Go Play in Traffic!

It's boom time for Brickell Avenue condos. After several lean years, occupancy is up. The volatile population of foreign owners that ebbed and flowed with the South American economy is being replaced by a stable corps of young Miami families who like to live in a secure luxury home close to downtown.

Aware of this trend, developers are promoting it by making their condos child-friendly. Brickell Place has swings, slides, seesaws, and rocking horses. Villa Regina has added a playground. Ugo Colombo, the man who sparked the Brickell renaissance with his Bristol Tower, is building into his Santa Maria project three children's rec areas.

One condo, however, stands apart. Residents of the Palace, at 1541 Brickell Ave., recently quashed a small playground that was to be built for the condo's approximately 25 kids. Opponents of the playground say they were trying to avoid lawsuits and save money. Parents of young children, though, are crying discrimination, arguing that their foes are deliberately making the building less attractive to families.

"The truth is they don't want children in the building," says Amy Hirsch, mother of a three-year-old girl. "They don't want children, they don't want to attract children, and they just don't want to say that."

One of the poshest condominiums on the Brickell strip, the Palace commands a stunning view of the Rickenbacker Causeway. Ownership perks include a heated pool, a gymnasium, a recently remodeled lobby, security, and a jungle of palm trees on the grounds. The building's 254 units, built by New York developer Harry Helmsley, vary in price but average about $200,000 apiece.

Nearly a year ago, a group of parents noticed that there was no safe place for young children to play. Kids were roller-skating in the parking garage or were climbing the seawall rocks along Biscayne Bay. The parents thought a small playground with swings and monkey bars would be a nice addition. They assembled a playground committee. They considered sites. They considered insurance liability. On October 6, they asked the Palace Condominium Association to construct a playground if money could be found in the 1995 budget. The association agreed, voting 4-2 in favor.

Then the natives got restless. A clique of residents, many of whom had lived in the Palace since it opened in 1982, missed the days when there were fewer kids scurrying about. They challenged the association's decision.

"When all of us bought our condos in the Palace, there was no playground. And in fact many people bought in this building partially because there were not many children around," stated opposition leader Margarita Sanchis-Navarro in a letter to association president Richard Rogers.

In letters sent to association members, the opposition offered a host of other reasons the playground decision should be reversed. The yellow and blue plastic swing set will become an eyesore. The awarding of a playground to such a small minority of residents sets a bad precedent that could lead to other factions demanding putting greens, grocery stores, hair salons, or roller-skating rinks. Resident Norman Mazzawi even argued that the proposed playground site was too sunny; the 77-year-old predicted the kids will get heat stroke.

Jeremy Shapiro addressed every concern. As the chairman of the playground committee, he had worked for a year adjusting and modifying the park plans. When the condo's insurance company balked at a playground, he demonstrated how liability could be diminished. When a waterfront site was rejected, he found a less intrusive spot on a thin strip of sawgrass behind the tennis courts. When it became clear that there would not be enough money in the 1995 budget to cover the playground, he said the parents would pay for it themselves.

Not even that offer swayed the opposition. Sanchis-Navarro circulated an anti-playground petition, which she presented to the condo association at last month's meeting. Perhaps persuaded by the 132 signatures, the association voted to reconsider, then to overturn the playground decision. The final vote was 5-2.

"Nobody would answer on what basis they were voting against it," Shapiro says. "The answer is because of the pressure exerted on the board by the elderly residents. They don't want to send the message out that they want kids in the building."

Mazzawi insists that he wasn't anti-kid in his objection to the playground, and that he would have supported it if the playground committee had selected a site further from his apartment A which is five floors and a parking garage above the tennis courts. He admits, though, that "children are children" and he can do without their yelling and screaming.

"My situation is this: I am an old man. My wife is old. We want to have peace of mind," Mazzawi says. "We love children, but we can't take the noise. No, no, no."

That attitude has some parents rumbling about a lawsuit. Resident Emily Wheeler, an attorney and mother of a young girl, believes the condo association acted unlawfully when it reversed itself. She explained to an association member that she is concerned the opposition's "thinly veiled expressions of a desire that there be as few children as possible residing at the Palace" is a violation of the Federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of family status. (Larry Schiffer, manager of the Palace, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. Condo association president Richard Rogers declined to comment.)

The legal pressure will probably lead to a playground, says Jeremy Shapiro. The association is not looking for legislation, he says, nor are the residents likely to underwrite it. He has resigned his leadership of the playground committee so parents like Wheeler can pursue legal remedies.

"We just want to get it done before our children are in college," says Amy Hirsch.


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