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Miami River shedding its bad reputation

The Miami River’s image as a set for real-life Miami Vice — its reputation as a dirty, crime-ridden stain on the city surrounding it — is changing. Miami’s river is showing clear signs of renaissance, and though boating interests welcome this, they worry they will be caught in a stampede to buy up riverfront for chic shops, condominiums and restaurants.

“We’re trying to maintain the river as a working river, as opposed to becoming a Brickell II [Brickell Avenue, Miami’s condo canyon],” says Phil Everingham, vice president of Merrill-Stevens Dry Dock Co., a boat and megayacht repair yard that has operated on the river since 1923.

Historically the river was a highway for smugglers bringing drugs in from South America and for traffickers moving stolen goods out to the Caribbean. For years it was a dumping ground for industrial waste and untreated runoff laced with heavy metals, PCBs and pesticides.

The river’s reputation may have reached its nadir in the mid-1980s when three bodies turned up in the river after five men stormed aboard a freighter in the guise of police conducting a drug raid. In fact, they were one band of traffickers stealing cocaine from another.

That face of the Miami River is changing.

Everingham believes the 5.5-mile river that runs through Miami’s downtown into Biscayne Bay is at a crossroads. The Florida legislature authorized creation of a Miami River Commission to write a plan for the cleanup, restoration and economic development of the Miami River. The commission adopted its plan in September 2002 with input from neighborhood associations, developers, marine interests, politicians, environmentalists, law enforcement agencies and planners. Everingham says government must step up to the plate now and adopt it.

The Miami River Corridor Urban Infill Plan is a prescription for balanced development along the river, says Brett Bibeau, the commission’s managing director. The plan calls for high-rise residences, retail shops, restaurants and a riverwalk with boat tie-ups downtown near the river’s mouth; mixed-use small marinas, water-dependent businesses and residential neighborhoods midriver, and farther upriver industrial water-dependent businesses and offloading docks for a fleet of shallow-draft freighters that serve over 100 Caribbean ports.

“We believe that there is enough room on the river to plan out various uses and that they all can co-exist,” Bibeau said.

But neither the city of Miami nor Miami Dade-County have adopted the plan. Miami officials have said they want an economic study of the river first. Everingham says the call for yet another study reveals the city’s lack of political will and leadership to move forward on a master plan to preserve and develop the waterway as a working river.

Though confident that an economic study will show that marine interests — both recreational and commercial — contribute enormously to the region (commercial freight docks alone generate $4 billion a year), he fears some city officials may be leaning toward gentrifying the waterfront and abandoning its working river motif.

“They don’t want the marine [businesses] up there,” he says.

“Here we are, we’ve put a lot of time and effort into a new master plan for the river, and the city is not signing off on it,” he says.

He says Miami has ceded ground to Fort Lauderdale as the “Yachting Capital of the World” because Lauderdale’s political leaders have championed boating and the boating industry. Miami’s have not.

“The politicians are not doing much to help the industry,” he said.

Bibeau is sure the findings of the economic study will support the Miami River plan, and he remains confident the county and city will endorse it.

In fact, in July the Miami Planning Advisory Board hosted a workshop on the infill plan, along with greenway and stormwater plans for the river, and all three were enthusiastically received. “It was a great workshop,” Bibeau says. He believes at its September meeting the advisory board will recommend that the city adopt the Miami River plan. He says the county always has taken the position that since most of the river is in the city, it won’t act on the plan until the city has a chance to.

In the meantime, “This plan is not collecting dust,” he says. “We are moving forward.” He says the commission has completed 20 of 62 implementation steps recommended in the plan to spur a renaissance on the Miami River. Some of the evidences of that renaissance:

• Riverfront has “skyrocketed” in value over the past three years, Everingham says. Investors are interested in the Miami River again.

• Building is about to begin on two downtown riverfront projects on what used to be the Brickell Shipyard and Miami Ship Services. Latitude on the river and Neovertika will bring a mix of residential, office, retail, restaurant and riverwalk development to neighboring properties.

• Another developer is planning four 26-story towers of 1,100 condominiums on property a block off the river behind the Hurricane Cove boatyard, one of the last of the city’s do-it-yourself yards. Plans include converting the yard to a 150-slip marina for condominium tenants. Local boaters have raised a cry over losing their boatyard.

• The first phase of a $75 million dredging project to restore the river channel to 15 feet was scheduled to begin in October. The dredging is supposed to be finished by spring 2007. This project, stalled for more than 30 years because of the cost of disposing of contaminated bottom sediment, should clear the way for small freighters and megayachts to continue to use the river. Currently deep-draft users can navigate the river at high tide only.

• Revenge Marine moved into the old Allied Marine shipyard on the south fork of the Miami River five years ago. This 8.5-acre facility, which had lain vacant for six years, now serves as Revenge Marine’s headquarters, housing production of Egret flats fishing boats and Blackfin sportfishing yachts, as well as a full-service marine yard. The company received approval for a $9.6 million Industrial Revenue Bond to build a new, 120,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility.

• Flagstone Properties of Orlando is planning a $280 million mixed-use development that includes a 55-slip megayacht marina on Watson Island, a few minutes by boat from the river’s mouth on Biscayne Bay. Yards upriver expect the marina to generate a lot more work for them.

• Jose and Victor Bared, who bought Jones Dry Dock last summer, plan a 24-hour megayacht complex that will continue to service ships and yachts but also cater to yacht crews and owners.

• Scavanger, a cleanup boat, is on the river gathering debris, sucking up oil sheens and aerating the water to kill E.coli and other bacteria.

• The stormwater system for the river’s watershed is being upgraded to filter out floating debris and reduce bacteria entering the river.

• Law enforcement agencies are working together through the Miami River Enforcement Group to fight crime on the river, including the drug smuggling and traffic in stolen goods. Florida’s marine police also are stepping up efforts to remove derelict boats from the river.

• Several new pocket parks have added green space along the river.

The Trust for Public Land has authored a plan linking these parks to a proposed 11-mile Miami River Greenway to enable walkers, joggers and cyclists eventually to traverse both banks from the river’s mouth to its headwaters, either on riverfront trails or on roads set back a block or two from the water in waterfront industrial zones. The $25 million greenway plan would require developers to dedicate part of their riverfront to the public walkway. “We’re looking to give people access to the riverfront, give them the opportunity to get up close and experience the working river, and instill a sense of stewardship for it,” said Lavinia Freeman, Miami program manager for the trust.

• The county is working on an ordinance to designate upper reaches of the river marine industrial, to keep it for commercial shipping.

• Everingham says he is seeing a lot of interest in investing in riverfront for marine uses. Bibeau says the abandoned 9-acre Florida Yacht Basin site midriver is “ideal” for a mixed-use development of retail and residential construction, and a megayacht marina.

• Property along the river has been designated an Enterprise Zone and a Historically Underutilized Zone, giving developers tax advantages.

Bibeau says he sees a lot happening on the river right now.

“The only question is the balance,” he says. “We’re building on what the river has now, we’re strengthening that and building on it.”

Everingham wants to make sure boating remains part of that balance.