Does a boatyard belong in downtown Miami’s Central Park?

Aerial view of Museum Park, now renamed Maurice A. Ferre Park.
Aerial view of Museum Park, now renamed Maurice A. Ferre Park.

Remember the idea years ago to move Miami International Airport to the middle of the Everglades?

Get a load of the latest scheme for pimping out park space: The city of Miami wants to develop a corner of Maurice A. Ferre Park into a marina with boatyard, dry storage stacks, fuel station, ship’s store, dock master’s office and a couple of restaurants and bars.

Picture tanker trucks, forklifts and trailers doing their noisy, grimy business right across the street from luxury condo towers. Imagine a stream of yacht traffic motoring to and from dozens of docks in the boat slip adjacent to the park’s grassy meadow.

“It makes absolutely no sense to take Miami’s beautiful Central Park that we have spent well over $100 million to design and preserve and attach an industrial site to its front door,” said Ferre, former six-term mayor of Miami. “That’s like taking the Statue of Liberty and building a marina around Ellis Island. Or taking San Francisco’s Presidio and building a casino that blocks the view of the Golden Gate Bridge.”

Ferre said he’s alarmed about a domino effect on the city’s green spaces.

“Once you open the barn door, it’s hard to close, and we risk turning all our waterfront parks into Coney Islands,” he said.

The city’s Bayfront Park Management Trust, chaired by Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo, has been seeking bids since Jan. 18 to build a “mixed-use waterfront facility” at 801 Biscayne Blvd. that would “maximize its economic potential.” The Florida East Coast Railway deep-water slip, part of the city’s original seaport, sits next to AmericanAirlines Arena and along the southern border of the 30-acre park, christened in Ferre’s honor at a Jan. 31 ceremony.

The park was previously known as Bicentennial Park, which became a neglected and overgrown eyesore after a race car track was constructed through it, and then named Museum Park, for the Perez Art Museum Miami and the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science built on its north end. Biscayne Bay laps at the eastern side of the park that is popular with walkers, joggers, dog owners, museum visitors and people living in downtown’s growing residential neighborhoods. They fear a mini Bayside sprouting under the shade trees.

“We need tranquility, not more amusement and commercial space incompatible with park space,” said Amal Kabbani, president of the Downtown Neighbors Alliance, which was instrumental in moving the Ultra and Rolling Loud music festivals out of Bayfront Park. “We want to kill this idea and leave it the way people love it as a place to peacefully interact with nature and relieve the stress in our lives.”

But Carollo said the city can’t afford to squander its prime real estate. The marina and boatyard proposal carries an 80-year lease with minimum rent of $3 million per year plus at least 6 percent of the operator’s monthly gross revenue paid to the city. A European developer floated the concept of building a yacht club and upscale restaurant by Carollo last year for $5 million per year, and Carollo decided to explore the possibilities.

“It’s a big slip that gets little use and brings in no dollars,” Carollo said. “If we can come up with an attractive plan and the right price tag, why not consider it? Part of the city’s chronic budget problem is we’ve got valuable properties that sit idle. When the real estate market goes up, we spend like drunken sailors and when it goes down we haven’t saved anything. Let’s develop key properties so residents can truly enjoy them while bringing money into the city’s coffers to improve services and lower taxes.”

Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo. Roberto Koltun

The city’s desire to monetize its public spaces is often in conflict with their intended purpose, Ferre said, citing what he called mistakes during his tenure from 1973 to 1985 as a pro-growth mayor. He regrets lobbying for Bayfront Park, Watson Island and Virginia Key projects and giving the green light to waterfront restaurants such as the Rusty Pelican and Charthouse. He said approval of a “concrete blob” basketball arena on the bay was “an act of negligence.” He laments that when he served as county commissioner, he and his fellow commissioners and the Miami Heat broke their promise to make Parcel B behind the arena into a park.

“Bait-and-switch is tradition in Miami and Miami-Dade County,” Ferre said. “Look at Parcel B. Look at the Melreese golf course property, where the city is giving out 37 acres for a soccer stadium and mall instead of the 10 acres needed, and the value of the land is 10 to 20 times greater than what the developer is going to pay for it.”

The FEC Slip has been a tempting target in the past. When Carollo was mayor, he proposed filling it in, as did David Beckham when he was seeking a downtown site for his soccer stadium — but former mayor Tomas Regalado, renowned park architects and downtown residents objected to taking a chunk out of the park. The Miami Marlins considered putting a baseball stadium there but former mayor Manny Diaz rejected the idea.

The marina and boatyard project would encompass 9.91 acres, including 7.75 acres of submerged land and 2.16 acres of grounds adjacent to the slip, and require the installation of flood- and hurricane-proof sewer, water, electric and phone utilities. Carollo said the complex would not infringe on park land.

But a group called the Friends of Ferre Park is worried about the footprint of the complex, which is not delineated in the Trust’s 39-page Request For Proposals.

“The Trust does not have the authority to initiate a lease of public waterfront land in a park,” said attorney Sam Dubbin, who has submitted a request for all public records related to the city’s solicitation of bids. “An 80-year lease is not the same as Shakespeare in the park. My client believes this [Request for Proposals] is illegal, and violates the city charter and several provisions of the city code.”

Any proposal would require approval by the city commission and voters in a public referendum.

“Tell voters it’s going to create jobs, bring in millions of dollars and reduce taxes, and they will vote for it if it’s not in their backyard,” Ferre said. “But I believe the larger community doesn’t want a Ferris wheel or restaurant or boat storage building or any other distraction in what little green space we have left on the bay.”

Carollo said he is also a proponent of green space, and the marina project would be separated from Ferre Park. His responsibility as chair of the nine-member Trust board is to ensure “maximum community utilization and enjoyment” of Bayfront and Ferre parks, according to its mission statement.

“I’ve already acquired land for six new parks in my district and I’m looking to build six more,” he said.