One Island on Miami Beach’s Terminal Island
In a city full of glitzy condo buildings and multimillion dollar homes, Terminal Island is the forgotten workhorse quietly humming with activity off the MacArthur Causeway.
The triangular plot of land houses Miami Beach’s fleet maintenance and sanitation buildings, a gas station for city vehicles, an FPL plant and the Fisher Island ferry terminal. It’s also next door to a busy Coast Guard station.
Terminal Island could be getting a new occupant, however. Developer Related Group is moving forward with plans to put a 35-story luxury condo tower with up to 90 units on the tip of the island. In exchange for permission to put a roughly 400-foot tall residential building in an area zoned for industrial uses, the developer has promised to build Miami Beach a new fleet maintenance facility to replace its current one, which was built in 1945 and is badly in need of an upgrade.
But while that might be a tempting offer for city officials, the U.S. Coast Guard is strongly opposed to the project, which it says would “negatively impact” its ability to “safely and effectively carry out existing operations” and expand its activities.
The Coast Guard worries that its future neighbors would complain about the constant, noisy activity at its station — which includes ship repair, cargo loading, and forklift operations as well as unloading drugs seized offshore — and that their yachts would get in the way of maritime operations. The agency said it also fears that the residential tower could provide a lookout point for criminal organizations seeking to monitor the Coast Guard station, which is located on a neighboring island, and that the tower could interfere with communication systems.
Last week, the Miami Beach City Commission referred the proposed development to its land use and development committee, which will begin vetting the project before commissioners vote on whether to approve it. The proposal is one of several development plans in Miami Beach that exchange a public benefit — in this case a new fleet maintenance facility — for the right to build a structure that wouldn’t otherwise be allowed. Developers Russell Galbut of Crescent Heights and David Martin of Terra Group recently got approval to build a 519-foot condo tower on Alton Road at the entrance to the MacArthur Causeway in exchange for building a three-acre public park.
For the Terminal Island project, Related Group has pledged to build a 50,000-square-foot facility for Miami Beach’s fleet maintenance and sanitation operations, an upgraded fueling station and a new parking garage. Fleet maintenance is the entity that maintains the city’s vehicles and equipment, including police cars. In addition, Related Group estimates that its luxury condo building, which is being designed by Arquitectonica, would bring in $2.9 million in annual tax revenue for the city.
In order to build the new city facility, the developer has offered to give Miami Beach 26,000 square feet of land to add to its current site. The lack of space on the fleet maintenance site has kept the city from replacing the facility, Fleet Director Jorge Cano explained at a commission meeting last week.
Tonya Daniels, the director of Miami Beach’s Marketing and Communications Department, said that the proposal “provides tremendous benefits” for city operations because the fleet maintenance facility is “currently in poor condition as it is very old and beyond its useful life.” But, she added in an e-mail, “there are some planning issues regarding the compatibility of a residential use adjacent to a military base and industrially zoned properties” that will need to be addressed during the vetting process.
A Related Group affiliate purchased the Terminal Island property in 2013, according to property records. The developers later canceled the lease for the cargo terminal on the site and put a mega-yacht marina in its place.
Developers initially secured a letter from the commanding officer at Coast Guard Base Miami Beach saying that while he had concerns, he would not object to the project if an agreement could be reached on certain issues including getting future residents to waive their right to sue the Coast Guard over nuisance complaints and allowing the Coast Guard to place sensors on the building’s roof to monitor the port.
The next commanding officer didn’t think the waivers and sensors would be enough to resolve the Coast Guard’s concerns, however, and wrote to the city’s planning department in 2017 and again in February 2019 to express his opposition to the project. The current commanding officer, Capt. Harry Mautte, told the Miami Herald in an e-mail that the Coast Guard is still opposed to the project.
In its letters to Miami Beach, the Coast Guard said that it picked an industrial area for its local station to ensure that it wouldn’t be near residential areas. If future neighbors complain loudly enough or file lawsuits, the Coast Guard argued, the agency could be forced to move. Although the developer has offered to put a waiver in the condo documents, the agency said it thinks the waiver would be “ineffective” in preventing “costly litigation” and noted that it wouldn’t stop wealthy residents from pressuring their elected officials.
Related Group Vice President Jon Paul Pérez told the Herald that he hopes to meet with Mautte in the near future to discuss the project. If Related Group isn’t able to address the Coast Guard’s concerns, however, Miami Beach residents could end up with a new traffic headache.
The developer currently has the right to build a 40-foot tall office building or cargo terminal on its 3.7-acre Terminal Island property because it’s zoned for industrial uses. Related Group Chairman and CEO Jorge Pérez told commissioners last week that if he’s unable to build a residential tower, he plans to build a 150,000-square-foot luxury office building with space for 450 workers. That could mean hundreds of extra cars on the already congested MacArthur Causeway.
As a residential property, however, Jon Paul Pérez argued that the building would bring far less traffic. He said the condo tower would likely attract foreign buyers and buyers from the northeastern United States who would only live there part-time.
“It’s such a limited amount of traffic that’s derived from the residential,” he said. “It really is a project that the city gets a very large benefit,” he added.
At last week’s meeting, Commissioner Michael Góngora raised doubts about whether Related Group actually plans to build an office building on the site and suggested the developer was using that possibility as a bargaining chip.
“I understand that 90 residential units have less impact than an office building, but I’m not really sure that you can build an office building there that would be successful,” he said.
Góngora said he was concerned about the building’s height, the possible traffic impacts and what he sees as a broader trend of allowing developers to build taller structures than allowed by existing zoning laws.
Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán said she thinks the developers should have figured out a way to placate the Coast Guard before asking the city for permission to build a residential tower.
“I’m concerned that the Coast Guard’s concerns have not been addressed,” she said.
The board of directors for the South of Fifth Neighborhood Association, which represents residents who live south of Fifth Street, endorsed the project earlier this month as long as certain conditions are met including a prohibition on short-term rentals to keep the building from becoming a de facto hotel. The presidents of some condo boards south of Fifth Street told the Herald that they still have concerns about the project because of the Coast Guard’s opposition, however.
John Stimmel, president of the Icon South Beach condo board, said he shares concerns about swapping public benefits for permission to build tall towers, which he said has devolved into “let’s find some public benefit and we can ignore our zoning laws.”
“This is not how zoning is supposed to be,” he said, noting that condo owners along Alton Road bought their units believing that nothing would be built on Terminal Island that could potentially obstruct their views.
The condo boards in buildings farther north along Alton Road, represented by the North of Fifth Neighborhood Association, said they are still in the process of scheduling meetings with the developer to review the project.
“We will work with this developer as we have recently with Crescent Heights on their new Park on Fifth Project to help improve the quality of life for our residents,” said North of Fifth president Bernardo Sandoval.