spent about $6.5 million on those improvements.

“Our grants to the FEC slip and park were predicated on that being a waterfront and maritime activity center,” said Spencer Crowley, FIND district commissioner for Miami-Dade County. “The mooring bollards were designed to accommodate large vessels, like the Coast Guard Eagle, military ships, tall sailing ships. That was the idea. If the city decided to change policy, we’d have to examine the repayment part of the grant agreement.

“A refund would be unusual. Those projects are enjoyed by the public. I can’t recall an instance where we’ve had to ask for the money back.”

Then there’s the cost of turning the filled area into a park that would mesh with the design of Ferre Park and, in theory, with Parcel B next door. Ferre Park itself has never been finished because the city hasn’t had enough money to complete the original plan.

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Aerial view of Museum Park, now renamed Maurice A. Ferre Park. The FEC slip is at top right.

Filling the slip would require permits from an alphabet soup of regulatory agencies, including the county’s Department of Environmental Resource Management, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“The county, state and federal governments all have a say,” Crowley said. “It would certainly be a challenging and expensive undertaking at a time when the city is trying to save money.”

Although Carollo’s resolution prohibits commercial development on the new plot of parkland, downtown residents and environmental groups are suspicious of the ultimate goal of filling in the slip.

“What is the real end game if the city is willing to spend millions to re-do a project they’ve already spent millions on?” Silverstein said. “It makes us uneasy. It begs the question why -- why spend all this money filling in the slip if you’re not going to do something with it?”

Carollo had previously sought bids to develop that corner of Ferre Park into a marina and boatyard complex, including dry dock storage, fuel station, dockmaster’s office, ship’s store and two restaurants and bars. The development would have earned the city at least $3 million per year from businesses leasing the property — money that he said would help solve the city’s chronic budget woes.

But there was significant opposition to the idea, even from Ferre himself, who spoke at last month’s commission meeting, and there were questions about the legality of the trust’s solicitation for proposals. Carollo agreed to drop it and commissioners voted unanimously to protect Ferre Park from any commercial development.

Filling the slip would be worth the expense, Carollo said, and complies with the city’s Comprehensive Neighborhood Plan priorities to acquire and expand park land, especially those with water views and access.

“As far as the cost, let’s say you’re looking at approximately $1 million per acre,” he said. “Tell me where you can buy prime waterfront real estate downtown for $1 million per acre. The city gains a valuable property for the public. It makes a lot of sense.”