he Cuban Exile History Museum, proposed for public waterfront land behind American Airlines Arena, is in limbo.
After four years of negotiations, county commission chairman Esteban Bovo is questioning the wisdom of allowing a non-profit organization to build a museum on taxpayer-owned land that was long promised as a park.
That’s a big deal because Bovo is the one who has been championing a 55-year lease with Cuban Exile History Museum Inc. that would allow the group to build an $80 million, 80,000-square-foot museum and plaza, funded with donations, on three acres of land the county calls Parcel B, all in exchange for $1 a year.
So instead of discussing the museum lease on June 19, as originally scheduled, the county commission deferred it “to a date uncertain.” Nicolas Gutierrez, the group’s secretary, acknowledged that his fellow board members are, reluctantly, considering other locations.
Yet while one project slated for public land may be in trouble, another is waiting in the wings -- and it might have some support from at least one county commissioner.
Oh, and it features a giant wheel.
Haskel Mayer, founder of Mayer Structural Design in Miami Beach, wants to build Miami Wave, a wave-shaped complex that would include a 550-foot-tall observation wheel, a hotel, and perhaps space for two museums, dedicated to Cuban and African-American history.
And Meyer is looking to build it above the FEC boat slip, a watery nine acres located between the AmericanAirlines Arena and Museum Park, although he is very flexible. The project, he says, can be built anywhere on the waterfront, anywhere on the planet.
“This is a work in progress,” Mayer says. “We’re looking at a number of cities throughout the world. But I’ve lived here for most of my life, and we’d like to see it built here.”
The FEC slip, however, is owned by the City of Miami, which means that Mayer would have to make a deal with officials. So far he has only approached county officials. “Like I said, this is a very preliminary idea that was floated out there,” he says. “We believe that it would be a natural fit for [the FEC slip], but we would let the powers that be, be the judge of that.”
The Miami Wave (presumably it would be called something else if it’s constructed in, say, San Diego), has nothing to do with Skyrise Miami, a 1000-foot-tall observation tower expected to be built by developer Jeffrey Berkowitz on a 1.9-acre Miamarina surface parking lot within easy walking distance of the FEC slip.
Nor does the Miami Wave have anything to do with the Miami Wheel, a 650-foot-tall Ferris wheel with retail on the ground and a bar and restaurant 250 feet in the air. Rigoberto Valdes, whom the BT couldn’t reach by deadline, had proposed to build this project on the FEC slip in 2014.
The Miami Wave, Mayer insists, is not a Ferris wheel. “George Ferris designed his wheel many years ago,” he says. Miami Wave would be based on his patented designs, and its wave design “goes hand-in-hand with how Miami has evolved [with] waves of immigrants developing this great international destination. We feel we have a project that would complement that.”
Mayer says Miami Wave would cost around $400 million to build and would be funded by private investors affiliated with MiamiEye Development LLC. Although Mayer declined to name these investors, Sunbiz.org lists MiamiEye’s directors as Mayer and architect Cyril Silberman, founder of Uni-Systems, an architecture and engineering firm with offices in Miami Beach and Minneapolis. Mayer did not say what rent, if any, he was willing to pay the City of Miami for Miami Wave to occupy public property.
Roosevelt Bradley, Miami Wave’s lobbyist, claims the observation-wheel complex could bring more people to Museum Park, home to the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Frost Museum of Science, as well as to Parcel B. Plus, he notes, it could ensure that Cuban and African-American museums would have plenty of visitors.
“We’re looking at how we can get all the museums together,” says Bradley, who is the former director of Miami-Dade Transit.
In July 2014, the Miami-Dade County Commission, by a vote of 8-4, directed Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration to negotiate a long-term lease with Cuban Exile History Museum Inc. on Parcel B. Commissioner Dennis Moss supported the resolution in exchange for his colleague’s support for an African-American history museum, preferably on the waterfront and partially funded with taxpayer money.
The vote was controversial, considering that county officials had promised to turn Parcel B into a public park in exchange for voter support in 1996 for the construction of a sports stadium for the Miami Heat (AmericanAirlines Arena) on public land (see “Political Intrigue and Parcel B,” March 2018).
As negotiations dragged on between the museum group and the mayor’s office, demands grew louder for Parcel B to become a park. Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, a downtown Miami resident whose district includes Parcel B, became the strongest voice on the commission against building a museum behind the arena. Commission chairman Esteban Bovo, whose father was a Bay of Pigs veteran, remained the project’s advocate.
Then in March of this year, a compromise was reached between Bovo, Moss, and Edmonson: a Cuban Exile History Museum and an African-American History Museum would be built on two of the twenty acres of open space in Museum Park. All that was needed was support from the City of Miami, which controls the park.
That didn’t happen. Bovo reported during a special “sunshine meeting” with Edmonson and Moss last month that City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez was opposed to more buildings in Museum Park.
William “Bill” Muir, a Bay of Pigs veteran who is president of Cuban Exile History Museum Inc., says he met with Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo at Museum Park. Carollo is also the chairman of the Bayfront Park Management Trust, a city board that oversees Bayfront Park, the FEC boat slip, and Museum Park. “We looked at where it would be possible to do something,” Muir says. “We had one or two text messages back and forth, and that was it.”
Carollo says he stopped meeting with Muir because he just didn’t think his group would be able to raise the money needed to build a museum. “They don’t have any money in the bank,” Carollo says. “Neither the Cuban Exile History Museum nor the African-American Museum, in my mind, will ever be a reality. The only way is if [taxpayers] put some money into it like they did with the Frost Museum and the Pérez Museum.”
During the June 12 sunshine meeting, Edmonson remained resolute against any museums being built on Parcel B. “My concern is that no one really cares about my constituents,” she said to Bovo and Moss. “Everybody wants to do what they want. I’ve never gone into your districts and done anything, yet you all come into mine.” Bovo’s district includes Hialeah and Miami Lakes. Moss’s district includes Florida City and Homestead.
Edmonson’s strenuous objections were enough to give Bovo second thoughts. “I just want to say that I have been agonizing about this,” Bovo said at the meeting. “Agonizing because you [Edmonson] are fulfilling your fiduciary responsibility to the residents of your district.”
Bovo later told the Miami Herald that he wasn’t sure “if there’s an appetite to move forward on this.”
Moss’s appetite, though, was just fine. He mentioned that there was a group wanting to build an attraction with a “Ferris wheel” and a hotel that was willing to include space for the African-American and Cuban exile history museums.
“This development interest could come in and build out the wheel and hotel, and said they will build out the museum,” Moss said at the sunshine meeting.
Moss also brought up the possibility of the county doing a “land swap” with the City of Miami that could allow Parcel B to become an official park and enable the attraction with the museums to be built in Museum Park. “You would have there 24/7 museums on the park. You will have a customer base right there!” Moss declared.
Edmonson wasn’t opposed to the idea. “That’s why I was pushing that to be on Museum Park!” she exclaimed. “The museums are already there!” She added that in exchange for allowing two additional museums to be built in Museum Park, she would support the elimination of an old agreement between the City of Miami and the county requiring the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency to make $2 million annual payments over the next 15 years for the maintenance of Museum Park.
But that idea didn’t sit well with Andres Althabe, president of the Biscayne Neighborhood Association. Althabe said that downtown residents don’t want more structures to be built on either Parcel B or Museum Park.
“We all agree that we don’t want more buildings in our parks,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”
As for the FEC slip, which has been used to dock boats since the late 1890s, the Miami Wave concept may soon have some competition. At the end of July, the Bayfront Park Management Trust will discuss a request for proposals for businesses interested in leasing the boat slip for marine purposes, as a means of raising revenue.
Bob Weinreb, a consultant on waterfront issues for Miami’s city manager, insists that filling in the FEC slip for development isn’t contemplated, although he admits that developers, entrepreneurs, and even county officials keep coming up with proposals. Past ideas included filling the FEC boat slip for a David Beckham soccer stadium, covering the FEC slip with a two-level floating parking garage, or docking an aircraft carrier within the boat slip. “They tried all kinds of things there,” Weinreb says, “and nothing has stuck.”
Nicolas Gutierrez of Cuban Exile History Museum says his group has talked with Mayer and Roosevelt about placing their museum within the proposed Miami Wave complex. Gutierrez admits he’s skeptical.
“We don’t know enough about them to be on board,” he tells the BT. “Anybody has an idea, we’ll listen, especially if we’re asked to do so by the county commission.”