By: Eleazar David Melendez   

Miami Beach politicians sent a shot across the bow of their counterparts on the other side of Biscayne Bay, asking Miami officials Wednesday to reconsider the scale of a mixed-use project planned on Watson Island.

At issue is the traffic nightmare Miami Beach officials expect on MacArthur Causeway from the long-stalled Island Gardens project planned on the manmade island.

Cesar Garcia-Pons, deputy director of the City of Miami Planning Dept, left, and Brian May,
lobbyist for the Watson Island project, in front of the City of Miami Beach commission

The causeway, which links downtown Miami to South Beach, would be the only access route for Islands Gardens, which is proposing 221,000 square feet of retail space, 346,000 square feet of leisure space, 450 hotel rooms in two towers, 155 time-shares condos, a megayacht marina and parking for 1,610 vehicles.

During a Miami Beach City Commission meeting Wednesday, Mayor Philip Levine called those plans "an assault on the MacArthur Causeway" and vowed to do everything in his power to oppose them.

By unanimous vote, the mayor and city commissioners commissioned a traffic study to analyze the impact of the project on Miami Beach and instructed the city manager to find an out-of-state firm to eliminate any potential conflicts of interest, even after being informed the study could cost upwards of $200,000.

While they only officially voted for the traffic study, several commissioners spoke of lobbying Miami-Dade County and Miami on the project and exploring other "legal options."

City Commissioner Michael Grieco, who lives in the swanky South-of-Fifth neighborhood and has been a champion of South Beach community interests since his 2013 election, said opposing the Island Gardens plans was a question of survival.

"Miami Beach is the heart of the county, and if you cut off our blood flow, we're going to die," Grieco said.

Grieco said he had plans to personally lobby Miami City Commissioners Francis Suarez and Keon Hardemon on the issue.

"All that we're asking for is for them to take the opportunity to reassess," Grieco told the Daily Business Review.

Brian May, a Coral Gables-based lobbyist who represents Island Gardens developer Flagstone Group, attended the meeting and said he believed the study would "not affect our ability to move forward with the project."

He noted Flagstone performed a traffic study 18 months ago showing the road capacity would not be overwhelmed by Island Gardens. He also said his client was being used as a scapegoat by Miami Beach leadership unwilling to deal with that city's own traffic issues.

"What's interesting is that while they appear very concerned about what's going on in that side of the causeway, I don't see them looking at limiting development south of Fifth Street," May said. "If they want to handle the bottleneck at Alton and Fifth, they should handle the bottleneck at Alton and Fifth and not try to find some outside bogeyman."

Development Capacity

It's not the first time Miami Beach politicians have raised a ruckus over the Watson Island project. After a June 2013 announcement that developer Related Group was being brought in to kick start the dormant project, civic leaders, elected officials and then-candidates for the City Commission formed a united front to oppose the plans. Related pulled out less than two months later.

Island Gardens has been moving forward at a snail's pace since a lease to Flagstone was approved in 2001. Miami city commissioners let the project move forward last May. But Venetian Islands residents Stephen Herbits and Sharon Kirby Wynne sued Miami in September claiming that approval was unlawful.

A Miami Herald article in December, which noted Flagstone was revising its development plans in a way that could be interpreted as massively increasing the intensity of the project, further incensed critics.

In a rare showing, even real estate professionals piled on against the development.

Tom Bryan, the Miami Beach managing broker for Douglas Elliman, warned at the meeting Wednesday against the project.

"The long-term effect of real estate in Miami Beach and surrounding areas could turn the other way," he said.

At the Miami Beach meeting, Cesar Garcia-Pons, deputy director of Miami's planning and zoning department, explained an application to modify the project had been submitted that did not increase the development capacity from what was previously allowed. While square footage appears to have increased compared to what was approved in 2002, that's because the city's revised zoning code known as Miami 21 calculated capacity differently than the old code.

"In the application that we have before us, the development capacity being sought is less than the current development capacity," Garcia-Pons said.

Herbits' lawyer, Coral Gables attorney Sam Dubbin, said that statement by the deputy planning director was bunk. He provided emails to the DBR where Nathalie Goulet, Flagstone's general counsel, discussed being coached by city staff about how to submit an application that makes it appear development capacity is not increasing, with the understanding the developer would submit other revisions afterwards to execute the project on a larger scale.

Goulet did not immediately return a request for comment.