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This past Saturday the Urban Environment League of Greater Miami fired the first salvo in what promises to be a momentous battle over the future of downtown's Bicentennial Park. Will the forlorn park be rescued and serve as a catalyst for visionary plans to preserve and enhance Miami's squandered treasure of publicly owned lands along Biscayne Bay? Or will Florida Marlins millionaire-owner John Henry succeed in snatching the property, shoving a mammoth sports stadium onto it, and thus finish the serial rape of the city's waterfront?
With such starkly different outcomes hanging in the balance, choosing sides in this conflict is easy, and nothing less than an unambiguous declaration of purpose. If you believe there is value in leaving Miami a better place for future generations, then there simply is no choice: You must enlist in the Urban Environment League and the newly formed Committee of Hundreds and march off to boot camp. You'll be in good company.
The Committee of Hundreds, a coalition of prominent individuals and organizations, was created with the specific aim of saving Bicentennial Park from the clutches of John Henry and then working to bring it back to life. Here is a sampling of the founding membership: Dade Heritage Trust president Enid Pinkney; Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Miami; Adriana Comellas-Macretti, president of the League of Women Voters; Miami-Dade County Bar Association president Dennis Kainen; County Commissioners Katy Sorenson and Jimmy Morales; Miami ACLU president John de Leon; former Miami City Commissioner Thelma Anderson Gibson; former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre; historians Arva Moore Parks McCabe, Donald Spivey, and Paul George; plus a host of other professionals and dedicated advocates of public parks and smart city planning.
Not all these distinguished individuals attended Saturday's Wake-Up Walk through Bicentennial Park, but nearly 70 people did join in at the behest of Urban Environment League president Greg Bush, who also is a founder of the Committee of Hundreds. Accompanied by the garrulous Paul George, who provided running commentary on Bicentennial's star-crossed history since its creation in 1976, Bush and the crowd that trailed behind him did more than take a leisurely stroll in the park. They tentatively achieved an important strategic objective in this war by establishing a foothold in the contested territory.
Any day now we can expect John Henry to announce his preferred location for a new baseball stadium. He is expected to take aim at Bicentennial Park, and he has a frighteningly good chance of seizing it. Abandoned by a city government notorious for the irresponsible management of its properties (especially waterfront properties), Bicentennial over the years has deteriorated into an eyesore, a weed-infested trash dump where the homeless sprawl and crime runs amok. Given those disagreeable circumstances, some people view Henry not as a potential despoiler but as a potential savior. Which is why the Wake-Up Walk was significant as an initial push in what is about to become a blitzkrieg to lay claim to the park.
The first army to plant a flag and take control of the territory will win. Such are the simple, brutal rules of combat.
Those who ventured into Bicentennial Park last Saturday morning were treated to a kaleidoscope of contrasts and contradictions. Once above and beyond the manmade berm along Biscayne Boulevard, which shields from view Bicentennial's interior, the troops beheld sweeping vistas of open-space greenery and, incongruously, winding asphalt roadway. The roadway, of course, is the ugly legacy of Miami Grand Prix promoter Ralph Sanchez. Historian Paul George dryly noted that Sanchez's sweet deal with the City of Miami, which allowed him to tear up the park and build a racetrack, also required him to restore the park when he left, which, naturally, he didn't do.
At the park's southeast corner, our greenhorn militia came upon a deserted village, eerily sitting watch over a spectacular view of Biscayne Bay and the downtown skyline. This was the site of the Portside Café, a 300-seat outdoor dining establishment jinxed before it ever opened. The city, which built the restaurant, for two years couldn't attract a single bidder interested in operating it. After it finally did, the owner was robbed and savagely beaten on opening day in front of 50 horrified onlookers. Needless to say, the park's reputation suffered along with the hapless businessman.
Not far from there we hiked into a secluded area made nearly inaccessible by wildly overgrown sea grapes. Here a stunning tableau unfolded to the east: perfectly symmetrical sightlines running the length of Government Cut out to the Atlantic Ocean. Audible gasps of astonishment rose from the ranks.
Then we moved to the next panorama, the next dazzling view of the skyline, the next inviting meadow. It went like that for a couple of awestruck hours -- so many people hoping to save this park from destruction who had never actually set foot in the place, or hadn't done so in twenty years, and all of them amazed at the beauty of the setting and its degradation from neglect.
Ideas for the park's renaissance flowed freely: Imagine linking Bicentennial by water taxi to other bayfront parks and attractions, and to destinations up the Miami River. Imagine restoring the fountains and athletic fields. Imagine a regular police presence that would make everyone, including the homeless, feel safe. Imagine how easy it would be to create needed parking: Just paint some stripes on portions of the old raceway and voilà!
A couple of days after the tour, Greg Bush faxed me a hastily penned manifesto outlining a course of action. In twelve steps he plotted a series of measures that would instantly raise the profile of the park and promote an awareness of its potential: the obvious need for a sign to mark the entrance, weekend cleanup and landscaping parties, regularly scheduled tours, and the creation of specialized committees to address more complex problems. Additionally in the coming weeks the Urban Environment League will host forums examining the experience of other U.S. cities and their waterfronts, and sponsor workshops to explore ideas for rehabilitating Bicentennial Park.
Bush, the Urban Environment League, and the Committee of Hundreds don't have any resources but the time each person can volunteer (Bush himself is a history professor at the University of Miami), so they rely on friends, mailing lists, word of mouth, and the occasional editor at your local free weekly newspaper.
These soldiers in the citizens' army deserve support. They should be receiving it with enthusiasm from our public officials, but they are not. (That doesn't surprise me but it still infuriates me.) The need is great and the time is now. Contact the Urban Environment League by voicemail at 305-579-9133. Fax: 305-667-9080. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Now there is a Website as well: www.uel.org.