Coconut Grove waterfront plan coasts to victory

Miami voters on Tuesday easily approved a city-backed plan to remake a rundown piece of Coconut Grove’s picturesque public waterfront despite vigorous, even angry opposition from some residents of the historic village.

The vote clears the way for developers Grove Bay Investment Group to sign a 50-year lease with the city for the site of the Chart House and Scotty’s Landing restaurants and Grove Key Marina just north of Miami City Hall.

The agreement requires the developer to spend $18 million to refurbish the marina and replace the restaurants, which will be demolished, with three new eateries, including a Shula’s Steak House. Two historic Pan Am hangars on the property are to be restored, one for use as boat storage, the other for use as a marine-supply store.

The plan also calls for creation of a pedestrian promenade from South Bayshore Drive terminating at a new public pier over Biscayne Bay.

“We look forward to opening up the Coconut Grove waterfront for all city of Miami residents to enjoy,’’ Grove Bay partner Eddy Garcia said in a brief statement relayed through a spokeswoman.

The project is one piece of a broader blueprint, years in the making, that aims to revitalize and improve public access to the historic village’s bayfront, blocked off by a hodge-podge of structures and asphalt parking lots.

Not entirely coincidentally, the city on Tuesday also began in earnest the demolition of the massive Coconut Grove Exhibition Center on the other side of city hall from the Grove Bay site. City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who came under bitter criticism from some fellow Grove residents for vocally championing the Grove Bay plan, drove the first bulldozer onto the site of the obsolete exhibition hall, which will be replaced by a park.

Tuesday’s vote also means the city parking authority can move forward with another key piece of the broader waterfront plan — a three-story garage on South Bayshore to serve the new park as well as Grove Bay’s restaurants and marina. The agreement requires the developers to contribute $5 million towards construction of the garage and to manage about 40,000 square feet of retail space that would line its ground floor.

Critics expressed disappointment at the result of the vote, but one opposition leader claimed victory in Grove precincts after reviewing election returns posted online by Miami-Dade County’s elections department.

“That’s something to be proud of,’’ said Glenn Terry, a longtime Grove resident and co-founder of the King Mango Strut. “We wish Coconut Grove could decide what to do with our waterfront, but that’s not the way it works.’’

The plan still faces three lawsuits alleging the city selected the developer improperly. The lawsuits, including two from Grove businessman Steve Kneapler, are pending. Last week, one of the plaintiffs, activist Grace Solares, unsuccessfully petitioned a judge to stop Tuesday’s vote.

“This is only the first round,’’ Terry said. “We have a great chance in court.’’

The Grove Bay proposal was approved by the city commission in July but required voter approval because the developers were the sole bidders. The only other bidder dropped out of the competition.

This was the city’s second attempt to select a developer for the site. The leases for the popular Scotty’s Landing and the adjacent marina, as well as a separate lease for the Chart House, expired last year. After putting up both leases to bid and selecting two teams, the city decided to start over amid questions over its handling of the competition, but combined both properties into a single lease.

Under the deal, Grove Bay will pay the city a guaranteed minimum rent of $1.4 million a year, though that amount could go up as revenues increase. The contract also includes options for two 15-year lease extensions.

The plan was endorsed by city review boards and the advisory Coconut Grove Village Council. Backers say it would help draw people to the Grove’s waterfront, including the planned new park.

But in the month leading up to election day, fierce last-minute opposition emerged among some longtime Grove residents who questioned the size and impact of the proposed garage, mistrust of the city officials’ intentions, the lease terms and the flashy steel-and-glass look of the new restaurants, designed by the renown, Grove-based Arquitectonica. Some critics said the scale and style of the restaurants would clash with the low-key ambience of the Grove, a village that predates the founding of the city.

“The city of Miami has a poor track record for leasing waterfront land,” said David Villano, a freelance writer and soccer coach who helped lead the Stop Grove Bay effort, after casting a vote against the project on Tuesday at city hall. “We don’t want to see that mistake made again over an 80-year lease.”

The opposition at times edged over into angry confrontations, insults and rambling email blasts directed at Sarnoff, the city and plan supporters.

Herald writer Michael Sharp contributed to this report.

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