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.

Village Mayor John Festa echoes Sime's criticism. "There are other people [besides Key Biscayne residents] who use that park facility for playing baseball, soccer, and other things. If the lights are to come out, if the fields are to become more natural fields, what does the MAST Academy do? What do people do who live on Brickell? Would they want to go out and play softball or have a league at night? The entire park is becoming more passive than it has historically been. I'm all for the concept of limiting commercialization of park lands, but I'm not for the concept of total passive or leaning toward total passive park land."

Because Key Biscayne residents were the primary users of Calusa Park's tennis and playground facilities, the county made a deal when the village incorporated. In exchange for maintaining the little park, the new city would gain more control over the property. In the past five years, the village has spent $60,000 on improvements. Now Matheson wants to raze nearly everything and move the old Calusa Playhouse to the Gardens. The latter proposal has crippled efforts to raise money for restoration of the structure following a devastating fire. It has also infuriated members of the Calusa Playhouse Drama Club.

County Attorney Robert Ginsburg (in consultation with Matheson) attempted to defuse the situation by offering Key Biscayne a chance to keep the playhouse at Calusa and maintain three of four existing tennis courts. All the village council had to do was vote to endorse the overall Crandon master plan. The mayor and council members balked. Instead, they instructed their own city attorney to sue Dade County.

This past December the village filed that lawsuit, which claims that the Dade-Matheson settlement agreement reached in Boston is unconstitutional. According to attorney Joseph Serota, when county commissioners approved the agreement, they also unlawfully delegated their authority and obligation to vote on a final version of the Crandon Park master plan. Argues Serota: "That's like saying in Congress, 'We can't agree on how to deal with the Cuban situation so we'll hire these guys from Harvard and you guys hire somebody else and they will decide what the foreign policy is. And whatever they decide, we have no veto power.' We are not saying that Key Biscayne should decide how the park is used, but we should be able to go before the county and have input. We want the ability to plead our case to the people who are answerable to the public and have the ability to affect some kind of change. And the way the settlement is set up, the county commission has no authority."

The county's Ginsburg disagrees. "I don't view county commission action at a public hearing to be a rubber stamp," he says.

Matheson shrugs off the lawsuit and explains that county commissioners have no need to reopen debate. "The county has already passed [the master plan], so has the family," he asserts. "These things have already been agreed on. The only reason we are going in front of the county commission is to have them confirm the discussions between the family and the parks department. The county didn't object to anything and the Matheson family did, so we are in the process of resolving those objections through discussions and we are almost finished."

Among the nearly completed negotiations are those concerning the future of the 47-acre Gardens at Crandon. Matheson more or less ignored the separate master plan for the old zoo that had been approved by county commissioners in 1991 and subsequently incorporated into the Olmsted document. The Gardens plan grew out of an unusual union of county planners, artists, and members of the general public. The goal was to "develop a botanical park dedicated to exploring the relationship between art and the landscape" that would also incorporate historical elements such as the zoo's remaining animal cages. Participants created a scheme that provided six activity areas, each with its own botanical and artistic elements. Wooden structures dating from the key's coconut plantation era would be converted into studios for resident artists.

Matheson has challenged the basic principles of the Gardens plan, and his objections, adopted by the county, now require planners to abide by the Crandon master plan when conflicts arise. According to a draft of the Crandon plan dated February 2, 1996, all animal cages and pens "shall" be removed from the Gardens site. In addition, Matheson requires that all artwork be "executed from the park's past and present historic themes, from its environmental attributes and from factual characters of the flora and fauna of the garden's site and not from the idiosyncratic signature or psychology of the artist." Matheson also prohibits resident artists and places a time limit of three days on any exhibits.

Vivian Rodriguez, executive director of Dade's Art in Public Places program, believes that Matheson's changes to the Gardens' master plan are too rigid. "I don't really see a role for the kinds of projects and activities that were envisioned in the original [Gardens] plan," she says. "It doesn't allow for as open or as creative a process as I would want. If we're to be involved there, my interest now would be in creating a new master plan altogether."

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