Mullin

Just Say No to John Henry

You wouldn't know it from reading the Miami Herald or watching local television, but there are a few people out there who think it's insane to consider cramming a major-league baseball stadium into downtown Miami's Bicentennial Park. So far all we've seen in the press are appealing designs for new stadiums and deferential reports of Marlins owner John Henry's deliberations as he ponders which South Florida city will enjoy the fruits of his beneficence.

The seeming lack of opposition to this scheme must bring comfort to Henry and the public-relations juggernaut he's about to loose on South Florida. A slumbering citizenry and complacent media fit nicely with the analysis he undoubtedly has already done, analysis that would lead him to conclude this about the city's political establishment:

"Hey, if they can rip apart downtown's signature park to toss up a cheesy tourist trap like Bayside Marketplace; and if they can ignore the fact that residents spent $23 million to purchase the waterfront property to the north specifically for a park, then let it sit fallow until they could sell it for the benefit of a greedy corporate pig like me; and if they can take Bicentennial Park and ruin it by gouging out a racetrack and then leaving the place to rot; and if they can let beautiful Virginia Key go to seed, but only after numerous failed attempts to sell it to the highest bidder; and if they can do the same with Watson Island but succeed in selling it to commercial interests -- if they can do all that and actually get away with it, then they sure as hell can arrange things so I can build a baseball stadium in that junk heap on the water."

Bicentennial Park rip-off: Kill this stupid idea now
photo illustration by Steve Satterwhite
Bicentennial Park rip-off: Kill this stupid idea now

Miami attorney Dan Paul may grudgingly agree with Henry's historical analysis but he nonetheless counts himself among those unheard voices who are adamantly opposed to building a stadium in Bicentennial Park. Mere talk of such a thing gets his dander up. And no wonder. A stalwart defender of public park lands, Paul was co-chairman of the successful 1972 "Parks for People" bond issue that financed the creation of Bicentennial Park. "It would be a misuse of an extremely important and valuable waterfront site, important for the future of Miami," he grumbles. "There's no excuse for putting a nonwater-oriented facility on that property."

Paul has other objections to Henry's demonic dream, not least of which is the specter of downtown gridlock. "The area is going to be very congested with the new [American Airlines] arena and the performing arts center. It's already congested without those two. Putting a baseball stadium there would impact very adversely on that."

The thought that Henry might accomplish his nefarious goal using public money is the final insult for Paul: "Corporate welfare for rich team owners is not a high priority as a governmental purpose, in my book."

Those diplomatically phrased misgivings are echoed by Greg Bush, another thoughtful voice of opposition thus far ignored by the major media. A history professor at the University of Miami, Bush is president of the Urban Environment League of Greater Miami, a group devoted to promoting enlightened planning -- or in the case of the City of Miami, any damn planning at all. "Here we go again," Bush groans. "This is more corporate welfare for the rich."

Bush is quick to add that the storm gathering around Bicentennial Park begs answers to much larger questions. "What happened to that park?" he asks. "Who is responsible for [its current sorry state]? This is a textbook case of the incompetence of the City of Miami. It gets to the larger issue of oversight. The public is being robbed of their parks."

Like many people I've spoken to, Bush is partial to the idea of a downtown baseball stadium, but locating it in Bicentennial is simply out of the question. Moreover, he and others find it incomprehensible that major projects like this are contemplated and actually initiated by the city with no thought given to how they fit (or don't fit) into a broader vision for the future of Miami's civic center. "It would be great to have a downtown nexus for activity," Bush says, "but the lack of overall planning for traffic and parking is outrageous."

The Public Parks Coalition of Miami-Dade County, an arm of the Urban Environment League, is a fledgling group with an ambitious mission: Increase the number of parks and improve those we already have. The volunteer coordinator of the coalition is Bob Weinreb, another lonely voice of opposition to Henry's predatory stalking of Bicentennial Park. He picks up on Greg Bush's complaint about a rudderless ship of state: "Some semblance of overall planning must take place," he urges. "That's why we have people in elected office -- supposedly.

"We're not against development per se," Weinreb continues, "but when it comes to parks, there really aren't enough for the population as it exists today. With projected population climbing in the next ten to twenty years, we need a plan for parks. The coalition believes that all local entities -- cities, unincorporated areas, the county -- should come up with a plan for the whole community and should stick to it. There is no plan now."

John Henry's perverse fantasy of jamming a baseball stadium into Bicentennial Park makes Weinreb recoil. He ticks off a list of objections: "First, it's a waterfront site, and with the new arena already blocking the view of the water, and with Bayside blocking views of the water, and with the Bayfront Park amphitheater also blocking -- well, here's this beautiful bay view, and with all these buildings and stadiums stacked up on public land, it's just not available anymore.

"Second, to say this would help downtown -- we're not so sure. It would just clog it up more, and it's already clogged. If you have 40,000 fans 80 times a year [attending ballgames], how are they going to get there? Already there are going to be logistical problems with the new arena.

"Third, that site has been mismanaged. It was open to the public for a number of years and used for soccer and baseball. [It once was home field for the athletic teams of MDCC's downtown Wolfson Campus.] We feel it should be opened to the public again. Public funds bought that park. Millions in taxpayer money went into it. Why should public money now go to private enterprise?

"Finally there are environmental hazards from when the Belcher Oil Company was there. Any construction would require a substantial cleanup, whereas with a passive park space, that probably wouldn't be required."

Weinreb concludes: "It would serve the long-term needs of the city to maintain this last remaining open space on the waterfront. If the whole area gets built up and revitalized, the park would become critical for use by citizens and tourists alike."

Miami architect Jorge Espinel is another of those struggling to be heard above the media hoopla that has accompanied John Henry's fiendish gambit of pitting one community against another in a race to see who will offer the dearest sacrifice at the altar of professional sports. A founder of the Urban Environment League, Espinel now heads the nonprofit group Urban Watch, which scrutinizes Miami development projects to determine the extent to which they're in the public interest.

Recently Espinel wrote an article he titled "Rule Out Bicentennial Park as Baseball Stadium Site." Accompanying the piece were renderings depicting Espinel's vision of Bicentennial Park's potential -- as a park. Naively he hoped the Miami Herald might find the material provocative enough to publish. "Good luck to Florida Marlins owner John Henry in getting his ballpark," the article begins. "But to gain broad-based public support and achieve his objective, Mr. Henry should rule out Bicentennial Park as a stadium site. The area cannot support yet another sports megastructure. It lacks rapid transit essential to the success of downtown stadiums. Ten to twenty thousand additional cars coming to a stadium would virtually paralyze traffic from I-95 to Miami Beach.... A huge structure, at least twice the size of the new arena, a stadium would completely block the waterfront, dwarf the Performing Arts Center and American Airlines Arena, and diminish their stature as important urban landmarks in Miami....

"Encouraging construction of a baseball stadium is wrong and irresponsible because it undermines the basis of a sound waterfront land-use policy in Miami," Espinel closes. "Government officials, civic leaders, and the media instead should be calling for a charrette to redesign Bicentennial Park.... This would safeguard, once and for all, Miami's waterfront properties. It would also avert a bitter and divisive battle over Bicentennial Park that neither Miami nor the Florida Marlins need."

These four intelligent civic patriots make eminently good sense to me. But as long as their views are marginalized by being ignored (perhaps willfully) by the major media, and as long as they appear to have no public support, John Henry and his money machine will have the upper hand. Maybe you'd like to let them know they aren't just howling at the moon. You can contact the Urban Environment League and the Public Parks Coalition at 305-579-9133. Jorge Espinel's Urban Watch takes calls at 305-530-1300.

RELATED LINK

Sprawl Watch Clearinghouse in Washington, D.C.

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