Riviera Beach residents called on to determine waterfront's fate

Yacht company's revitalization plan met with doubts

RIVIERA BEACH - In Mike Clark's vision, the Riviera Beach Marina is thriving, transformed from an infrastructure-challenged relic to a flourishing, state-of-the-art marina with water in every fire hydrant, a boat in every slip and people, lots of people.

Visitors would come to shop, walk along the promenade to neighboring Bicentennial Park no longer a haven for the illicit and hear music at the amphitheater before dining at one of the Tiki-themed eateries.

Harbor Village would be a regional destination, said Clark, president of Viking Associates, the developing arm of the yacht maker, which wants a long-term contract to run the city's marina.

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Kickoff Design Workshop:
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Design Studio: Sunday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m..
Riviera Beach Utilities Conference Room, City Hall complex

Work In Progress Presentation: Friday, 7 p.m. City Hall          

"The way we have to approach this is the way Riviera Beach lost control of its city, and that is a block at a time," Clark said. "Take two assets that are completely underutilized, the marina and Bicentennial Park, revitalize them and they become the focal point of a new community."

As Riviera Beach today launches a weeklong series of meetings, bringing residents into the redevelopment planning process for the first time, hope for the city's future will be on the drawing board. A key question for participants will be how to revive what should be the city's proudest asset: its 150-slip marina.

Officials have a lot to tackle in the meeting. The city is in the grips of crime, economic hardship and decay, it has long been traumatized by the divisive politics that accompanied fruitless redevelopment efforts and is further tainted by a federal investigation into the spending of redevelopment millions. Taking the lead is an overhauled City Council installed in an upset election in March.

"Our aim has been, since we got into office, to open up this process and get input," said new City Council Chairwoman Shelby Lowe. "We came in talking referendum, supporting open government, the democratic process. What I find deflating are the recent naysayers who talk against the plan, who assume we would do anything contrary to being open and fair."

Viking, which presented the Harbor Village proposal last week, says that given a long-term lease, it would invest tens of millions of dollars to turn the waterfront around.

Among other things, it would address the aging infrastructure: a substandard electrical system and fuel lines, crumbling bulkheads and the floor of the dry stack that's so uneven that the forklifts can't put large boats on the top stack anymore.

Without a long-term lease, Viking has threatened to abandon its considerable investment in the city. But those who enjoy the casual atmosphere and reasonable prices at the marina see Viking's plan as a gentrification enterprise that will earn the developer profits by pushing out low-income tenants in favor of an upscale facility.

"The concern is they will come in and raise the rent so high that ... people will leave and they will have a marina where they can do what they want," said Andrew Foss, one of several dozen "live-aboards" who live on their boats moored at the marina. "Everyone wants to see the marina fixed up. So get on, Viking, happy days. But not at the cost of the people who live at the marina."

The meeting is the culmination of years of redevelopment struggle. Two years ago, following up on its 2001 master plan to redevelop 400 acres of waterfront property, the city named two master developers: Catalfumo Construction for the Ocean Mall on Singer Island and Viking for the much larger redevelopment area along the Intracoastal Waterway that included the marina and Bicentennial Park.

The New Jersey-based Viking group had already built a headquarters on the waterfront and was buying up property along the redevelopment area. But when the Legislature outlawed eminent domain for redevelopment last year, the city lost its main tool for acquiring properties slated for redevelopment. Viking had to scale down the project.

Catalfumo, meanwhile, presented an Ocean Mall plan with a 28-story tower and a 99-year lease on the beachfront property. Singer Island residents objected, leading to a court fight, a referendum and an electoral upset when their candidates beat out the mayor and three City Council incumbents.

"Input is very important, especially in this city," said Dawn Pardo, a member of the steering committee and a leader of the group that sued for the Ocean Mall referendum. "In this city, residents feel that over the past nine years, government put together a plan without bringing people on board. The new government is doing everything it can to make the public feel part of the process."

During the campaign, Pardo complained that then-Mayor Michael Brown wanted to raze the city and build yacht clubs and condominiums. Those who live at the marina now worry that Viking has similar ambitions there. They cite a recent policy shift by interim director Douglas Mason imposing stricter insurance rules that pushed out some of the marina's older tenants.

Smaller, older boats, like Foss', are being turned down by the insurance companies, Foss said. The marina now has empty slips where it once had a waiting list.

"You'd never have seen this five years ago," said George Carter, the longtime former marina director who now runs Viking's Maritime School.

Carter blames the high insurance requirement but also the economy and the marina's failing infrastructure.

"Is this their master plan, to just stall until they can legally kick them out?" Foss asked.

Company president Clark dismissed as preposterous any conspiracy theory involving Viking. He defended Mason's efforts to require high insurance, saying boats should be seaworthy and well-covered so the marina does not become liable.

"Painting a picture of the big guy developer Viking coming in to kick out the little guy who is ensconced and comfortable in the marina is patently false," Clark said. "The bottom line is, the city is subsidizing people who don't live in Riviera Beach so they can have their boats on the water," he added. "I think part and parcel of upgrading the marina means upgrading the tenants.... The marina has become the no-tell motel of the yachting industry."

Dianna Cahn can be reached at dcahn@sun-sentinel.com or 561-228-5501.