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.

The family deeded 975 acres to the county with the proviso that the land forever be used for "public park purposes only." The opening of the new park, which was named in honor of the commissioner, coincided with the completion of the Rickenbacker Causeway in 1947. Thousands of visitors now swarmed onto an island whose previous guests had been restricted to the Tuttles, the Deerings, and other members of Miami's social elite. "The Matheson family wasn't overly excited about the development of Key Biscayne," Bruce Matheson says today. "As a matter of fact, they stopped the road at the end of Crandon Park and it wasn't developed further until 1951." Despite their misgivings, the Mathesons' coconut palms soon gave way to streets and stores and homes and hotels.

Crandon Park itself also underwent significant changes. The county added the zoo, the carousel, cabanas, the marina, and a variety of sports fields, including a modern running track that became the site of a popular ABC television program called Superstars. All this attention, Matheson says, shifted the emphasis away from the park's unique natural resources and toward sports-oriented recreation.

In Matheson's view, the park has become a hodgepodge of confusing development. The east side has the beaches and picnic areas and untamed expanses of mangrove, while the bay side contains "country club" facilities such as the golf course and marina. Activities at other regional parks are more commonly tied to their natural resources exclusively (the Oleta River State Recreation Area is an example), but Crandon is unusual because it contains ball fields, tennis courts, and other facilities typical of a neighborhood park. Matheson also alleges that the county has been a bad steward and has allowed the cabanas, zoo grounds, and other amenities to deteriorate.

The planned development of a tennis stadium for the Lipton tournament spurred the Mathesons' personal involvement anew. From 1988 to 1991, the family filed three separate lawsuits intended to derail the project, regain control of the tennis center site, and possibly to recapture the entire park. Undaunted by the threat, the county signed a $15.9 million construction contract to build the stadium. By the time a circuit court judge ordered a halt to construction in May 1992, Metro had already spent five million dollars, and stood to lose millions more in special state tax dollars it had won for the project. Although the county mounted a successful appeal and resumed work on the project, the possibility of another stoppage loomed large.

Subsequently county officials organized a clandestine meeting in Boston during Thanksgiving week of 1992. Harvard professor Roger Fisher, an expert in conflict resolution, was enlisted to serve as mediator. In the county's corner were attorney Robert Ginsburg and then-manager Joaquin Avino. Matheson brought along attorney Frank Burt. "They opened with a story about these two women," Matheson recalls. "There was one orange on the table and both of them wanted it. So what were you going to do? Cut the orange in half? Well, when you found out in conversation that one of them wanted orange juice and the other wanted to make marmalade, you let one person have all the juice and you let the other person have all the skin and they were both happy."

After two days of intense discussion, the team forged a tentative agreement. The county invited Matheson to become an equal partner in all decisions related to the park's development. In exchange, Matheson agreed to drop two of three lawsuits and allow stadium construction to continue uninterrupted. In addition, the agreement specified numerous development guidelines for facilities throughout the park. "What we did was negotiate with the county about what we felt were the important things about the park," Matheson explains. "We said there would be no gambling or wagering because we didn't want a casino there. We said no overnight accommodations. Essentially what we were looking for was a way to preclude a virtual ouster of the public by any private group that might get hold of the park."

A master plan for Crandon would be prepared by the Olmsted Office, revered designers of New York City's Central Park, and implemented only if approved by both parties. After months of work and input from Matheson, the public, and county park professionals, Olmsted's proposal was approved by the Dade commission in July 1993, but was still subject to change by either the county or the Matheson family.

Olmsted president Artemas Richardson sought to cure the park's schizophrenic identity by creating a uniform style for all buildings and signs and eliminating advertising from the boulevard, golf course, tennis stadium, and elsewhere throughout the park. He proposed reducing the boulevard's speed limit and creating traffic circles to slow commuters. A subtly elevated vehicular overpass would allow pedestrians and bicyclists safe passage under the roadway. At the marina, the northern parking lot would be eliminated and landscaped, a number of structures rebuilt and relocated, and Sundays on the Bay eventually transformed from a sometimes raucous entertainment bar to a low-key restaurant with early closing hours.

Richardson limited the height of light poles at the golf course, tennis center, and other areas of the park. The tennis courts, theater, playground, and recreation building at Calusa Park would remain and be upgraded. Bear Cut Preserve would be restored with mangroves and separated from the rest of the park by a fence, while hikers and bicyclists would be confined to specific trails and not allowed to wander. Intense plantings of new foliage would be undertaken in many locations, notably along Crandon Boulevard. A dramatically landscaped esplanade would divide the two parking lots and offer an uninterrupted vista from the boulevard to the sea. The Gardens would be developed according to their own master plan. And using the settlement agreement as a template, Richardson defined Matheson's goal of permanently shielding the new tennis stadium from view.

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