Government, News, Work

New Questions for Regatta Harbour

Joyce Nelson remembers the day in 1994 when, after months of intense grassroots lobbying, City of Miami officials agreed to restore Coconut Grove’s historic waterfront buildings – some already listed on the National Register of Historic Places – that housed the seaplanes that once connected Dinner Key to Havana and points south.

“It was a hell of a fight, but we won,” recalled Nelson, the veteran Grove activist who spearheaded the effort culminating in a City Commission resolution to restore the giant steel-frame hangars and lease them to a marine operator, helping to preserve the character of Coconut Grove’s working waterfront.

But upon a recent visit to the site, Nelson says the fight may be far from over.

“What a shock, I just couldn’t believe it,” she says, pointing to the south hangar, a 20,000 square-foot aluminum-clad structure now painted in a kaleidoscope of violet, blue and green, beckoning visitors to “an interactive multisensory experience” focused on the Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi. Tickets are $45.90. 

“This is an historic structure,” she adds with dismay. “How can they get away with this?” 

It’s a question that others are asking.

“How could this happen?” asks Julie O’Dell, a member of the City of Miami Historic and Environmental Preservation (HEP) Board. 

“A paint job like this would certainty need a certificate of appropriateness,” she says, referencing the City’s administrative review and approval process for structures with historic preservation status.

Fellow HEP Board member Denise Galvez Turros agrees. “It’s kind of funny that this could be going on just steps from City Hall, right under everyone’s eyes.”

O’Dell and Galvez Turros raised the issue with one set of eyes during the May 7 HEP Board meeting at City Hall, asking City of Miami Preservation Officer Ken Kalmis if his office had signed off on the new paint and any interior modifications within the hangar. He said he had not, and acknowledged he was hearing about it for the first time. 

Neither Kalmis nor Jihan Soliman, the assistant city attorney who advises the HEP Board and who attended the meeting, responded to requests for comment from the Spotlight.

The hullabaloo over the hangar is the latest public outcry over the sprawling entertainment and marina complex on seven acres of publicly owned waterfront property collectively known as Regatta Harbour. 

Approved by voters in 2013 as a mixed-use facility to replace the landmark dockside restaurant Scotty’s Landing and an adjacent marina and boatyard, the developer – Grove Bay Investment Group – promised a low-key makeover that prioritized public access and maintained the laid-back charm of Coconut Grove’s nautical past.

But an investigation by the Spotlight in December – comparing the developer’s pitch to voters and the binding lease signed with the city for what could be 80 years – reveals a host of discrepancies between what was promised and what’s been delivered.

Most glaringly absent is a key provision of the project: a working boatyard where commercial and recreational boaters could haul out and service their vessels.

Also missing are design features that assured low-cost public access such as a pedestrian pier, a tourist dock for transient boaters, a waterfront open-air pavilion, and recreational greenspace.

The site’s two eating and drinking options – the 1,000-person capacity open-air bar Regatta Grove and the upscale Bayshore Club – bear no resemblance to the everyman hangouts depicted in early promotional materials and approved through lease agreements, raising questions about licensing requirements.

The nearby dry-rack operation also is under scrutiny. The present configuration accommodates just over 200 boats, roughly half the 400 berths required under Regatta Harbour’s lease with the city. And the dry-rack marina is accepting vessels up to 42 feet – far larger than the 28-foot limit the lease imposes.

As for the hangar, voters expected the structure to house retail boating supply shops and other specialty services for the marine industry, a usage that invoked the building’s historic importance while providing basic needs to the local boating community. Such services were stipulated as a “required use” for the property when the city solicited development proposals prior to the 2013 referendum.

Instead, the hangar has been repurposed – without any lease term modifications – as a premier event space for limited engagement special events. In recent months the aptly named Hangar at Regatta Harbour has hosted a jazz festival, a Latin American art fair, a Porsche exhibit, and a sumo wrestling exhibition.

If Regatta Harbour’s ownership partners are in violation of lease terms, Miami officials will not say, refusing to answer questions posed by the Spotlight or to release requested public documents. District 2 City Commissioner Damian Pardo, who represents Coconut Grove, has declined repeated requests for comment over several months.

Some locals say their own calls to city officials complaining of late-night noise, traffic and other quality-of-life concerns are disregarded. “Still waiting for an answer,” says Coconut Grove resident Richard Fendelman, who emailed Pardo’s staff in February and again this month seeking the commissioner’s views on possible irregularities.

Nelson, like many Grove residents, says she is less concerned with the fine points of Regatta Harbour’s lease and more with the project’s overall adherence to the vision put forth years ago by a broad coalition of civic players and city leaders.

“I know things have to change, but I don’t think this is what anybody had in mind,” she says, referencing the size of the overall complex and its impact on the historic structures and the surrounding community.

Indeed, the 1994 commission resolution that paved the way for preservation, restoration and repurposing of the Dinner Key waterfront included a detailed analysis – by former City Manager Cesar Odio – noting that the plan promised city residents what few places in Miami could: a “full-service marina and boatyard.” 

And, in a nod to neighborhood concerns over potential traffic, noise and public safety, Odio spelled out this advantage over other proposals: 

“It does not involve development of high intensity tourist or entertainment-oriented attractions.”

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