Take Me Out to the ... Parking Lot?

Here's a quiz in which both long-time residents and recent arrivals can test their civic knowledge of Miami. What can you call all of the following city-owned properties: a waste dump, a boat ramp, a shopping mall, a sewer plant, and a cemetery?

(Hint: If you are a newcomer, remember in Miami it pays to think counterintuitively. After all, this is the land where the dead vote and the ritual sacrifice of live poultry can influence city affairs.)

The answer is ... envelope please ... parks. That's right. Disparate as they may be, the city has designated all of the above as public parks. To be slightly more precise, "parks and open spaces."

Here's a bonus question: Why? It allows city officials to skirt state law.

Fifteen years ago politicians in Tallahassee got the wild idea that Florida should try to manage its development rather than be run over by it. They began with a simple premise: When a city or county grows, its services, like roads, water, and garbage removal, should expand to fulfill the new demand. Every five years (in 1998 it was bumped up to seven) local governments would have to submit a list of how they supply such services in an "evaluation and appraisal report" (EAR). Included in the EAR would be an inventory of area parks and open spaces. How come, you may ask? It seems some legislators thought parks and open spaces made a city or county more livable. "Parks are an important component to a community's aesthetic, its quality of life," believes Paul DiGuiseppe, a planning manager with the Florida Department of Community Affairs (DCA). The Miami Department of Planning came around as well to the idea that parks are vital for civic health.

Especially in Miami, they argued. The City of Miami is the most densely populated metropolis in the State of Florida, according to the planning department's 1995 EAR report. For cities with populations over 100,000, it is the fourth poorest in the United States, according to the 1990 census. That same year federal statistics indicated 42.2 percent of Miamians under the age of eighteen lived below the poverty level. "With the decline in household income for City residents ... private recreation options are beyond the scope of the typical family budget [and] the role of public recreational opportunities (facilities) intensifies," the report reads. "The importance of recreation and open space to the welfare of City residents is growing." (Not all Miami leaders agree, of course; a city commissioner is rumored to have observed, "People don't need parks because everyone has a back yard.")

According to Tallahassee the city needs "a comprehensive system of public and private sites for recreation, including, but not limited to, natural reservations, parks and playgrounds, parkways, beaches and public access to beaches, open spaces, and other recreational facilities" in order to comply with state regulations.

Legislators were precise in their definitions: "Open space" means undeveloped lands suitable for passive recreation and conservation uses. "Passive recreation" is what you do when you are not playing a sport. "It involves picnics and environmental-education types of uses," explains DiGuiseppe. "You walk around some of these facilities and you might see a sign that says, 'In this area you are looking at a certain plant species.' You know, it is educational in nature, but it is strictly passive. You are not playing basketball on it."

"Public recreation" signifies sites owned or leased on a long-term basis by a governmental entity for purposes of recreational use.

The state planners broke parks into four main categories: mini, neighborhood, community, and regional, but did not provide a definition of "park." "It's common sense," says the DCA manager, who obviously doesn't live in Miami. "We all tend to know what one is."

One other definition is of particular importance here. "Public access" means the ability of the public to physically reach, enter, or use recreational sites, including beaches and shores.

In the end cities and counties were allowed to determine how much park space they needed. The Miami Department of Planning decided it would provide 1.3 acres of parkland per 1000 people. The number is a little less than the average, which is between 1.5 and 2.0, according to DiGuiseppe.

It may not be apparent from looking around, but the city overachieved. In the 1995 EAR report, planning department officials claimed that Miami had 1.7 acres per 1000 people. Based on a population of 366,650, the city reported a total of 657 acres of public land when it only needed 477 acres to meet its quota. This didn't even include two of what your average citizen might consider the biggest parks in the city, Virginia Key and Bicentennial Park. By sheer coincidence both parks have been slated for private development. But more about that later.

The state applauded the city's report: "The EAR analysis indicates that the City of Miami has been successful in maintaining and achieving the local recreation and open space ... standard since the date of adoption, and will continue to maintain the standard through the year 2000."

But wouldn't you know, city officials failed miserably to publicize all the wonderful parklands they so proudly reported to Tallahassee. As a public service, New Times has decided to step into the breach. What follows are some of what we consider to be the highlights of the City of Miami's "Inventory of Existing Parks and Recreation Sites." We followed a trail blazed by public parks coordinator for the Urban Environment League Bob Weinreb, who first took this tour with a camera and notepad in hand. In addition we invited some other local residents to tag along.

1100 NW 22nd Ave.
There is something about the Miami sun on a winter's day -- the way the light plays off the landscape around midafternoon. The phenomenon is a wonder to behold at Fern Isle park, which features a tennis court and a baseball field. (Hence it is labeled an "active neighborhood" park.) As the sun falls and the shadows grow, a section of the 8.41-acre park becomes almost magical.

It doesn't matter much that the at least two-acre section also happens to be a waste dump operated by the public works department. And the sign that states "City of Miami No Trespassing" is no hindrance either. Simply sit outside the chainlink fence and enjoy the colors. Inside the fence a mound of richly hued red clay towers in the middle. Off to the north a hill of sand and rock glow alabaster white. So the enormous clump of trees intermingled with trash and debris is not much of a visual treat, nor are the piles of dark dirt. And though an old junked television set and plastic tubing strewn about might not add to the aesthetic, there is plenty of open space between. Taken as a whole, Fern Isle can offer a nice interplay of light and shadow.

Two Miami residents active in community issues failed to see the subtle beauty. High school science teacher Miguel Germain has lived in Miami since 1963. When he was a boy of eight, Fidel Castro ejected him and his family from Cuba. Germain has visited the park for years, but sadly he is still thinking rigidly inside the box. "It should not be classified as a park," he says of the Fern Isle dump. "If it is a park it should be for people."

Wallis Tinnie is an educator and writer. She currently teaches a literature class at Florida International University on writing and the environment called Utopian Landscapes. Tinnie suspects the dump's presence might have something to do with its location in the poor community of Allapatah. "The only places where dumps are right next to parks are in certain neighborhoods," she contends.

Biscayne Bay
These parks are only for the adventurous or the well heeled. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deepened the Intracoastal Waterway, they took the dredged sand and deposited it in piles that later became spoil islands. There are twelve such islands in the municipality of Miami. They are located in northeast Miami and Coconut Grove. All of them are owned by the state and deeded to the city.

According to the City of Miami, the spoil islands total 75.05 acres. Throughout their history the islands have attracted those resourceful enough to lay claim to them. In 1983 the Bulgarian-born artist Christo dubbed them Surrounded Islands after he wrapped the sites in pink-plastic sheeting. Before and since dozens of squatters have lived on these islands for long periods. Seven years after Christo's project, one family settled an island, importing an electrical generator and a grill. They even planted corn.

A quick quiz: Is homesteading "passive" or "active" according to the City of Miami? Settling land and kicking back enjoying nature earns these idyllic locations a passive label.

Unfortunately our intrepid picnickers couldn't find a boat to get to the spoil islands, but local activist Weinreb did. "My boat draws eighteen inches, and we couldn't reach [one of them] at high tide," he relates. Even if he had made landfall, Weinreb didn't bring a machete to hack through foliage, or boots to step over piled garbage.

In fairness many of the Picnic Islands, as Miami optimistically calls them, have received a substantial facelift in recent years. Who fixed them? Not the city. When silt erosion from the islands helped kill northern Biscayne Bay, the feds, the state, and the county stepped in. The county Department of Environmental Resource Management stabilized the shoreline and removed exotic species, including homesteaders. In the process they added barbecue pits and chickees on a few islands.

Still there is that accessibility problem.

Bayshore Drive, Coconut Grove
In 1972 the U.S. Department of the Interior deeded 4.46 acres of waterfront property to the City of Miami for public parks and recreation. The feds gave the land, which housed a hangar and seaplane dock, to the city for free. They reserved the right to reclaim the property if it was not used as intended. Today much of the "park" serves as a parking lot for the popular eatery Monty's (whose original owner, convicted felon Monty Trainer, was a frequent visitor to city hall). The boat ramp is effectively closed since several vehicles slipped into the bay while unloading watercraft; and the hangar is undergoing a multiyear restoration after its roof nearly collapsed. Coconut Grove activists have complained to the feds for years. City officials have all but thrown up their hands about the parking problem. "Since this area is deemed public parking, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to prevent patrons from the adjoining restaurant from parking in this area," wrote City Manager Donald Warshaw in a letter to the feds.

100 Biscayne Blvd.
What can we say? It's a great address. Located in downtown Miami, its 61.3 acres highlight city officials' favorite use for public lands: private development.

City parks director Alberto Ruder acknowledges that only about 30 acres of the property are actually a park. The rest is given over to recreation of a sort: the sale of tourist knickknacks and overpriced food at theme restaurants. City planners have identified Bayfront as a "regional" and "passive" park, the latter a designation that might be insulting to Miami's shopaholics.

To be fair city planners didn't try to hide this one, though they struggled mightily with grammar to explain it. "The Bayside Plaza accommodates all types of performances from one man magic shows to musical bands. Over 12 million people have been estimated at visiting Bayside in it's first year; and it's plaza serves a vital open space function to the City of Miami," they wrote in their EAR report.

Parks activist Dan Paul has been visiting the site since he came to Miami in 1949. He fought a losing battle against the Rouse Company to try to stop development here. Fifty years ago he remembers coming to Bayfront Park after work to walk by the waterside or listen to music at the band shell. "It was a lovely, quiet place," he recalls, "particularly on nights when you could watch the moon come up over the bay."

765 NW 36th St.
There are a number of reasons why Moore Park could qualify as the crown jewel of Miami's inventory. The parking lot a tenth of a mile long, for instance, or the two giant cylindrical sewer buildings and fire station that all share the property. Yet what makes Moore really sparkle is the little wooden shack on stilts that houses a woman who guards the cars of city workers. The metal stilts are spray-painted yellow and bolted to the ground, perhaps in a feeble effort toward hurricane compliance. A flimsy wooden ladder ascends to a covered perch boasting a cardboard back wall. It resembles a lookout tower peering off into hostile territory.

The 19.6-acre Allapatah-based park is designated "active" because of a large running track. At the back entrance, which leads to the parking lot for sewer-department employees who work in the park at the county's 36th Street pumping station, a sign lists eleven park rules. In light of the plant's operations, rule number two takes on added significance: "Dangerous or hazardous activities prohibited." Rule number nine, "Deposit trash in containers," might need revision as well. Behind a chainlink fence topped by barbed wire, the sewer plant-cum-park is littered with discarded metal, rotting wooden pallets, and large ceramic pipes.

"Look at all the trash that is here," says a horrified Dan Paul. "Miami used to be very proud of its quality of life."

NW Second Avenue between Tenth and Eleventh streets
The "mini" park in the heart of Overtown lives up to its name: It's only .2 acres. Developed in the 1980s it formed part of a new "passive" park concept. Culmer Mini consists of leafy shade trees, concrete benches, and some tables. The site is the very picture of an urban oasis, especially contrasted with the pool hall across the street and the piles of garbage in an adjacent vacant lot. It could be a great place to while away a morning reading a newspaper or playing a game of dominoes. There is only one problem: For at least the past four years Culmer Mini has been locked shut.

"The parks became a magnet for crime," says parks director Alberto Ruder, who closed the park at the request of the local Neighborhood Enhancement Office. Ruder says no one has ever complained to him about the closing of Culmer or a similarly shuttered park in Liberty City.

Miguel Germain used to ride past this site on the bus as he went to school. He is not surprised it is closed. "[Local residents] are poor people, so they are powerless people," he says.

Wallis Tinnie marched down Second Avenue as a majorette in high school. She remembers a vibrant community before the expressway came and destroyed it. "It is really sad," she says with a shake of her head. "It doesn't have to be this way. That is what we really need to understand."

Dan Paul, who in his 50-plus years in Miami has never stepped foot in Overtown, is disturbed by what he sees. "It is shocking to me that it is locked and the public can't use it," he says. "What if those kids over there want to sit and have their drink? They can't get in. They certainly can't count a closed park."

NW Sixteenth Terrace and NW North River Drive
The roads around the Miami River can be hard to follow at times, yet finding this Allapatah riverside park is relatively easy despite its mini size of only .26 acres. Simply go to the Jackson Memorial Hospital district and find the signs for State Road 836 West. After cruising a number of side-streets, a driver will see the signs that point to a ramp. Don't take it! This will actually lead to the highway, and more important, it will carry the driver over Unity Hall park. Instead make a U-turn when you can. (This is probably illegal so on second thought, don't do that. Especially don't do that on the next curve.) Find a way to turn around on NW North River Drive and come back under the overpass and through the traffic light. Now take a sharp right into the driveway of the old York Rite Masonic Temple. It looks abandoned but in fact three lodges, a chapter, a council, and a commandery still meet in the building. Don't go all the way around the building, because transients tend to congregate in back. Sloping up one side of the driveway to the road is a small grassy embankment. Welcome to Unity Hall park! Granted it's really just a highway divider, but the parks department keeps the grass neatly trimmed on this "mini" and "passive" park. Enjoy!

1800 NE Second Ave.
The pride of Miami's "parks," as far as maintenance goes, is probably the Miami City Cemetery. Yes, that's right, a cemetery. When City Commissioner Arthur Teele learned this he had to disagree. "It's not a park," Teele quipped. "It's a [voting] precinct."

Multiuse as it may be, the 9.7 acres are listed as a neighborhood park. Rather prudently city planners bypassed a thorny philosophical debate, and instead of labeling the park "passive" or "active," simply left the designation blank.

The city cemetery is a historical treasure. There are some 8000 gravesites that include pioneer Julia Tuttle, the Burdine family, Confederate soldiers, the city's first doctor, and the first black judge in the South. The cemetery also was one of the first in the South to inter whites, blacks, and Jews at the same site -- Miami style: everyone in their own neighborhood.

It also is truly peaceful. Native hardwoods and coconut trees provide shade. Stone basins attract songbirds. For those who have watched too many late-night movies, there is always the morbid fantasy a hand will pop from the grave.

Yet the cemetery has few visitors and little in the way of accommodations for those who come. "It is not a park," Miguel Germain says flatly. He also believes it's a wasted resource. "There should be tours explaining what is here," he say. "Ninety-nine percent of [Miami] students don't know the history of their city."

Tinnie can't get over it. "They call this a park?" she exclaims. "No! Who is going to come and sit in a cemetery?"

When parks activist Bob Weinreb began to look into the city's park inventory, he was astounded by what he found. "The more I went around, the stranger and screwier it got," he recalls. "I knew there would be some problems but I didn't anticipate their blatant twisting beyond any rational semblance of what a park should be."

He tried to get explanations from both city and state officials, but everyone passed the buck. New Times encountered similar finger pointing and lack of responsibility.

Weinreb began to estimate the actual acreage of parks and open spaces. He tried to be conservative and give the benefit of the doubt to the city whenever possible. His journey took him to more places than the ones mentioned here. His tour also included Robert E. Lee park (three acres), now largely a parking lot for the school board; Watson Island (51.96 acres), which includes private development; and Glen Royal (.2 acres), another highway median. The activist calculated a total of 432 acres of actual parks and open spaces in the City of Miami. The number is 45 acres below even the low standard the city set for itself. "I'd like to get a surveyor and see the real numbers," he says, suspecting the reality could be worse.

Curiously enough when the planning department, headed in 1995 by Jack Luft, put together the evaluation and appraisal report, they left out two parks that would have significantly boosted the acreage count. Omitted from the list were Virginia Key and Bicentennial Park.

Clark Turner, a planner who helped put the report together, says the parks were not included because they were closed at the time. In the case of Virginia Key, Weinreb, who uses the area for windsurfing, says in 1995 the park was in fact open. Regardless of whether they were open or closed, parks department director Alberto Ruder cannot understand why the planning department did not include them in the inventory. "If a facility is closed, it is still a facility," he says. "Those are two of our biggest parks."

When newly elected City Commissioner Johnny Winton learned of the omission he burst out laughing. "You don't want that counted," he said a few moments later, still chuckling. "Someone might notice when they paved it over."

Winton and many others assume Bicentennial Park and Virginia Key were left off the list because city officials had planned to sell them for private development. Other commissioners saw the move as evidence of a rogue city bureaucracy. "[The city administration is] hiding their plans for future development from the state in the same way they hide it from the city commission," says Commissioner Tomas Regalado.

Truth is, you can monkey with the acreage and rubberize the definitions to make the case that city planners are meeting the letter of the state law, if not the spirit. Ruder and others say the inventory list is reflective of the areas the parks department had under its care in 1990. It was never updated. Yet those who care about the quality of life in the city say this misses the point.

"It is not the park that they value so little; it is the people," argues Tinnie. "They have decided how much they think those people deserve or need." Tinnie says the city seems to leave its public properties abandoned because once people stop visiting them, it is much easier to sell them off.

Some commissioners and city officials dismiss this portrait of a conspiracy. Their version of the truth might be considered even scarier. They place the blame on gross incompetence and epic disorganization. "It shows factually we have a lot of things confused," says Art Teele. "We go from crisis to crisis. There is no long-term thinking and planning."

The commissioner says the real story is that the city has no idea what property it really has.

Ruder says it is the planning department that prepares the EAR, not the parks department. "The criteria doesn't seem to include space that the public can use," he says. "No doubt it is time to review it."

The state Department of Community Affairs officials say there is little that they themselves can do. "If it was found to be sufficient and there was no challenge at the time, we can't retroactively go back and make an issue out of it," says Paul DiGuiseppe.

Currently, if all goes according to plan, the city's next EAR will reach the state's DCA in 2004.

Not surprisingly when city commissioners were contacted, all enthusiastically endorsed the need for parks. "We are not directing our resources to parks," says Commissioner Joe Sanchez, echoing his colleagues. (Indeed parks director Ruder says he is happy when he has enough personnel to mow the grass.) Only Commissioner Willy Gort, whose Allapatah district covers some of the more egregious examples on the inventory, has some reservations. "People's leisure has changed, and there is more of a focus on home entertainment," says Gort, who believes smaller neighborhood parks are better than large open spaces. "It is too hot in the summer, and people don't want to venture out."

Last bonus question: Is it unreasonable to expect elected officials to guide the city? Steve Seibert, secretary of the DCA, does not seem to think so. In a letter he wrote to a parks activist about the 1995 EAR report, he stated: "Ultimately it is up to the citizens and locally elected officials to ensure these lands are protected and wisely used. I encourage you to bring your concerns to the attention of the city council."

Our citizen picnickers are not optimistic. "There is no question things are getting worse," says Dan Paul. "The public's parkland and open spaces are being slowly eroded and taken away without their realizing, and by the time it finally dawns on them it will be too late. There will be concrete everywhere."

Miguel Germain blames the problem on a lack of vision from the city's political leaders. "They never try to imagine for the future what they want the city to be," he says. Germain's fear is that by the time they do, they will have to go to city taxpayers for money to buy back the parkland they once had in abundance before selling it off.


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