Watson Island project could begin by end of year, city official says
By Suzy Valentine
The coast is clear for work on a $426 million Watson Island project to begin by year's end, a City of Miami official says.
State approval and lawsuits by residents have delayed development of Island Gardens, a retail-hotel-marina development, by Miami Beach-based Flagstone Property Group.
"The State of Florida Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund approved a waiver of deed restriction for the Island Gardens project on Watson Island on June 24, 2004," said Lori Billberry, the city's acting director for economic development.
Gov. Jeb Bush, Attorney General Charlie Crist, Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson granted the city a deed waiver for the land use. The waiver permits development on the island, deeded to the city in 1949 for public use.
Ms. Billberry laid out the final phase.
"The developer is completing its due diligence items pursuant to the agreement to enter into a lease between the city and the developer," she said. "It is our hope that the developer will obtain a US Army Corps of Engineers marina permit soon so it can begin pre-development work in the fall."
Such approvals, the lease agreement stipulates must be in place by Jan. 1, 2007.
"Other items of due diligence include contracting with the flag hotels and obtaining financing," Ms. Billberry said, "but those items are not yet due, pursuant to the agreement between the city and Flagstone."
Meanwhile, two Miami Beach residents who live near the Venetian Causeway filed complaints Aug. 9, 2004, against the city and the developer contesting the zoning approval.
Stephen Herbits and Robert Zimmerman have appealed the zoning decision in the 3rd District of the Court of Appeal.
Flagstone is represented by Shubin & Bass and Shutts & Bowen. The city has retained Gunster, Yoakley & Stewart. City attorney Rafael Suarez-Rivas, who is working on the issue internally, declined to comment on the litigation.
Attorneys for the developer have submitted oral argument and are waiting for the court's decision. That could come any time - though decisions are always posted Wednesdays.
"One matter was appealed to the courts and the courts ruled in the city's favor," Ms. Billberry said. "That decision was then appealed and we are currently awaiting the decision on that matter."
The city last year gave evidence to the state that the project - comprising two hotels, 50 marina slips and more than 230,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space - benefits the public.
That argument was advanced with reference to gardens provided on a partnership basis with Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and a maritime gallery that will be created in conjunction with the Historical Museum of Southern Florida. The developer also claimed that more than 60% of the development site would be accessible to the public.
Mr. Herbits and Mr. Zimmerman filed a separate suit in circuit court claiming the decision was inconsistent with the comprehensive development master plan. That lawsuit, said John Shubin, has been voluntarily dismissed.