Grand Central Park Opens Today, But Is It A Waste Of Taxpayers' $200,000?

When Tiffany Dallas, a master's student at Florida International University, started researching her thesis on redeveloping Overtown, she was fascinated by Grand Central owner Brad Knoefler's plan to turn a blighted patch of land opposite his club -- once the home of the Miami Arena -- into a temporary urban park. But the more Dallas studied the plan, the more she questioned why taxpayers should spend $200,000 on a park that will disappear in two years. 

The green space -- which officially opens later today -- is actually money-making scheme for the land's owner while he gets financing in order to build a convention center on the spot, Dallas argues in a column you can read after the jump.

Dallas spoke last week with Knoefler to get his take on her criticism. The Grand Central owner concedes that he fell months behind schedule on opening the park, but says a sluggish city bureaucracy is to blame.

And even if the park is only temporary, Knoefler argues it will improve quality of life in a long blighted corner of town.

"When more people are out and about, residents would be more apt to report illegal behavior to the authorities," he says. "When you work with people from the community, you will get results."

Here's Dallas's essay in full. Below, you can read her Q&A with Knoefler.

History has shown us that any large development if left unchecked leads to the displacement of African American communities. The land that once was a part of these neighborhoods become something so unrecognizable that all we have left are the memories of what once stood. There is another problem brewing in Overtown. A local developer Brad Knoefler has proposed the construction of "Florida's first instant park", to be completed in 30 days. He is so confident in his deadline that he has been working with landscape architect Walter Meyer, on a documentary called How to Build a Park in 30 Days.

But groundbreaking took place on October 18th -- a full three months ago -- which already means he has failed to meet one of his promises.

That is just the edge of the quagmire of issues associated with this project. Grand Central Park Miami is currently under construction on the five acre property located at 700 NW 1st Ave, where the old arena once stood. Mr.Knoefler had proposed the idea to the CRA with $200,000 of their money can create a self-sustaining green park that also can be used for events. It would generate revenue by charging admission and parking for those who live outside the limits of the CRA.

This all sounds great, if you don't listen. The land is private, yet the money from the CRA actually is public, since it is generated from property taxes from those living in the area. Mr.Knoefler has also personally guaranteed to pay Mr. Straub the monthly lease of $22,917. Even more intriguing is that the full terms of the agreements are unknown and unavailable to the public. Initially, the park would not be entirely open to the public due to limitations largely attributed to expensive insurance costs. The length of the limitations is also unknown.

Perhaps what stands out most of all is that the park is not even planned to be a fixed area within Overtown. It is only temporary for the next two years. Which coincidentally is about the same amount of time that is will take Straub to obtain construction permits for a convention center.

This project is a waste of Community Redevelopment Agency money. Public funding is used to develop private land temporarily while permits are being processed to build something that most likely will not even benefit members of the community. Knoefler had proposed this park last year as an attempt to create green space, eradicate blight within Overtown. The site had been littered with construction debris. Green space is great, if it was permanent.

Instead of using CRA money to fund this project, why didn't Knoefler pay for it himself or fine Straub daily for not maintaining the site and letting it remain an eyesore? Just because you own land within the inner city doesn't mean you do not have to maintain it. Overtown desperately needs redevelopment solutions to benefit the community as a whole instead of being used as a pawn in rich developers chess game. We should not stand by and let those with more political power do as they wish. The last time that happened in Overtown I-95 and I-395 were constructed and bisected the area into four quadrants, delegitimizing Overtown's role as the center of Black Miami. We must come together and plan for the future of one of our most influential communities.

Here's Dallas's question-and-answer with Knoefler:

Dallas: Why was the project delayed by two-plus months?

Knoefler: Government red tape, specifically the city of Miami's inefficient payment system, and their retracting on a promise of top soil as roadblocks that slowed park construction. $10,000 was needed to purchase the top soil required for planting. The CRA had approved payments to the City of Miami and the vendors paid late, resulting a two-week program delay over the holidays. My team and I had actually completed phase one in 30 days. It included site work, planting of 250 trees and pathways that comprised 80 percent of the work necessary for completion."

Why wasn't Straub, the land owner, fined daily for not maintaining the site?

Mr. Straub was indeed fined and remained in litigation with the demolition company for some time. It was settled, fines were paid, and he allowed the CRA to use the land free with exception of the monthly lease. His purchase of the old arena site was the catalyst of recent redevelopment efforts that continue on today.

How will the park incite job creation?

Job creation was not the main focus. The catalytic effect of change was more important in order to attract new businesses to the area. There is a market for expanded food concessions daily to support the government buildings present.

What is the future of the park?

There are plans for a possible commuter station in the future that would incorporate multiple uses. A park could exist on the roof terraces of the station. 600 linear feet would be required

for the train center. The Downtown Development Authority (DDA) had funded a $200,000
convention feasibility study. This focus has recently shifted to the Genting Casino proposal.

How is this park going to eradicate blight and improve the quality of life for residents?

Big projects do not eradicate blight. The original proposal had called for $400,000 and
unlimited public access, but the city refused, citing that the cost was too high for a temporary project. The compromise was the self-financing park model that will open this Friday. It would operate like a private business, where the income generated from admission and parking costs will pay the monthly lease of $22,917.

The park has already begun to change the dynamics of the neighborhood activity. When more people are out and about, residents would be more apt to report illegal behavior to the authorities. When you work with people from the community, you will get results. Working with out of town developers, you will get empty lots. Mega projects do not work. 

After hearing Knoefler's perspective, Dallas offered a short addendum to her earlier column:

I hope that Grand Central Miami will become a fixed area within Overtown. I agree with Mr. Knoefler that it could be the catalyst to begin the process of neighborhood redevelopment which is severely needed. If the park does stay, it will not be a waste of taxpayer money. Yes, most of us are concerned with job creation but cleaning up the landscape has the ability to attract new businesses, which in turn will bring jobs. We are all aware of the difficulties of finding work, despite unemployment decreasing by 2.5 percent recently. This may sound positive, but keep in mind that the unemployment rate only counts those that are actively seeking work, those who are not are not included in this figure. In reality, Miami isn't doing as well as most think. If the temporary plans remain and a convention center does appear, then we will clearly see a waste of our money. For now, it is far too soon to make that call.

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