Competing visions cloud marina makeover

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Activists in Riviera Beach, Fla., oppose proposal for superyacht yard, force a November referendum

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The waterfront in Riviera Beach, Fla., is a diamond in the rough, but oh how rough it is and how tough it has been to turn that asset into the gem many think it could be.

A divided city council in early June approved a master plan for a $59 million Riviera Beach waterfront makeover that includes a much-needed upgrade to the city-owned marina. What the approval does not include is a controversial proposal to convert nearly 40 percent of the marina into a Rybovich superyacht yard under a long-term lease to the Huizenga family, which owns the Rybovich superyacht marina and yard in Palm Beach and whose other holdings include AutoNation, a minority share in the Miami Dolphins National Football League team, and a number of marinas and real estate projects.

But the Rybovich proposal and some others to turn city land over to private development have sparked an outcry from activists. The redevelopment is in jeopardy because a petition drive has put it to a referendum in the Nov. 2 election. The Riviera Beach Citizens Task Force - which wants to keep the city-owned property under city management, stop the Rybovich deal from going forward and let neighborhood voices be heard - collected 2,500 signatures (448 more than required) to put the measure on the ballot.

"[The council and developers] don't understand that we have a share in the marina, too," says task force chairman and community activist Emma Bates, who lives in the marina neighborhood. "We're not against the marina being redeveloped and making money, but we want to have a say in it."

One thing, she says, is that she and her neighbors don't want to give away public land to private developers. "Riviera Beach has some very, very valuable property," she says. "As residents, we're waking up. We want to hold on to what we have. We want to leave it to our children."

But advocates for private redevelopment say the city has not been a particularly good steward of its waterfront. The 26-acre redevelopment zone sits on the Intracoastal Waterway - across from Peanut Island, a park on the Intracoastal Waterway popular with boaters, and from Singer Island, a wealthy enclave of oceanfront hotels and condos. The stretch could be "one of the most beautiful areas along the East Coast," says Michael Clark, vice president of Viking Developers, which has been designated master developer for the project. It is the Viking proposal that forms the basis for the $59 million makeover approved by the council, and now it, too, is in jeopardy.

For now, the waterfront remains a mostly shabby, underutilized, worn-out commercial and recreation district. Clark believes that if it were revitalized - transformed into a "destination" where people of means would want to visit and spend their money - it could spark a renaissance in this hardscrabble town of 33,000 in Palm Beach County. "But until you cut and polish the diamond, it just looks like a rock," Clark says.

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Viking Developers, affiliated with Viking Yacht Co. of New Gretna, N.J., owner of two boatyards in the waterfront district, has been working for five years with the city and the Community Redevelopment Agency to author a plan for doing that cutting and polishing.

The redevelopment district includes the municipal marina, Bicentennial Park, Newcomb Hall community center, Spanish Courts - a property that started as a motor lodge and morphed into a failed city-owned arts center - and other privately held properties, including the two Viking yards.

The Viking plan would put in floating docks, new electrical boxes and bulkheading at the marina; tear down an outdated drystack where the superyacht yard would be; and clear Spanish Courts to give the proposed Rybovich yard more space. The plan also would upgrade the beach and put an amphitheater, community boating center and promenade in the park; tear down the old community center; and build a new one next to the park, with an upstairs banquet hall with a view of the ICW. It also calls for construction of a parking garage and retail, office and restaurant complex, and possibly a hotel, and a fruit and vegetable market.

A grant program, the Broadway Reinvestment Coalition, already is helping to fund facelifts of businesses around the waterfront district. "We've got 28 [coalition] projects under way," says John Sprague, governmental affairs chairman for the Marine Industries Association of Palm Beach County.

Sprague says the Rybovich facility would lie at the foot of the Port of Palm Beach turning basin, which accommodates vessels that draw up to 33 feet. With a 400-ton railway and 300- to 400-ton Syncrolift, the yard would open South Florida to a whole new class of yacht - up to 400 feet - and draw contractors from all over the region to work on them.

"The jobs and economic development this will create will be astronomical," says Sprague. "It has ramifications for all of southeast Florida."

Yet many in Riviera Beach believe the city has tried to hoodwink them with this plan and steamroll the ideas offered in a January 2008 charrette, a collaborative planning process that cost $1 million and produced a "citizens' master plan." Elements of the plan include maintenance and enhancement of the working waterfront, businesses that offer neighborhood services, commuter train service, a multicultural facility and public beaches. "These ideas were basically abandoned in the negotiating process ... which resulted in an end run around the public," says community activist Andrew Byrd, who has a degree in planning from Cornell University.

Byrd says the city not only sidestepped the public's plan but also ignored a state stipulation that the city marina's bottomland is for public recreation only, not a boatyard. "The marina will be half the size [it is now]. It will have fewer slips and no drystack," says Byrd. "They want to turn it into a big industrial facility."

Sprague, however, argues that Rybovich is known for running a clean yard. "Rybovich does a first-class job," he says. "Its 45th Street facility is immaculate."

The measure up for vote in the referendum would require that city or CRA-owned properties - the marina, Newcomb Hall, Bicentennial Park and Spanish Courts - be owned, managed and operated solely by the city for municipal and public purposes. It would prevent any part of the marina from being converted to an "industrial" yacht repair yard and keep the marina's submerged lands for recreational use.

This is not the first time the city has tried to redevelop its waterfront, nor is it the first time the marina's neighbors have dug in their heels and opposed the plans. In 2006, a previous administration presented a bold $2.4 billion plan to redevelop 400 acres of Riviera Beach waterfront in a bid to transform the city. The project would have involved taking 1,700 homes, displacing 5,100 residents and closing many small businesses through eminent domain.

That plan drew an even louder outcry than the current one, including opposition from the marine industry. It looked as if it might go forward until Gov. Jeb Bush signed a law in spring 2006 prohibiting the taking of property for private economic use. "Things have happened in the past that have caused a lot of mistrust," Sprague says. "That has to be overcome."

He believes the new plan - more modest, more doable, less grandiose than the last one - can "change the ambiance of the whole place," attract visitors, draw new businesses and jobs, and spark the renaissance many have been waiting for. He doubts the activists will prevail in the referendum. He believes turning to private industry to revive the waterfront will make sense to voters. "I haven't been this excited about a marine development in a long time," Sprague says.

Still, there are folks who aren't happy with the idea of selling the city's "birthright" - its property - to private interests. Activist Lynne Hubbard says the county has about $5 million in grants available to rehabilitate the marina. "We don't need a developer to do the marina the way we'd like to see it," she says. "We've just got to get the voters out now that we've got this referendum on the ballot."

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.

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