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.

Any objections to the Olmsted plan, which ran to 77 pages and addressed fifteen distinct areas within the park, would be governed by the settlement agreement between the county and the Mathesons. A five-member committee made up of two Matheson appointees, two county employees, and an "independent park professional" acceptable to both parties would resolve any intractable disputes.

To date Bruce Matheson has filed at least 69 objections with the county, but the committee has never been formed. County Attorney Robert Ginsburg argues that there hasn't been a need for it. "Say we can't reach an agreement on something," he offers. "Then we would present our various positions to this committee. And the committee makes a decision and it may be something the Mathesons don't like or something the county doesn't like or something neither party likes. So it's preferable to reach agreement between the parties directly if we can." (The county has filed no objections to the Olmsted master plan.)

Matheson's objections have ranged from the minuscule (precise language on park signs) to the monumental (deletion of the proposed traffic circles and vehicular overpass). Generally they attempt to further his goal of shifting the park's emphasis from organized activity to passive recreation A with a few notable exceptions such as restoration of the carousel and reintroduction of the children's petting zoo. Overall, though, Matheson has made it clear he wants less, not more, even when that conflicts with the Olmsted vision: raze everything at Calusa Park, demolish the county fire station if its use changes, restrict activities at the Gardens, and so on.

Virtually all of Matheson's original objections have been accepted by the county and incorporated into what is now considered to be a draft of a master plan, a work in progress. But new objections have been raised more recently, and according to county parks planning chief Howard Gregg, they are "increasingly specific." For example, Matheson now wants to define precisely how many and what types of trees can be planted near the marina, along the boulevard, and elsewhere. He is also prescribing visitor-center details such as "a seven-minute or longer audio/video presentation."

Critics of the plan's current draft describe Matheson as a dictator (albeit a benevolent one) who is wielding his leverage like a club and promoting an agenda for the park that is myopic and impractical. "The whole thing has not been thought out," complains Theodora Long, of the Biscayne Nature Center. "When the county signed the agreement with the Mathesons, they agreed to anything as long as they could continue building Lipton. They sold their soul so they could have the stadium."

Frank Faragalli, a parks department official who has been acting as the county's liaison with the Mathesons, acknowledges that from the outset of negotiations, Metro-Dade has not been operating from a position of strength. "At that point, right or wrong about the process, the stadium was under construction," he says. "There was a [construction] contract already out. We were talking about grant monies. We were talking about construction delays that were going to add to the cost of the contract because they were no fault of the contractors. So I think under those conditions, the county was under some pressure to come to the table."

The first to get clobbered by Matheson's new-found clout was the Center for Environmental Education, which is run out of a double-wide trailer near the southern edge of the Bear Cut Preserve. The center, which opened in 1971, provides tours of sea beds, hammocks, and other local ecosystems for Dade's inner-city students.

In July 1991, Dade commissioners approved an expansion that would have more than quadrupled the size of the center and doubled the number of visiting students to 30,000 annually. Theodora Long says the state endorsed the plan in January 1992 and approved $1.8 million in funding. The Russell Partnership designed a new, 18,000-square-foot building. But Matheson killed the expansion. Long says he initially wanted to remove the entire facility. "I can't get Mr. Matheson mad at us again," she says with trepidation. "He might decide to pull the whole thing again. The last time, he saw MAST Academy down the street [on Virginia Key] and he said he didn't need a school facility in the park. We wanted to double the size of the facility, but now we are just going to stay the same, which is better than nothing. If we weren't there, that would be even worse."

The changes proposed for Crandon and Calusa Park have rocked the Village of Key Biscayne. "Whatever he [Matheson] decides, that's all that matters," says Councilwoman Betty Sime, who counted Matheson as an ally during the initial dispute over the tennis stadium. "He may say a rock is blue and the next day it's green, and they are just jumping for him. I think it's unfair for one single person to decide the fate of this whole park." Sime argues that Matheson's emphasis on passive green space will only increase the demands on Key Biscayne's already taxed recreational resources. "He seems to be going to the other extreme, where you are going to really limit people using the park," she continues. "There is certainly a point to be made that maybe the Lipton went too far because it's a commercial venture, but as far as the ball fields are concerned, they are very legitimate in a regional park. We don't have enough of that in Dade County."

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