Is Bahama Village Being Dispossessed of its 6.6 Acres at Truman Waterfront?

“The City is derailing a plan which would be good, not just for Bahama Village, but for all of Key West,” says Bob Kelly, a longtime advocate for Bahama Village, Key West’s predominantly black neighborhood, “A vibrant Bahamian community in the Village would be an extraordinary asset to the Key West tourism economy.”

A plan had been designed by local architect Bert Bender for the extension of the Village into the Truman Waterfront, the 33-acre parcel donated to the City by the US Navy in 2002.  Bender’s plan was both bold and conventional.  It extended the Village’s traditional street grid, but also had some unique features such as green space on the rooftops and mixed commercial space with affordable housing in a single structure.

“I liked all those vegetable gardens on the rooftops, imagine that – in Key West – all those green spaces suspended by the sea.  And having a business space at street level and an apartment upstairs,” says Jamaican David, a Bahama Village resident, “that was a real good idea.”

Rendering

CLICK ON IMAGE FOR LARGER VIEW

Everyone seems to have liked something about the project.

However, after hundreds of hours of community input and with fully designed architectural plans, the dream of extending the Bahama Village neighborhood into 6.6 acres of the Truman Waterfront looks as though it might remain just that: a dream.

In fact a recent email from Doug Bradshaw, the City’s Project Manager, has brought the issue close to the flashpoint.

“There is no such thing as a 6.6 acre parcel anymore.  What remains and what BVRAC discussed was the 2.6 acre parcel that is part of the TIF District,” says Bradshaw in a January 8th email to a member of the Truman Waterfront Advisory Board (TWAB).

Now let us decode those cryptic words for you.

In 2007 a majority of voters approved a referendum reserving 6.6 acres of the Truman Waterfront for the economic benefit of Bahama Village.  A non-profit called the Bahama Conch Community Land Trust (BCCLT) conceptualized a vibrant Bahamian community which would offer jobs, small business opportunities, vocational training, affordable housing and recreational space. But apparently, seven years and a whole lot of politics later it seems that the mandate of the people has been lost.

The irony in what some perceive to be a concerted effort to dispossess Bahama Village of its share of the Truman Waterfront is that the Village was one of the main reasons the Navy gave the Truman Waterfront to the City in the first place.

The following is the argument used by the City to convince the Navy to donate this multimillion-dollar waterfront property.

“The redevelopment of the site will enhance the viability of the adjacent Bahama Village neighborhood, both from a quality of life perspective (the residents will no longer be cut off from the waterfront) as well as from a commercial perspective through the creation of up to 339,000  square feet [7.78 acres] of mixed-use space.”

-       City’s application to US Navy for free “economic development conveyance” of Truman Waterfront

[Note that at the time, the City was promising 7.78 acres to expand the Village.]

It gets better. When digging into the history of the City’s creation of the Key West Bight Historic Seaport one realizes that again it was Bahama Village that made the acquisition and subsequent redevelopment possible.

That scheme is worth describing in detail.   In 1991, the City had just decided to play developer and wanted to buy Key West Bight and develop it into a marina.  The problem was that normally a City can’t use taxpayers’ money, including local, state and federal funding, for what are essentially non-governmental purposes like running a marina with shops and restaurants.  There is, however, a loophole:  Call it a “slum” or “blighted area” and create a CRA (Community Redevelopment Area) and then not only can public money be used for “private purposes” but tons of grants become available, even to private businesses within the CRA.

The City fathers hit a snag though.  The survey of buildings and conditions for Key West Bight weren’t going to fit into the state’s requirements for the creation of a CRA.  There simply wasn’t enough blight around the Bight, not enough dilapidated buildings, almost no minorities, and not enough ownership diversity.  It just wouldn’t work. Then came the stroke of genius:  Extend the CRA to include Bahama Village.  Suddenly those seeking to justify the creation of a CRA for Key West Bight could capitalize on all of the data showing blighted conditions in Bahama Village.  [For instance, where only 25 buildings were found, at the time, to qualify as “deteriorating” in the Key West Bight area, Bahama Village was found to be plagued with 234 such buildings.] It would be called the “Caroline Street Corridor and Bahama Village Community Redevelopment Agency.”

The official justification went like this:

“The theory behind the dual subdistrict was that the potential for the tax increment increasing within the Caroline Street Corridor was much larger than in Bahama Village.  The intent was to (…) share the tax increment with Bahama Village, which was in greater need of repair for commercial and residential structures.”

                                                 -  Bahama Village Redevelopment Plan, 1998 Update, pg 11

Thanks to this very savvy maneuver, grant money would rain on private business at Key West Bight.  For example, the “Conch Farm”, claimed it would to be importing thousands of live conch from the Bahamas and promised to create jobs in the “conch-farming industry”.  In reality, even at the very top of their ‘conch production’, there would never be more than an aquarium with four or five live conchs,  but thanks to the CRA, the famous bar/restaurant would receive over $700,000 of free money from the state for the construction of its parking lot alone!

CRA NoteAnd Bahama Village?  Well, not long after the CRA was approved, the City Commission decided to use separate accounting for the two neighborhoods; one for the Bight and one for Bahama Village.  That move had a cynical result: increasing revenue in the Bight could not [after all] be used to fight the blight in Bahama Village.

“To understand how we feel,” says Clayton Lopez, the Commissioner in whose district Bahama Village lies, “you need to know that for instance the Zero Duval Street property was developed (and granted) on the basis that it was to benefit Bahama Village economically!  We can’t, as a City, continue to use Bahama Village as a pretext to reap economic benefit and then ignore the Village after we get what we want.”

Over the course of several years of bureaucracy and politics the initial 7.78 acres destined to provide an economic engine for Bahama Village would become 6.6 acres.  A few weeks before the City would sign a 99 year lease with the BCCLT to develop those 6.6 acres, Norma Jean Sawyer, the indefatigable leader of the Bahama Village redevelopment movement would be thrown in jail for having crisscrossed funding from various grants she was supposed to manage and finally, last month, the City announced that the 6.6 acres has completely vanished from the plan.

We sat down with architect Bert Bender who, back in 2009, designed the Bahama Village [6.6 acre] portion of the Truman Waterfront property.  Out of the mass of blue prints, elevations and renderings, a remarkably integrated plan materialized.  Bender is passionate, almost a Picasso look-a-like.  He has put some of his own experience as a kid growing up in inner city Chicago into this urbanization project.  It would be hard to miss his disappointment at the lost opportunity, the rare chance for an architect to design more than a facade, and actually have an opportunity to design a better world.

“The main concept.” says Bender, “is the complete integration into the existing street grid: both Petronia and Angela are prolonged all the way to the water.”  On both sides of the street we see businesses, artist studios and residential units.  We asked Bender if he thinks his plan would still be viable today.  “I believe,” Bender says, “that the key to good urbanization, the flow of people, business opportunities, everything, depends on maintaining consistency with the City street grid.  And that’s what this plan does – it extends Bahama Village toward the water with more opportunities and integrates well with the existing neighborhood.  I believe the plan is as good today as it was when it was designed a few years ago.”

“I don’t see any reason why we should not keep going with Bender’s plan,” says Lopez.  “The 6.6 acres is still very much on the table.  I’ve asked for a joint meeting of BVRAC (Bahama Village Redevelopment Advisory Committee) and TWAB to discuss the 6.6 acres and it needs to happen soon.”

“The biggest misconception,” says Wendy Coles, former executive director of SHAL (Southernmost Homeless Assistance League), is to believe that Key West has to give up some land for Bahama Village or that Bahama Village is taking from the rest of the community, when really it is absolutely obvious that it is in the best interests of the City as a whole to foster a vibrant Bahamian Community… Just creating more affordable housing is not ambitious enough.  We need to create opportunity for full development of a unique neighborhood with its specific culture, food, and services. That would be a tremendous asset to everyone in the City.”

Mongo quote“Bottom line,” says Mike Mongo, one-time mayoral candidate, “the mandate of the people was clear:  the majority of voters said, ‘give Bahama Village residents control of a fair share of the waterfront.’  The Commission should realize that voters were not concerned about who Norma Jean Sawyer or the BCCLT were.  What we said was, ‘Give 6.6 acres to the people of Bahama Village.’”  Mongo also says, if necessary, there could be a new referendum.  “Maybe we’ll give 12 acres this time,” says Mongo, “Who would argue that?  Who would say ‘No, don’t give anything to the people of Bahama Village?’”

It is hard to imagine who would want to stand in front of that train.

Stay tuned.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

BELOW:  A rendering by John Allyn, Florida Atlantic University, Center for Urban Redevelopment and Education, 2004

Bahama Village Rendering Florida Atlantic University


Key West The Newspaper [The Blue Paper] encourages spirited, open debate in comments on our stories. We do ask that you refrain from profanity, personal attacks and remarks that are off point. Please join the conversation!

4 comments on “Is Bahama Village Being Dispossessed of its 6.6 Acres at Truman Waterfront?

  1. When City Project Manager Doug Bradshaw writes:

    ““There is no such thing as a 6.6 acre parcel anymore. What remains and what BVRAC discussed was the 2.6 acre parcel that is part of the TIF District,” says Bradshaw in a January 8th email to a member of the Truman Waterfront Advisory Board (TWAB).”

    he is mixing apples and oranges. As a then-sitting member of the BVRAC and author of the resolution passed by the Committee, we knew we had statutory rights to address the 2.6 acre portion of the 6.6 acres which overlay the Tax Increment Funding District. Not wanting to exceed our jurisdiction, we only spoke of that portion.

    But, BVRAC not speaking of the whole 6.6 (or is that 7.78 acres) does not mean that the whole area was not, and should not, be considered part of the development to benefit Bahama Village. The Bender plan, which BVRAC enthusiastically supported when it was first proposed, dealt with the whole area, part of which would benefit Bahama Village through Tax Increment Funds and all of which would benefit Bahama Village with increased economic and social vitality.

    The demise of the Bahama Conch Community Land Trust and rise of the upscale development of the Truman Waterfront (luxury marina, etc), along with imposition of other uses less tied to Bahama Village (soccer field for youth almost exclusively from outside Bahama Village) is what began to whittle away at the 6.6 acres.

    A fall-back plan for those acres was the development of the Assisted Living Facility, an alternative use which would have created Tax Increment Funds, provided jobs in the neighborhood, and become the desired economic engine for Bahama Village. But, alas, powers-that-be deemed the land too valuable to be frittered away on our longest-living residents, choosing non-revenue producing fields and pipe-dreams over serving such needs.

    Those wishing to once again deny Bahama Village of real benefit from the area used the denial of the lease for the Assisted Living Facility as a new way to re-apportion the acreage to other uses.

    A multi-use, commercial/residential development of that area with affordable housing and appropriate Bahamian themed cultural motifs and local businesses would be a boon to all of Key West, far more than any of the other, smaller uses proposed.

    I regret that I have to think this way in a community which claims to be guided by a vision of “ONE HUMAN FAMILY,” but it seems again that there are interests in Key West who would rather deny the whole of the City the benefits of such a vital and enhancing development of the 6.6 acres because it might also benefit Bahama Village in a way that they cannot control nor from which they would take personal gain.

    Rev. Dr. Randolph W.B. Becker

  2. Let us not forget that it was our own commissioner, Clayton Lopez, who cast the deciding vote scuttling the assisted living facility. I believe the rationale that a parking lot would bring in more money was mentioned. Is a 2/3 majority vote in favor of he facility so easy to ignore? (It was as I recall about the same majority that rejected widening the channel for bigger cruise ships. Watch out, people!) One Human Family of elders at the Waterfront would have been a stable anchor for the entire project. Shame on all who shattered that dream.

    • Dear C.S.

      You may recall the original parcel dedicated for use by genuine, resident Key West Elderconchs was a 2.14 acre rectangle, located right in front of the Shipyard Condos. off of the end of Southard. It was zoned “HMDR” but aimed smack at Seniors. For Years. Nobody made a Peep about it. It was, anonymously: “just HMDR”.
      But then the Navy Transfer deal finally went through and the nonprofit elder Shepards promoting the thing ‘as though by Magic’ suddenly got visions of grandeur; 2 acres became 4 acres, which then became 6. In the latest, ‘miracle’ iteration, the one proffered with wonderful sincerity in Key West local Churches and Synagogues, the architectural renderings began to look like a Taj Mahal on Fort Street.
      The new improved elder Sanctuary threatened to block out the sun along much of Fort Street. And with it, practical access to the park from the foot of Petronia. So, in reality, Clayton is just doing his job.
      Also, when it was revealed to the masses by the disinterested Shepards that the Elderproject would be so wondrous that would likely have to be marketed abroad to insure full occupancy, pesky community activists began wondering aloud:”What is the real object of this exercise?”
      In short, CS, if the thing had stayed even close to it’s original boundaries, 2, even 3 acres, it would have been built already. … and then leased out mostly to upscale Conchs from Park Avenue and Benedict Canyon.
      Maybe it’s a blessing for the resident community that the thing became too ambitious.

  3. “Not wanting to exceed our jurisdiction, we only spoke of that portion.” RevRandy.

    So, RevRandy, Mr. Bradshaw apparently took your hesitancy to speak about anything beyond the TIF line as a formal surrender on the part of all in Bahama Village to any claim or interest in the full 6.6 acres that was slated for Bahama Village on the ORIGINAL Navy land transfer application, back around 1997.
    Let’s, pause for a moment and get the fundamental item straight:
    The mere appearance of hesitance or confusion by a neighborhood advisory board = Legal Cession of Property Use Preference by an Entire Neighborhood. Is there a legal term for such an amazing procedure?
    To be fair to Mr. Bradshaw, any time BVRAC conversation turns to matters beyond the TIF line, the Board does appear to be at least mute, but possibly both deaf and mute.
    It was extremely depressing to watch you guys in action.
    CLEARLY: If a proposal does not impact the level of TIF funding upwards or down, in appears to exceed the Board’s comprehension altogether.
    Example: Building 1287, the “Thousand Man Mess Hall”, is well inside the original 6.6 acres. Yet, as far as the BVRAC is concerned, it might as well be on the Moon. Why? It’s beyond the TIF line.
    That Building, properly managed by a BV based nonprofit, would produce far more money than the Fort Street TIF revenue ever could. Just from one building. And you’d still have the balance of the 6.6. And – And ALL the TIF funds!

    But – that would require considerably more organization than it takes to go downtown, pick up a TIF check, and then distribute that few hundred thousand to a handful of worthwhile recipients…
    the kind of organization that the Land Trust might have provided, had it not imploded.

    So – what, then?
    Now, is the Village out 4 acres of potentially valuable land use just because the Board appeared Clueless? Looks that way.
    But further, there’s no move to go retrieve it from the City. Also, there’s no concern whatsoever that Bahama Village no longer has Any BV 501 that can move on any future housing and development opportunities for the benefit of BV residents.

    Net position, today?
    Even if the City did get up and announce that the 6.6 arrangement is still in force and that Mr. Bradshaw was perhaps a bit hasty, there is still no BV 501 to whom the City could entrust the property. So BV residents are in a perpetual limbo on the 6.6 acre opportunity. Is that about it?
    Please, what am i missing, here?

    Before we go pounding the City – or Mr. Bradshaw – for mistreating Bahama Village, Humor me for a couple of seconds.
    Suppose the Mayor picks up a 6.6 zillion dollar football and says: ”OK, Somebody in Bahama Village go long. IT’S YOUR TURN, You’re way overdue for a big play, so I’m gonna hit ya”!

    But there are NO legal receivers in Bahama Village. He can’t just throw it to anyone, the Navy ‘Refs’ wouldn’t allow it.
    Be a waste of time to try it. and time is marching on. The ball’s GOTTA go somewhere, so….
    Who’s the “bad guy” in this debacle?

Leave a Reply