Rickenbacker Marina
Rickenbacker Marina (J. Albert Diaz)

Aabad Melwani’s family has run the Rickenbacker Marina on Virginia Key for around 30 years.

The entrepreneur, who has his hands in real estate and other ventures, took over operations from his father and clearly has an emotional attachment to the marina.

“Our fuel dock attendant has been with us for more than 20 years,” Melwani said. “I joke around and say she had a hand in raising me. Most of our employees are like family.”

But the 35-year-old Melwani said Miami, and especially City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, have designs to end his management of the marina when the area is redeveloped. The project slated to be completed by 2025 would include retail shops, more boat slips and possible renovation of the Marine Stadium.

Melwani amended a pending lawsuit against the city this month, adding to his claims that the city has manufactured defaults under the marina’s lease to preclude Melwani from bidding on the new request for proposal.

By city ordinance, vendors are precluded from bidding on a new contract if they are in default on a current agreement.

“My client can’t bid for a new lease. It’s a way of kicking my client out of the game,” said Miami attorney David B. Haber of the Haber Law Firm, who is representing Melwani. “Government officials should not abuse their authority, especially when they are using other people’s money.”

Miami maintains the marina operator has violated its lease in two ways. Melwani was required to build an 11-foot wide walkway along the seawall but instead constructed a path only 5 feet wide.

The city also claims the marina failed to pay a mandated $2 million toward construction of a planned parking garage even though the location has not been picked.

The marina and boat storage company emphasizes it has always paid its rent on time and notes the monthly payment increased from $6,000 to $30,000 under the 7½-year lease agreement signed in 2009.

“The city fabricated the defaults under the lease that were politically motivated because the city has other designs on the marina,” Haber said.

Melwani said he just wants his company, Rickerbacker Marina Inc., to have a chance to be part of the area’s revitalization.

“All we want is for the opportunity to compete,” Melwani said. “It’s hard to explain. We’ve been there for 30 years. My dad had to deal with some pretty questionable men in previous administrations, but I never expected anything like this.”

‘Lowest and Worst Use’

The marina is in Sarnoff’s district.

The commissioner said he doesn’t have anybody else in mind to run the marina and there is no insidious conspiracy against the current tenant. Melwani’s company simply broke its lease, he said.

Sarnoff said his redevelopment goal is to pick a company with vision and ideas to remake the area into a place where tourists and city dwellers want to visit.

“All I can tell you is that they did not abide by their contractual terms and the representations they made to the commission,” he said. “There is going to be a new RFP, and I hope someone is going to come up with an ingenious plan for what the area will look in 2025.”

Under the current management, Sarnoff said, the marina “is probably the lowest and worst use, and they have been part of the lowest and worst use for years.”

Those are fighting words for Haber, who said his client voluntarily spent at least $3 million in capital improvements, such as stabilizing the shoreline and seawall, while key public infrastructure, such as the Marine Stadium, became derelict.

“At some point the city has to own its behavior whether it be on the entire region or how it dealt with my client,” Haber said. “I don’t think they can blame my client for the lowest and worst use. My client has put in millions of dollars in improvements and paid a lot of rent to the city.”

Melwani said he feels like a scapegoat. “I underpromised and overdelivered,” he said.

Pathway to Litigation

It was the walkway that became the catalyst for the litigation before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge John W. Thornton.

The city notified the marina operator it was in violation of its lease because it failed to deliver the broad pathway. Melwani and Haber said the pathway couldn’t be constructed 11-feet wide because it would have damaged mangroves, something Miami’s Department of Environmental Management would never allow.

Melwani said the city’s Public Works, Building and Zoning departments twice approved the modified plan for the parkway. He said a politicized city department called Public Facilities Asset Management got involved, revoked final approval and found the marina was in violation of its lease.

The marina filed its breach of contract lawsuit against the city last June 21 seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.

Melwani said he agreed to build the walkway as a perk he added to the lease agreement.

“It sounds like this walkway I built as a gift to the city is a nuisance. So why I don’t take it out?” Melwani said.

Miami City Attorney Warren Bittner said he couldn’t comment on pending litigation, but the city filed a breach of contract counterclaim in November, claiming the marina operators failed to pony up $2 million to build the parking garage.

Parking Garage

Haber said it was Sarnoff who added the garage provision in 2009 at the end of the session when the commission approved the new lease. There was no language stipulating how much the marina should pay or when payment was due, Haber said.

In contrast, the neighboring Rusty Pelican restaurant contract went into great detail about how the restaurant would monetize the parking facility, he said.

Haber and Melwani also noted the bid requests say any plan requires a $2 million payment toward the garage.

“Now it’s double collection—$2 million from the old guy and $2 million from the new guy,” Haber said.

And Melwani said he doesn’t understand why the city wouldn’t want him to bid. He has been a good tenant and as the incumbent is in a unique position to know how to remake the marina.

Melwani talks about renovating the Marine Stadium with its unique architecture and surrounding it with retail shops, restaurants and increased access for boaters to create an unrivaled complex.

“I think they have someone in mind who they want to get a bid,” he said.