In the February 28 issue of The Blue Paper the editors/publishers asked if Bahama Village is being dispossessed of its 6.6 acres at Truman Waterfront. The answer to that question is clearly “YES”! I first took notice of plans for the Waterfront in 2005. We, my wife and I, had just returned to the Conch Republic after a two-year absence. We lived at the corner of Truman Avenue and Thomas Street and the City Commission was taking up the question of traffic flow into and out of the nascent development that was to be built on the 33 acres that was given to the City by the Navy three years before.
What follows is my attempt to chronicle much that happened between 2002 and now. I will show when and how the City undertook to gain control over the 6.6 acres that were always supposed to be a significant part of the development and that were to benefit Bahama Village and its inhabitants economically and socially.
It’s not a pretty story. There is still time to rectify the mistakes that were made, but the City is on a path to steamroll the original plans into oblivion.
Robert Kelly, Key West
A BRIEF HISTORY OF TRUMAN ANNEX
Following a 1995 U.S. Department of Defense decision to shut down and dispose of fifty acres of waterfront property that was once known as the Naval Operating Base in Key West, the Navy began negotiations with the City government of Key West to allow the City to acquire that property. But before negotiations were completed, the Navy decided to retain ownership of seventeen acres, leaving the City with an opportunity to acquire the rest of the parcel, approximately 33 acres.
The City wanted to avoid a repeat of what had occurred in the 1980s. Seventeen acres of the former base was sold to the highest bidder when the City Commission couldn’t gain a majority vote to spend the money to buy it. That high bidder was a budding property developer who went by the name Pritam Singh. He bought the seventeen acres for one million dollars an acre. Singh then proceeded to develop the acreage into what is now known as Truman Annex. The land came complete with a collection of Navy buildings — a weather station, couple of large office buildings, and the Truman Little White House. Except for the Little White House, all of the other buildings were re-purposed and became commercial offices, condominiums, and newly-constructed private homes that were built on a new road infrastructure.
If the thirty-three acre parcel was to be acquired by the City, which couldn’t afford to get into a bidding war with private developers, another method would have to be found. Fortunately, the legislation that created the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, allowed communities to request an Economic Development Conveyance (EDC), a transfer of property at no cost to the community, based on economic benefits that would accrue to citizens and taxpayers. The Key West City Commission approved making an application for such a conveyance and hired consultants to prepare an application on the City’s behalf.
A major component of the City’s application was based on the inclusion of a Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) as a contributor to the justification for an EDC. In fact, the City’s application pondered a two part CRA. One part encompassed Bahama Village; the other was the area along Caroline Street which bordered upon the Key West Bight and adjacent areas with deteriorating buildings and infrastructure.
Of the six major goals and objectives envisioned in the Key West Base Reuse Development Plan (the Application), these four related specifically to Bahama Village and its residents:
- creating and retaining high-quality employment opportunities for Key West citizens, and in particular for residents of Bahama Village, the City’s historic African-American neighborhood located adjacent to the site;
- preserving and enhancing the economic foundation of Bahama Village;
- providing needed affordable commercial sites for resident entrepreneurs and existing businesses in order to allow them to compete for a share of Key West’s increasingly competitive retail/service trade; and
- expanding economic opportunities and training for Key West’s homeless and needy residents to help break the cycle of poverty.
Over the next several years, between 1997 and 2002, negotiations were ongoing. Community workshops were held. Zoning decisions were made. Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Regulations changes were made. Consultants drew up an application that would be used to justify the Economic Development Conveyance. The application was submitted and approved. It finally resulted in a deed in 2002 by which the Navy granted the land to the City free of cost, with certain stipulations on its use and development.
For the next seven years, the City Commission sitting as the LRA (Naval Properties Local Redevelopment Authority) dithered over alternate plans from several different communities, each attempting to get a piece of the park for their own purposes. The Key West Police Department began a PAL (Police Athletic League) program in the Mess Hall, Building 1287, then jealously argued that it ought to control that portion of the building. The Police Department also built a horse stable behind the Mess Hall and then claimed squatters rights to have a dedicated portion for that purpose. Developers were given an opportunity to lease Truman Harbor, the former submarine pens for a mega-yacht marina that was to be a source of revenue for the rest of the park.
The LRA created a Truman Waterfront Advisory Board in February of 2009 and and charged it with the mission to “promote the rehabilitation, revitalization, conservation and redevelopment of lands and structures within the Truman Waterfront.” The TWAB, as it came to be called, carried out what it understood to be its charter as best it could, but it was robbed of the kind of City staff support routinely given to other similar boards. Its meetings were arranged by a member of City staff, its agendas were prepared by that staff member, its minutes were written only sometimes and usually long after a meeting ended, and sometimes never. The meetings of this board were never televised and rarely even recorded, leaving the history of actions taken to the memories of board members and citizens who paid attention.
In April 2010, plagued by indecision and confusion, and with contention from the community over plans being made that weren’t consistent with the priorities that were put forth in various “charettes” conducted much earlier in the community, the TWAB proposed a community workshop that would be held jointly among the TWAB, the Bahama Village Redevelopment Advisory Committee, and the Local Redevelopment Authority. The workshop drew a fair sized audience of perhaps 100-150 people. Although the focus of the workshop was the 6.6 acres, less than half of those attending were residents of Bahama Village. A large contingent of parents and students involved in the American Youth Soccer Organization, most from other sections of the City, attended and lobbied for a significant soccer field.
A copy of the report that came out of that workshop can be seen here.
The Beginning of the End
The opening gambit in splitting the 6.6 acre piece of the Truman Water into two parts came later, in 2011. An agenda item appeared on a meeting of the Truman Waterfront Advisory Board (TWAB). A similar item was scheduled to be voted on by the LRA, that is, by the City Commission. The two items would have relocated Building 1287, the former Navy Mess Hall, from the 6.6 acres, and limit any benefits to Bahama Village only from that portion which lies within the boundaries of the Bahama Village Redevelopment Area. That’s the 2.6 acres closest to Bahama Village, along Fort Street and up the roadway to the 17 acres retained by the Navy. The 2.6 acre area is the portion of the 6.6 acre area that falls within the Bahama Village Community Redevelopment Subarea and receives TIF (Tax Increment Funds).
HERE’S THE SMOKING GUN:
—– Original Message —–
From: Bob Kelly
To: Clayton Lopez;Jed Regante;Paul Williams
Cc: Tom Milone; Christine Russell
Sent: 9/27/2011 12:10:23 PM
Subject: 6.6 Acre Parcel
The TWAB agenda for this Thursday includes an action item:
Former Navy Galley (PAL Building) removal from 6.6 acres and inclusion in remaining portion of property as Community Center. Requesting City to move forward with repairs and maintenance.
There is no “sponsor” listed for this item. I have no idea where the idea comes from. I think it’s a bad idea, or at the very least premature. I intend to oppose taking action. I can use your help, if you agree.
Member, Truman Waterfront Advisory Board
You are talking about two separate things. The issue Bob raised, concerning the PAL Building, I have no idea about. I cannot speak on that. You may want to contact Doug (or some member of staff) before communicating further and not having necessary information. As for the 6.6, a significant part of it is in the CRA designation for what is known as Bahama Village. I am sponsoring a resolution that WILL NOT separate the property at all. My resolution speaks to my desire to expand the oversight of the BVRAC. I have spoken to the chairs of both the TWAB and the BVRAC, and they agree with this move. This keeps Bahama Village, Bahama Village. Lest anyone claim that this will split properties. The reverse is actually true in that the properties are split now. But we have an organization tasked with input into the development of Bahama Village, and they have no say about that portion of Bahama Village that currently lies on the other side of the fence. This is intended to rectify that and give them a more complete focus area as they make necessary adaptations to the Bahama Village redevelopment plan.
We’re dealing with a critical piece of the puzzle here. A LOT of GOOD ideas have been coming forward. I am working on one as we speak, that I hope to present at the next District VI meeting for feedback. Fear of misinformation getting out and causing more stagnation, is why I want to present this to constituents for feedback in advance of any incomplete or inaccurate information coming to them.
This does NOTHING to change what goes into the property or any proposals to that end!
It was triggered in conjunction with another move made almost simultaneously by District 6 Commissioner, Clayton Lopez, with concurrence from the chairpersons of the Bahama Village Redevelopment Advisory Committee (BVRAC) and of TWAB. That move was to relocate an Assisted Care Living Facility (ACLF) onto the Bahama Village-designated property. Following a discussion with the chairs of the two boards (Carmen Turner for BVRAC; Jim Gilleran for TWAB), Lopez announced that he was now supporting all of the above, on the theory that doing so would bring approximately $ 50,000 per year in additional TIF funds from the developers of the proposed ACLF.
Once staff gained TWAB and LRA approval for dividing the 6.6 acre parcel, Building 1287 was identified and targeted for demolition. It was proposed that a new Community Center Building be built to replace it, at some future time and for some unknown amount of money. The City’s design consultant for the Waterfront Park was tasked to relocate the site of that new building in such a way that a regulation size soccer field could be built partly on the site of the demolished building. The City’s consultants opined that Building 1287 could either be repurposed, or that it could be torn down and rebuilt. TWAB basically punted that on the LRA/City Commission , who then approved the latter option.
Of interest: Those who had participated in the April 2010 joint workshop listed reuse of existing Building 1287 (the old Mess Hall) as a multi-use community center as second on their list of priorities for the 6.6 acres. Local architect Bert Bender, who is quite familiar with the Mess Hall building believes strongly that any decision to demolish it is simply foolish. And Bender is a nationally recognized expert on the adaptive reuse of ‘old’ buildings.
The Truman Waterfront Advisory Board and the Bahama Village Redevelopment Advisory Committee will conduct a joint meeting on Monday, March 17 and will take up the issue of the 6.6 acres and the fate of Building 1287.
Immediately thereafter, TWAB will take up and vote on the Task Order to Bermello Ajamil and Partners for Phase 2. Phase 2 includes the destruction of Building 1287, and the implicit or explicit division of the 6.6 acres that were once supposed to benefit Bahama Village.
The very next day, Tuesday, March 18, following the regular City Commission meeting, the LRA will consider approving that Task Order. Thus the steamroller is now running in high gear. If it is to be stopped a major community turnout for these three meetings is the only way I can see to do it.
Bob Kelly is a retired computer company executive who moved to Key West in 1999 with his wife Janet. They live aboard a houseboat at City Marina at Garrison Bight. He is an early graduate from the city Ambassador program. He was a member of the board of directors of the Bahama Conch Community Land Trust and also the Bahama Village Music Program. He also served briefly on the Truman Waterfront Advisory Board before being removed on a technicality.