MIAMI — Luis Garcia lives in Neo Vertika, one of the glitzy new condo towers transforming the banks of the Miami River — a funky corridor of tugboat operators, boat-repair shops and shipping terminals. But his heart is with the river itself.
Striding past stacks of wooden lobster traps at the dock of his 40-year-old family business, Garcia's Seafood Grille & Fish Market, Garcia gestures at the warehouse built by his father. "This place is not sexy — I understand that," he says. "But where else do you see a restaurant that has its own fishing fleet?"
Born and raised on the Miami River, Garcia, 38, is all in favor of bringing in a mix of new residential and commercial life. But he — like many of his peers who operate marine businesses — worries that the city of Miami's move to rewrite its blueprint for the river to permit more residential development will squeeze out longtime marine operations and the heartbeat and jobs that go with them.
"There has got to be a delicate balance," Garcia said. "You're never going to see a guy singing in a gondola on the Miami River. That's not what we do. We're more of an industrial, working river. We should embrace that."
Last month, the Miami City Commission, urged on by Commissioner Angel Gonzalez, voted to gut long-standing legal protections for the scarce and dwindling inventory of marine-industrial land along the river. "That river is dead," Gonzalez said, in a slap at marine businesses.
The City Commission voted 3-1 to change its comprehensive plan, encouraging residential and mixed-use development along with continued marine uses along the narrow waterway, which stretches 5.5 miles northwest from Biscayne Bay to Miami International Airport.
This month, the South Florida Regional Planning Council, a panel of 19 local leaders, unanimously recommended against the city's planned changes for the river — which may look like a few technical wording changes but could result in big differences in future land development.
The council's advice will be weighed by the Florida Department of Community Affairs in Tallahassee when the agency decides this summer whether to permit the city's changes.
"It's deplorable. They want to turn the whole river into condos, to make a long story short," said Eric Buermann, a Miami attorney who is chairman of the Miami River Commission, a river watchdog and public policy clearinghouse. "Everybody knows the river serves multiple purposes and has different aspects, but I guess the developers want it all."
The riverfront, much of it trash-strewn and decaying, began to attract developers' attention during the real estate boom, especially the stretch that lies within Miami city limits: Biscayne Bay to 27th Avenue.
Although land use and zoning rules rope off much of the middle river for marine-industrial uses, city officials typically accommodated developers by creating a bevy of exceptions.
Since 2000, nearly half of the marine-industrial land in the city has been gobbled up through rezoning, according to Fran Bohnsack, executive director of the Miami River Marine Group, a private association of marine businesses. The river has sprouted 4,208 new condo units since 2000, with 5,215 more units under construction and 6,500 others planned, according to the Miami River Commission.
Worried about losing ground, the Miami River Marine Group joined forces with a neighborhood association and a river tugboat operator to battle the city's pro-developer stance in court.
Last year, the marine interests won three big cases in a row against the city, blocking three riverfront condo projects. The 3rd District Court of Appeal scolded the city of Miami for making "piecemeal, haphazard changes" and ignoring its own rules for protecting marine-industrial property from encroachment.
"If the city's vision for the Miami River has changed, then that change should be clearly reflected in its comprehensive plan to provide industries and landowners along the Miami River with fair notice," the court wrote. So, last month, city commissioners did just that.
Mayor Manny Diaz, a big booster of development, scoffs at the suggestion that the city is trying to push marine businesses out. City leaders, he says, simply want the "flexibility" to bring life to blighted areas along the river.
"If we could get 10 more Merrill-Stevens to come in, we'd be doing cartwheels," Diaz said. "The fact is most marine businesses have been abandoned."
The model that Diaz cites, Merrill-Stevens Dry Dock, is bustling with work on yachts, including a current job on actor Johnny Depp's 156-foot Vajoliroja. The facility plans to spend more than $55-million to expand and modernize to handle 250-foot megayachts. Plans include a marine vocational school.
The city's attitude toward the marine industry already "has discouraged businesses from continuing on the Miami River," said Munir Mourra, president of River Terminal Services, a private port that serves the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the Bahamas. The river port, Mourra said, provides a vital lifeline to the Caribbean.
For Miami-Dade County, the river generates about 6,100 jobs, $682-million per year in economic output and $339-million in earnings, according to a 2005 study done by Hazen and Sawyer, an environmental engineering firm, for the South Florida Water Management District.