Key Biscayne

Miami’s $100 million marina expansion is under fire

A rendering of the Virginia Key marina project proposed by RCI Group’s development team
A rendering of the Virginia Key marina project proposed by RCI Group’s development team Courtesy

Mayor Tomás Regalado and his chief administrator are pushing forward a $100 million marina expansion and redevelopment on Virginia Key despite mounting pressure to change course.

Last month, City Manager Daniel Alfonso picked a team led by Miami Beach Marina operator RCI Group to pursue a 75-year lease and contract to redesign two city marinas off the Rickenbacker Causeway. Alfonso hopes to take the project — which includes the construction of a robotic boat storage garage, a new restaurant complex and expanded wet slips — to Miami voters this fall.

But first, he must convince city commissioners Thursday to reject protests filed by two losing bidders who alleged a series of flaws and oversights in the city’s protracted solicitation and developer selection. The city’s real-estate director dismissed complaints by Tifón and Suntex in a memo dated Monday and recommended that commissioners allow administrators to negotiate a lease with RCI Group.

But already, a new allegation has surfaced that RCI should have been disqualified due to its role in a sewage spill that in 2000 forced the closure of a large swath of Biscayne Bay and resulted in a $2.5 million settlement with the county. And on Tuesday evening, a new city board created to monitor all things Virginia Key recommended that the city commission reject a city-driven plan to expand the marina into the historic Marine Stadium Basin — a proposal that, if embraced by commissioners, would drastically alter the design and likely the financing of any expansion plan.

Members of the committee argued that placing a large grid of docks and slips in the basin would violate a community-vetted master plan for Virginia Key, although they were told that it is too late to change the proposers’ designs.

“You wouldn’t be able to change it at this point and time,” assistant city attorney Pablo Velez tried to explain.

Not long ago, Miami’s real-estate director, Daniel Rotenberg, tasked with responding to bid protests, seemed to believe there was some wisdom in taking a second look at the project. While Rotenberg dismissed the protests, including concerns that a member of the evaluation committee tipped the scales with illogical and disparate scores, he did opine in an initial draft response that the city ought to reconsider Alfonso’s recommendation.

“While there was no evidence to show any member of the committee was biased, it is in the best interest of the city in the abundance of caution to rescind the recommendation, reconstitute the selection committee and request a new evaluation of the proposals,” Rotenberg wrote in a draft obtained through a public records request.

It wasn’t until subsequent drafts that Rotenberg changed his recommendation and urged commissioners to allow Alfonso to negotiate a lease with RCI Group.

It’s that final recommendation that will go before commissioners Thursday as commissioners consider the bid protests by Tifón and Suntex. What they likely won’t consider, Alfonso said, is a new allegation that RCI should be disqualified due to a failure to disclose the company’s involvement in a sewage spill on South Beach. The spill happened when a sub-contractor working without a final permit drove a piling into a 54-inch sewer main and leaked an estimated 25 million gallons of refuse into Biscayne Bay.

The city’s bidding documents required bidders to disclose any involvement in contamination of “city-owned” property, and an attorney for Suntex argued recently that RCI Group had an obligation to acknowledge the spill. Alfonso declined to opine on that allegation but said Suntex raised the issue after the deadline to file bid protests and therefore the issue likely won’t be considered by the commission.

In a letter Tuesday to Suntex principal David Filler, marina-engineering firm Edgewater Resources argued that the sewage had to come into contact with Miami-owned Dodge Island, located less than a mile away from the spill, due to its sheer volume. But a spokeswoman from the county’s Division of Environmental Resources Management told the Miami Herald that testing conducted by inspectors around Miami property didn’t find contamination of city land.

“We did sample in the areas of Dodge Island and Virginia Key, and results were all within standards,” said DERM spokeswoman Tere Florin.

Whatever happens Thursday, any agreement negotiated with RCI Group would still need to go back before commissioners for approval, and then to voters, likely in November. Regalado dismissed the bid protests as standard government contract disputes, and RCI group lobbyist Brian May said the marina operator handled the 2000 spill responsibly and won the Miami marina bid “fair and square.”

“They’re simply trying to throw as much stuff on the wall as they can to see what will stick,” he said.