By Michael E. Miller
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You step from a Metrorail car at the Vizcaya station, descend the escalator, and enter a gleaming 60-foot-high glass cone teeming with kids. You follow them into a huge room where others are climbing all over a virtual cruise ship. Walk farther; more tykes are building a house, while teenagers edit films and record music in a high-tech studio.
It's not a strange ambulatory dream. It could be the new Miami Children's Museum, a planned $11 million structure designed by Arquitectonica. So far, about five million dollars has been raised. The Miami City Commission is due to decide on the location May 26.
"There's going to be a lot of really, really, really neat stuff," exclaims Barbara Zohlman, executive director of the now shuttered museum. "We have incredible, wonderful, exciting exhibits planned for that museum."
Not so fast, say Richard Pleban and other residents of the Roads neighborhood. Just six years ago Pleban and his neighbors won a battle in the Florida Supreme Court to bar a high-rise condominium from the historic area. The Roads, located adjacent to the proposed museum site and northwest of Brickell Avenue, is dotted with bungalows and two-story homes along tree-lined parkways. The residential area dates to the Twenties, when pioneer Mary Brickell developed it.
Once the museum is approved at SW First Avenue and 32nd Road, Pleban and his neighbors believe, it will be easy for the city commission to rubber stamp other big projects. They also fear an upsurge in traffic.
"We let this museum in and there goes the residential character of the neighborhood," says Pleban, who lives in a one-story house built in 1945 and owns four others in the Roads. The 40,000 square-foot, three-story museum complex violates county regulations for development around a Metrorail station, he contends. "The museum directors don't care about architectural integrity because they say, 'We're moving forward into the future.'"
The museum, which may move into the Vizcaya station site, has been homeless for five months. First known as the Miami Youth Museum, it opened in 1985 next to a travel agency in a strip mall on Sunset Drive. A year later it moved to the Bakery Centre in South Miami, where it became the Miami Children's Museum. A modest and seldom-visited place, it remained in the mall for ten years. In 1996, when plans were made to demolish the financially disastrous Bakery Centre, the museum moved to the Miracle Center near Coral Gables. In January, the museum pulled out of that location. Directors wanted to devote scarce dollars to prepare for the move.
Zohlman is confident her dream of making the small museum a world-class institution will come true. Even some of the preparations have been dreamlike. The Dade County Commission voted in November 1996 to lease the land to the museum for one dollar per year. Big names have agreed to help out: Sam Terilli, general counsel for the Miami Herald; Adolfo Henriques, president and CEO of Union Planters Bank; and Wayne Kennedy, president of the Ethel and W. George Kennedy Family Foundation. Publix, Home Depot, and the Rouse Company are among the sponsors.
Zohlman had hoped to begin construction this year, but fundraising has been slow. And if the present site is not approved, the museum could lose $1.5 million in state funds, Terilli says. In January the group said it had raised about 40 percent of the total. Now, according to Zohlman, about half the necessary $11 million has been pledged. "When you have creative minds and you have visionaries and you have people who are dedicated to seeing something of this magnitude become a reality, I think there's nothing that will impede us," Zohlman proclaims.
Nothing, perhaps, except the Roads residents, who are experienced at quashing development. In 1986 the city commission disregarded recommendations from its Planning Advisory Board and approved a high-rise condominium called Vizcatran across from the Vizcaya station. Residents sued and after six years of legal wrangling, the Florida Supreme Court nixed the project. The justices let stand an appellate court ruling that the city had not authorized sufficient parking. Miami eventually settled the matter by paying Vizcatran developer Juan Manuel Delgado $980,000 to, in essence, go away. The two-acre tract remains vacant.
Philip Elmore, whose house is across from the proposed museum site, remembers the battle well. He has lived in the neighborhood since 1939. "The Roads ought to be declared a historical section. It's really the only place left in the city that has a chance of being one. Once that thing is put in, you can forget about the Roads."
Elmore says he was going to write a letter to the Miami Herald to protest the location. But now he doubts the newspaper can be objective about it. He found out the Herald had editorialized in favor of the move and that Terilli is president of the museum's board of directors. Terilli scoffs at the idea he could affect the Herald's coverage. "That's silly," he fumes. "I'm just the lawyer here." (He did acknowledge alerting a Herald editor that New Times had contacted him). He is also miffed by Roads residents who don't want the museum in their neighborhood. "If I were trying to build a nightclub or a strip joint, I could understand it," he huffs. "But this is a not-for-profit, warm and fuzzy, good-for-the-community kids' museum."
Nevertheless, the Vizcaya site isn't the only possibility for the museum. Several cities, including North Miami, Miami Beach, and South Miami, pleaded for the museum. "When we were trying to find the right location, we had areas that were really pitching us to locate there," Terilli explains. "They knew it would be good for their communities. We picked this one because it allowed us to hook into the Metrorail line and serve so many communities that otherwise might not be served. And then we turn around and get grief from some of the neighbors."
So far the museum looks like Vizcatran redux. Last month Miami's Planning Advisory Board voted 5-0 against the relocation. "The board felt that we just don't have that many nice neighborhoods in the city of Miami that we can afford to just put a high-impact commercial or whatever operation right in the middle of one," explains Chip Black, advisory board chairman. "I really don't know why that site is so critical for that museum."
At least two commissioners, however, seem to be leaning toward the museum's side. "If it's well done and the developers get together with the people in the neighborhood, I think that project could fit in there," suggests Commissioner Willy Gort. He emphasizes that potential traffic and parking problems would need to be resolved first.
Commissioner Humberto Hernandez: "I hear it's beautiful. I'm in support of this kind of project because we need it. But if it's an overdevelopment, they're definitely going to have to scale it down."
Commissioner Tomas Regalado says he has not seen the museum plans or heard from Roads residents; until he does, he won't decide how to vote. Mayor Joe Carollo and Commissioner Art Teele did not return several calls seeking comment. Commissioner J.L. Plummer could not be reached.
But Pleban is not banking on support from city commissioners. "We're prepared for a lawsuit," he says. "This is going to be won legally. It's not necessarily going to be won politically.