His Own Private Paradise

Bruce Matheson doesn't need you or anyone else to tell him what's wrong with his family's legacy, Crandon Park. So just step aside, thank you.

John Festa, mayor of Key Biscayne, finds himself at odds with Matheson over the elimination of Crandon's softball fields and the planned razing of the facilities at Calusa Park, on the west side of the boulevard at Crandon's southern boundary. "The bottom line is that the county has abdicated its control of Crandon Park," he proclaims, "and we the people of Dade County are going to be the losers if we don't watch it and understand it and agree with it. Many of the things Matheson wants may be very good, many of them may not be. . . . This is a big issue; it's not Key Biscayne going against what the county does because we only want what's best for Key Biscayne."

Howard Gregg is chief of planning and research for Metro-Dade's Park and Recreation Department -- not exactly the sort of person who would qualify as a meddlesome outsider. Yet he has criticized Matheson's modifications to the master plan, as well as the exclusionary method by which those changes have been made. "I don't question Bruce Matheson's motives -- his heart, his desire to do what he believes is best for Crandon Park," Gregg says. "My concern has been that we have to be responsive to the public, and that not only includes the demand for certain kinds of recreational opportunities but also for the quality of the experience. In a culturally diverse community like Dade County, it's not as simple as saying a park should be this, this, and this."

Even Artemas Richardson, the nationally respected landscape architect who created the master plan, is threatening to disavow it now that Matheson has succeeded in drastically revising it. He wants his name removed from the document.

Despite increasingly strident opposition to his singular influence over Crandon Park's future, Bruce Matheson is steadfast in his conviction that he knows what is best for the park and the public. "Everybody would like to have exactly what they want," he says, "but we are working with sixteen different special-interest groups and we think we will come up with the best possible agreement [with the county] that will benefit Crandon Park. There are probably people who fail to look at the big picture -- to maintain the integrity of the whole park for all future generations."

The whole park, as Matheson refers to it, stretches from the northern tip of Key Biscayne two miles south to the village's city limits, from the Atlantic to Biscayne Bay, and consists of more components than most people realize: the marina, boat ramps, moorings, and dive shop adjacent to Sundays on the Bay; the Links at Key Biscayne golf course, driving range, clubhouse, pro shop, tennis courts, and restaurant; the sprawling tennis center and its associated facilities; various storage and maintenance yards; Calusa Park and its tennis courts, playground, recreation center, and historic theater; a county fire station; the Gardens, Center for Environmental Education, cabanas, carousel, concession booths, and picnic areas of the park's eastern half; three significant archaeological sites; three ecological preserves comprising some 450 acres; and of course the world-famous beach itself.

Though multifaceted, Crandon's integrity as a park was challenged on October 27, 1987, when county work crews began ripping out a swath of palms, gumbo-limbos, and other trees growing in Crandon Boulevard's median. The demolition was part of a planned overpass designed to accommodate pedestrian traffic to and from the two-year-old Lipton tournament. "There had been nothing in the papers," recalls Betty Sime, a long-time Key Biscayne activist and current councilwoman. "The county said, 'Oh yeah, we told you all about it,' but we never saw a picture. They didn't say they were cutting down two acres of the most gorgeous trees."

After a hastily convened protest by Key Biscayne residents, who literally blocked the bulldozers, the overpass idea was jettisoned. But controversy over the tennis center and the Lipton tournament was far from over. The next year debate centered on the tournament promoters' hopes for a new stadium with up to 12,000 seats. Opponents of the county's efforts to build such a structure in the park pointed to the decades-old deed that conveyed the property to Dade County. Contained in that deed was a restriction prohibiting commercialization of the park. The deed's author was Hugh M. Matheson, Bruce's grandfather.

Since the early 1900s, the Matheson family had owned the majority of the key's 2270 acres, most of them in cultivation as a vast coconut plantation. In 1940, Dade County Commissioner Charles Crandon approached Hugh Matheson with the idea of donating some of the family's land for a park. "I explained the proposition to them in this manner: The county would undertake to build an excellent causeway to the key if they would agree to donate the two northern miles of their land to the county for providing a free park to the public," Crandon wrote in a memoir he called Country Bumpkin. "After much pro and con discussion, the Matheson family agreed to give these two miles at the north end of the key to the county. They recognized that it would make the remaining land they owned immensely valuable once the causeway was built and in use, which is exactly what happened."

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