On February 4, 2015, the UEL hosted Waterfront Gridlock: From Downtown Miami to Watson Island and Miami Beach, a public forum to discuss the impact on traffic in Miami-Dade of development on Watson Island, particularly the Flagstone Island Gardens project. Panelists Michael Grieco (Miami Beach Commissioner, Group 2), Brian May (Flagstone representative), Stephen Herbits (President of the Coalition Against Causeway Chaos), and Maurice Ferre (former Mayor of Miami), with moderator Paul Schwiep (member of the UEL Board and Chairman of the Miami Dade County Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust), discussed the issue with an audience of over 50 attendees at the Miami Center for Architecture and Design. Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff was also invited to speak on the panel but declined the invitation. The forum opened at 7:00pm with an introduction to the issue from UEL Vice President Greg Bush, followed by a statement from each of the panelists.
Mayor Ferre gave some historical and geographic context for traffic headaches in Miami today, explaining that the city was originally designed with narrow roads and small blocks. Growth, he said, is inevitable, but it should be good growth that allows accessibility, livability, high quality of life, and a reasonable commute.
Commissioner Grieco spoke next, voicing concerns about the impact on Miami Beach of increased traffic on MacArthur Causeway and stating his intention to protect Beach residents. The Commissioner said that we live in a multi-city community and that the City of Miami, Miami Beach, and the other municipalities in Miami-Dade County need to be good neighbors to each other and consider the impacts of their actions on the community as a whole. He also discussed the need to improve the public transit system.
Next, Steve Herbits explained the two issues he sees with the Flagstone project: the merits of the project itself and the process through which it has been approved by the city government, which he said “has no interest in the public’s welfare or their participation”. He cited his legal battles with the City over the last two years to bring out documents related to the Flagstone project, saying that decisions were made behind closed doors because they would not be acceptable to the public.
Brian May responded to Herbits’s claims, saying that the project’s approval process was entirely legal and included a public referendum in 2001, but that the time for public input has passed as the developer has already invested millions in the project. All changes made to the project since 2001 have, he said, been minor, and therefore legally permissible without going back to the public.
After the opening statements, the moderator posed questions drafted by the UEL Board to the panelists, beginning by asking Herbits to respond to May’s contention that since the public voted for the Flagstone project there is no more room for discussion. Herbits responded that the modifications which have been made to the project have not in fact been minor, particularly the change to phase development when the project was originally required to be developed as a single unit. It is, he said, for a court to decide whether the modifications qualify as minor. The discussion of modifications is complicated by the fact that construction did not begin until 2014, 13 years after the project was approved, and the context has changed in that time.
Next, May was asked to respond and to speak specifically to why the rent, which remains at $2 million set by a 2002 appraisal, should not be raised, when a more recent appraisal suggest the value is $7 million. He responded that no one sought a new appraisal when the project was renegotiated in 2010 because property values were low at that time.
More question from the moderator followed. Mayor Ferre discussed the circumstances under which, in general, waterfront land should be reserved for the public. Commissioner Grieco talked about the traffic study Miami Beach is funding. The delay in beginning work on the Flagstone project and the broader impacts of the project on the community were discussed by May and Herbits, and the approval process was also discussed further. May argued that the developer has “put his money where his mouth is,” paying preconstruction rent since 2010 and beginning construction in August 2014, and is not to blame for traffic problems since the development hasn’t been built yet. Herbits argued that decisions to approve project modifications were based on misleading information, such as a traffic study that didn’t include MacArthur Causeway and a City Attorney who made unsubstantiated claims.
At 8:15, the discussion was opened to questions and comments from the audience. Topics discussed included the need for public transit and how to pay for it as in-fill continues, the role of the county and state in funding mass transit, the potential benefits of the Flagstone project to Miami residents, what Miami Beach will do if the traffic study finds problems, whether the public was well-informed when they voted for the project, and the way public hearings are announced. “This is what developers do…they are out to maximize their income,” a resident of Coconut Grove remarked toward the end of the event. “[The government] is where the problem lies. They don’t care about the future.”
Click here to watch the complete event, filmed by Crespogram.