Miami Herald Wed, Jun. 23, 2004

Megayachts . . . megabucks . . . megatraffic?

A proposed $400 million megayacht marina complex on Watson Island is nearing approval, but many residents worry about the traffic it will bring.


Miami's rejuvenated Watson Island, already home to a children's museum and squawk-filled Parrot Jungle, is well on its way to also becoming a pit stop for the super-wealthy world traveler.

City leaders on Thursday are poised to give their final stamp of approval to a proposed $400 million megayacht marina complex, one flanked by two luxury high-rise hotels, shops and restaurants.

Backers of the project predict it will boost Miami's upper-crust prestige while pumping huge amounts of cash into the local economy. Megayachts -- typically categorized as vessels 80 feet or larger -- don't come cheaply, and their millionaire owners are known for splurging while in town.

''The dollars are big dollars, and they revolve countless times within the community,'' said Frank Herhold, director of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida.

A 2002 study co-authored by Herhold's organization estimated each megayacht visit contributes at nearly $400,000 to the region. Miami's proposed megayacht marina would include 48 boat slips, more than 200,000 square feet of retail/dining space, a performance stage, and fish markets.


The city would retain ownership of the land under a 45-year lease and receive $1 million annual lease payments during construction, which could be built as soon as late 2006. Once the facility is up and running, the city would get $2 million a year in rent, plus a share of the revenues starting several years later. Miami also expects to earn more than $4 million annually in property taxes from the project.

According to the developer's proposal, non-yachters could visit a maritime gallery, an array of themed gardens and stroll along a 100-foot wide promenade looking out on the bay.

Other planned public amenities include:

• Children's model yacht boating pond and playground.

• Sculpture displays • Boating and fishing charters and tours.

Not everyone is convinced the marina developer, Flagstone Property Group, will reserve space for everyday folks. Some fear that the proposed lease between Miami and the developer may not guarantee total public access.

''They could just build those hotels and you'll never see anything else happen,'' said Nancy Liebman of the Urban Environment League. ``It's such a loosey-goosey type of land lease.''

Both the city and the developer -- who spent a year hammering out the terms -- say protections for the public are ironclad. Judith Burke, a lawyer for the developer, says Miami insists the project will not open unless all the public set-asides are in place. ''All of the amenities will be in the project, there's no question,'' Burke said. That the word ''amenities'' and Watson Island could be used in the same sentence demonstrates how far this long-neglected 86-acre patch of prime real estate has come. Blessed with panoramic views of downtown, Watson Island has been the subject of grandiose development schemes since the Great Depression.

A slightly smaller megayacht marina was proposed in the late 1980s, but it, like an earlier proposed theme park, quietly went nowhere.

Only in recent years did plans start to materialize, with the man-made island now boasting attractions that include Parrot Jungle Island and the Miami Children's Museum. The 24-acre megayacht proposal is dubbed ''Island Gardens,'' and is spearheaded by Turkish developer Mehmet Bayraktar, who has built similar projects around the world. But the building boom on Watson Island has prompted criticisms from other parts of Miami-Dade -- that local roads can't handle the additional traffic and possible help from mass-transit expansions won't arrive in time.


Traffic worries are a key reason the city of Miami Beach -- where drivers end up if they keep going on the MacArthur Causeway past Watson Island -- is opposing Island Gardens.

''There are issues related to hurricane evacuation,'' Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer said. ``All of us impact one another.''

Current Watson Island tenant Parrot Jungle Island has also said potential traffic snarls have not been sufficiently addressed.

Miami leaders say traffic studies they've conducted prove otherwise -- the studies predict a reasonable level of traffic flow even after the project is built. Miami Beach has challenged the thoroughness of those studies.

Miami, meanwhile, questions if Miami Beach is acting a tad hypocritical since the Beach has many high-density projects -- higher than Miami's, Hialeah's, Philadelphia's or Boston's.

''I think it's very unfair,'' said Diaz, suggesting the Beach might fear competition. ``Maybe they just don't want five-star hotels and a megayacht marina on Watson Island.''

Still, the question arises, why not make it one big park instead? When the state gave Miami the land decades ago, it was with the stipulation it be reserved for public use. The state is now expected to waive that requirement for Island Gardens, in exchange for a share of Miami's annual lease payments.

''This is a rich man's project for rich people only,'' said Miami resident Stephen Herbits, whose view of downtown Miami from his Venetian Causeway condo will be obstructed when Island Gardens is built. ``Three hundred-foot yachts. Who has access to those things?''

City leaders counter there are still plans to create a roughly six-acre public park on Watson Island, a park the city says will be better used because the area will become a top-notch destination.

Although an exact blueprint for the park remains unsettled, the developer has agreed to contribute $1 million to help Miami spruce up parts of the island, including the park.

A solid majority of voters approved the development in a 2001 referendum. Back then, the height of the proposed hotels was much lower -- one of 16 stories, the other 25. The current proposal calls for two towers, of 28 and 42 stories, still nowhere near the tallest in the city. The proposed hotel operators would be the Conrad Hilton and Regent companies, with hotel development overseen by hotelier Sherwood Weiser. The architect, engineering and interior design firm is Spillis Candela DMJM.

Flagstone, the project's developer, said floors were added to the towers, in part, because of a plan by the state to build a tunnel from the Port of Miami-Dade to MacArthur Causeway, which would have cut into the hotels' space. The tunnel project is still years away.

Other factors in the height increase, according to Flagstone, include: federal rules requiring different design plans for security and safety, a desire by the developer to create several floors of space for open viewing, and other aesthetic changes.


Although the revamped plans featured higher buildings, both the developer and city argue the project remains basically the same, with little change in the number of hotel rooms or square footage of retail space. Said Mayor Diaz: ``That's what the people of Miami approved.''