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Parks advocates last week suffered a setback in their struggle to save Bicentennial Park from the evil clutches of millionaire Marlins owner John Henry. Independent consultants hired by the City of Miami presented their findings March 13 at a meeting of a committee considering options for a downtown baseball stadium. The consultants studied two sites: Bicentennial Park and an area just west of Biscayne Boulevard in the neighborhood known as Park West. Their conclusions could spell doom for those who believe Miami's last undeveloped tract of publicly owned bayfront land should be preserved as a park.
According to the consultants' estimates, the cost of purchasing the privately owned land west of Biscayne Boulevard, plus associated costs of utilities and street realignments, could easily exceed $100 million. One expert puts the figure closer to $130 million. Add to that the loss of tax revenue from Park West land that would be taken off the rolls as a result, and the true costs appear impossibly steep. Compare that to the cost of simply giving away Bicentennial Park: $0.
It gets worse.
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The time it would take to acquire the Park West property is estimated, at minimum, to be a full year. At that rate the Marlin's goal of opening a new stadium for play in 2003 also would be impossible. In addition the consultants believe a massive stadium in that depressed neighborhood would harm revitalization efforts, in part by impeding commercial development that might otherwise occur, and in part because a stadium would "create a 'dead' space 280 days a year within the fabric of downtown."
On the other hand, according to the report, the advantages of building a stadium in Bicentennial Park glisten like pearls on a necklace: No need to condemn and purchase private property, no space problems, no deed restrictions, no loss of revenue since it isn't taxed now. Furthermore, say the consultants, a stadium would rehabilitate Bicentennial, enhance Park West "redevelopment dynamics," and offer inherent value as a landmark.
From the sound of it, the report could have been written by officers in John Henry's private army of lobbyists, lawyers, and designers. But it wasn't. And that, I'm certain, put a smile on Henry's face. Not surprisingly it put a frown on the faces of those who steadfastly oppose a baseball stadium in Bicentennial Park.
At that committee meeting last week, Urban Environment League president Greg Bush and his associates did their best to raise critical questions about the study, but they received copies of it only moments before being asked to speak, and so weren't as prepared as they would have liked. Since then these parkland defenders have had a chance to review it and are now advancing several challenges to assertions it makes, not least of which involves the actual size of Bicentennial. (It appears to be about five acres smaller than the Marlins and some city officials have contended, a fact that could have profound implications for any stadium designs.)
But the consultants' overwhelmingly negative analysis of the alternative site deflated park supporters' buoyant hopes of shifting public attention to Park West while they busied themselves hatching plans for restoring Bicentennial. At a meeting the next day, hosted by Greg Bush in his role as a member of the Bayfront Park Management Trust (which oversees Bicentennial Park), the mood was understandably glum. The gathering was a sequel to a lively brainstorming session that took place Sunday, March 12, at which some 25 participants kicked around many ideas for fixing up Bicentennial. This meeting, by contrast, was sparsely attended and anything but lively. "We're in a political fight," Bush grimly reminded the group at one point. "We can't forget that."
True enough. The battle over Bicentennial Park has been colored by politics since it began three months ago, but never so much as now. John Henry's hired guns currently are pursuing an overtly political agenda at the state legislature in hopes of striking a deal to tax cruise-line passengers as a source of construction funding. Gov. Jeb Bush has stepped into the fray by expressing enthusiasm for the idea of bayside ballgames and a willingness to allow a countywide vote on the cruise-line tax. And now, thanks to last week's report, the local debate has become mired in politics, principally as a result of Commissioner Art Teele's reaction to the bad news about the Park West site.
Because of his formidable influence over affairs at city hall, Teele's adamant opposition to a stadium in Bicentennial Park had been tantamount to a death knell for the Marlins' waterfront dreams. The commissioner had promoted a Park West location for a number of reasons, an obvious one being the fact that he is chairman of the city's Southeast Overtown-Park West Community Redevelopment Agency, which wields extraordinary control over the area. If he could maneuver the baseball stadium on to his turf, he'd not only win favor with politically active parks advocates, he'd have a special opportunity to reinvigorate the neighborhood, something countless public officials have failed to do following the civic devastation wreaked by the construction of I-95 and its concrete tributaries. But the consultants' report changed all that. Noting the irony of his having initiated the process that led to the study, Teele jokes, "It's now put me in a position that I'm eating a little crow, but I don't intend to eat the whole bird."
Preparing the land for a stadium in Park West, Teele believes, will cost close to $120 million. "This means it's a much more difficult fit than I initially thought," he concedes. "It's very difficult to support a position of insisting that [the stadium] be in Park West." And so he is no longer insisting, much to the chagrin of the Urban Environment League and a host of other groups and individuals who had counted on his continued assistance in protecting Bicentennial Park.
In fact Teele is now willing to withdraw his opposition to a stadium in the park if John Henry meets specific criteria: that the stadium occupy no more than half the acreage while the rest remains parkland; that parking garages on the site provide no more than 2000 spaces; that Henry does not support Mayor Joe Carollo's idea to fill in and develop the moorage between the park and the American Airlines Arena; and that Henry mitigate the loss of parkland by building a park elsewhere in Miami. "Most important," Teele elaborates, "is minimizing the footprint [of the stadium] and mitigation that would be acceptable to the environmental community."
As the most visible member of that community, at least in terms of preserving Bicentennial Park, Greg Bush would be among those responding to such a compromise. "I respect what Commissioner Teele has attempted to do in general, but I oppose that," he says. "We need to take a much broader view of redeveloping our city. We need to think about the long term. Giving away our prime waterfront land is a dramatic mistake and simply wrong."
Holding the line against a stadium in Bicentennial makes perfect sense for Bush and his allies, who are passionate about the issue. (They also happen to be right, in my opinion.) To win this political battle, though, they're going to need to enlist many, many more people to their cause, for it appears the outcome will be determined not by a vote of the city commission but by a vote of the citizens of Miami.
A provision of the city charter known as the "Carollo amendment" (after its author, then-Commissioner Joe Carollo) requires a referendum whenever the city seeks to sell or lease public land and fewer than three bidders are competing for the project. Carollo promulgated the 1987 measure as a safeguard against sweetheart contracts and backroom deals. Legal experts say that even if the city were to "own" a $400 million baseball stadium in Bicentennial Park and simply hire the Marlins to manage it, the provision would still apply. (Miami City Attorney Alex Vilarello declined to offer an official opinion. Art Teele says he'd support a citywide vote on using Bicentennial Park even if the city charter didn't require it.)
Of course if John Henry's plan to tax cruise passengers bombs in Tallahassee, talk of a stadium in Bicentennial Park (or anywhere else for that matter) will be purely speculative. But should Henry's battalion of lobbyists succeed, Miami voters can expect to see two ballot measures this fall -- one seeking approval for a new cruise tax and another asking them to allow construction of a 280-foot-tall stadium spreading over sixteen acres or more of Bicentennial Park. In that event you can bet Henry won't hesitate to put a gun to the electorate's head and issue this threat: It's baseball in the park or no baseball at all.
Greg Bush winces at the prospect of such a bleak choice. "To me that's a narrow perspective," he says. "We need a lot more information and a public process. We haven't had it. And we certainly don't need to jump to the Marlins' schedule [of a new stadium by 2003]. We need creative ways to find other sites."
With Park West apparently out of contention owing to high costs, the only remaining downtown option would seem to be a privately owned parcel along the Miami River near I-95. Bush and others (myself included) believe that site should be examined more thoroughly. But in the meantime, he can't afford to have the spotlight drift from the imminent danger posed to Bicentennial Park.
With that in mind, the Urban Environment League this Saturday, March 25, is sponsoring an event billed as the "Walk of Renewal and Public Workshop." The affair begins at 11:00 a.m. at Bicentennial Park, with tours and a review of plans developed during the recent brainstorming session. Then the gathering will amble over to Miami-Dade Community College's nearby campus for more deliberation about how to breathe life back into one of Miami's most lovely and most neglected public assets. For more information call 305-579-9133.