Miami Beach

Miami Beach’s unpermitted seawall is over budget and off schedule. Residents are mad.

Miami Beach is $5 million over budget and behind schedule for construction on a stretch of the Indian Creek Drive seawall built without proper permits, and residents are growing frustrated with the project.
Miami Beach is $5 million over budget and behind schedule for construction on a stretch of the Indian Creek Drive seawall built without proper permits, and residents are growing frustrated with the project. aharris@miamiherald.com

Miami Beach’s quest to keep one of its most famously flooded roads dry has hit some rough waters.

Residents on low-lying Indian Creek Drive were promised a mile of elevated road complete with a stormwater drainage system and a brand new seawall — all within two years.

Eighteen months later, the project is at least $5 million over budget, behind schedule and may not even reach all the way to the original destination of 41st Street without more state money. Residents aren’t happy. Some say it’s made them lose confidence in the city.

“I’m going to sell you a car on concept, but it’s only going to have two wheels when you get it. That’s what you did to us in plain English,” Michael Dressman, president of the Clearview Towers condominium board, told city staffers during a meeting with residents Tuesday night.

Part of the holdup is a total freeze on seawall construction after the city discovered parts of it were built without proper permits, which led to the ousting of the city’s chief engineer. The engineer admitted to skipping the proper permits in an attempt to cut through the federal bureaucracy and get the project done faster.

Since then, oversight agencies haven’t decided how to proceed. Even Sen. Marco Rubio has been mediating between the city and federal agencies.

Read More: Will Miami Beach’s anti-flooding measures work? The city’s getting an outside opinion.

In the Tuesday meeting, the second convened after the first devolved into angry shouting from residents, the project’s neighbors wanted to know when the city knew about the problems with permits — a question city officials didn’t answer — and what was being done to correct the problem.

Elizabeth Wheaton, Miami Beach’s director of Environment and Sustainability, said the city submitted surveys of the area to regulatory agencies and expects to hear back in several weeks.

“I can assure you, as we continue to move forward, the environment and sustainability department will be working closely to make sure we’re meeting all the regulatory requirements,” she said.

Eric Carpenter, the assistant city manager who oversees public works, told the group that early indications from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were that the city would have to relocate three unpermitted segments of the 2,700 feet of seawall already in place, less than 300 feet in total.

He said the city has the right to build on 21 of the 25 pieces of the land the city needed to acquire to build a continuous seawall and that Carpenter is recommending a special tax be levied on the four who are holding out.

The haste to get started on the project, especially in light of annual king tides growing significantly higher, means the city will likely take on an even greater share of the costs of the project.

The haste to get started on the project, especially in light of annual king tides growing significantly higher, means the city will likely take on an even greater share of the costs of the project.

The project may not stretch all the way to 41st Street, as originally planned. Carpenter told the crowd the $25.5 million for construction of Indian Creek may only stretch to 34th, 35th or 36th Street, unless the state agrees to pony up an additional $10 million.

Carpenter said the city originally hoped to renegotiate with the state transportation agency to pay for improvements all the way up to 41st street, but he said FDOT wouldn’t agree to cover the extra costs.

“We made a calculated risk to move forward hoping that we’d convince the Florida Department of Transportation to change their mind,” he said. “They’ve held firm that they’re not going to allow us to build anymore than what’s already out there.”

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Miami Beach is $5 million over budget and behind schedule for construction on a stretch of the Indian Creek Drive seawall built without proper permits, and residents are growing frustrated with the project. Alex Harris aharris@miamiherald.com

Residents also wondered why their street now sports two walls, the permit-less seawall on the creek side and a crash safety barrier on the other side of the sidewalk across the street from their building.

Dressman, the condo president, said their understanding from initial conversations with the city was that if his building’s association did not agree to give up its strip of waterfront land to the city, the seawall would be built even closer to their building.

“We deeded our property because we didn’t want that wall,” he said.

Now they have both, and residents are angry that the double walls obscure their view of the water. They wonder how long they’ll have to wait until the construction dust fades away and their little slice of paradise returns to normal.

“We really miss our iguanas,” said Juliana Mion, a board member. “No, really, I’m serious.”

Besides residents’ concerns over the stalled progress, the city’s problems have been exacerbated by how city leadership handled the dismissal of Bruce Mowry, the former city engineer who signed off on building the seawall without federal permits.

Mowry was placed on administrative leave in mid-January, nine months before he would be eligible for a pension under the city’s retirement plan.

Following the controversy over the seawall, Beach administrators quietly signed a contract with Mowry, whose salary was $175,000, to keep him employed at a lower salary and prohibited from speaking publicly on behalf of the city. Acting as a consultant, he would spend hundreds of hours of accumulated leave time until mid-October, when he would have hit his five-year employment anniversary and been able to retire with a pension.

Entering into a secret contract and then revoking it is not a good business decision on behalf of the administration.

Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Góngora

After Commissioner Michael Góngora asked questions about Mowry at a February commission meeting, the city’s brass decided to revoke much of the agreement, let him go and mail him checks for the value of his leave time — $17,260.

The decisions made by Morales’ administration raise questions about how Morales is handling what could be a costly process to fix a seawall that was built without approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Why would he choose to keep Mowry on board, allowing the engineer to apply for retirement benefits, and then go back on the deal just one month later?

The city declined to respond to the Miami Herald’s questions. Aleksandr Boskner, senior assistant city attorney, told the Miami Herald attorney/client confidentiality prevented him from answering.

Mowry also declined to comment.

“I think entering into a secret contract and then revoking it is not a good business decision on behalf of the administration,” Góngora said on Tuesday.

Miami Beach has put into action an aggressive and expensive plan to combat the effects of sea level rise. The city is rolling out its plan of attack and will spend between $400-$500 million over the next five years doing so.

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