Despite owner’s emotional appeal, commissioners end Virginia Key Outdoor Center lease

City to temporarily take control of center after owner’s eviction

Protesters gathered outside Miami City Hall to decry a proposed homeless community on Virginia Key, ahead of Tuesday’s city commission meeting.

MIAMI – Protesters gathered outside Miami City Hall to decry a proposed homeless community on Virginia Key, ahead of Tuesday’s city commission meeting, as city commissioners moved forward with ending outspoken owner Esther Alonso’s lease on the Virginia Key Outdoor Center.

The now-tabled “transition zone” plan, which would see 50 to 100 tiny homes built on Virginia Key, has generated controversy from the moment District 3 Commissioner Joe Carollo proposed it in late July.

Outside, protesters held signs saying “housing is a human right” and “save Virginia Key”, inside, commissioners heard public comment, much of which came from the same protesters, as they discussed the plan Tuesday.

“I just don’t understand why we’d be reallocating all this money, energy and time to a new infrastructure when we have homeless initiatives in Miami that need funding, that need resources,” protester Sarah Van Roekel said.

Many of the demonstrators also expressed outrage over the shutdown of the Virginia Key Outdoor Center for alleged code violations. Alonso believes she was targeted by the city for speaking out against the plan.

“Very suspicious that the city(’s) forced closure and takeover is simply a precondition to the city then extending the sewer and utility lines to the campsite,” David Perry, with the Miami Coalition for Racial Equity, said before Tuesday’s meeting. “Why are they shutting down Virginia Key Outdoor Center if they weren’t planning to push this obnoxious, this horrible plan?”

A few dozen people went to the podium to speak directly to commissioners. Alonso was one of them.

“You’re taking away what a community has embraced,” she said, as commissioners discussed her lease.

“I’d like people to analyze what’s happened and come to your own conclusion,” she later said.

Miami District 4 Commissioner Manolo Reyes said the eviction was “ill-timed” and created a perception of “cause and effect,” something Carollo and fellow Commissioner Christine King denied.

“The city was informing her since January that her lease had been up and, being the smart person she is, she decided she would speak up, so if anything would happen she could say ‘Oh, they came after me,’” Carollo said.

King, who represents District 5, said the move was not “retaliatory action taken on behalf of the city.”

The city’s parks department is set to take control of the Virginia Key Outdoor Center and operate it temporarily while the city looks for a new vendor.

A search is expected to begin in the next few weeks, in which prospective vendors can bid for the opportunity to operate the center. That would theoretically include Alonso, but only if she were to be in compliance with city rules, which is not expected to happen so quickly.

City officials allege Alonso was $144,000 behind in rent and has provided no paperwork regarding her financials.

They also said the Virginia Key Outdoor Center never had a certificate of use, which they admitted was an error on the city’s part.

Alonso said she’s unlikely to put in a bid under the current commission.

About the Authors:

Liane Morejon is an Emmy-winning reporter who joined the Local 10 News family in January 2010. Born and raised in Coral Gables, Liane has a unique perspective on covering news in her own backyard.

Chris Gothner joined the Local 10 News team in 2022 as a Digital Journalist.