If you've been to Midtown Miami in the last eighteen months and wondered why the large center park is doing its best impression of Sarajevo, here's your answer: Good ol' fashioned mismanagement, coupled with a testy garden designer notorious for doing things his own way-- even if it results in neighborhood blight.
After almost two years, the "World Gardens" project, an ambitious 2.5-acre public park in the middle of Midtown planned by "landscaper to the stars" Harry Nelson, has finally been scrapped. From a statement issued by Midtown Miami:
World Gardens temporary installation in Midtown Miami has been canceled due to challenges faced by the designer, Harry Nelson of Harry Nelson Fine Gardens, which resulted in the inability to complete his vision for the project during the timeline planned for the exhibit. It is an unfortunate circumstance because it was the original intent of Midtown Miami to provide land to the designer for a temporary installation for the public to enjoy while the next phase of development was being planned for the site. Midtown is currently in design development for the property and will be excited to share more information about the next phase when it is finalized.
Riptide reached Nelson by phone last Friday. He blamed the death of his sister for the initial delay in the project. The rest, it seems, was Midtown's fault: The development saddled him with unforeseen expenses, such as thousands of dollars in soil costs. And the financial benefactors behind the project-- Nelson refuses to name them-- pulled out funding. He finally abandoned the World Gardens when Midtown told him the space could be used for another project within a year. Total loss, by Nelson's estimation, for the failed park: $300,000 to $400,000.
He then asked Riptide when we planned to run our story. "Good," he responded. "I'll have my Herald piece run the same day. They're doing a story on all of my accomplishments, and it will overshadow your hatchet job."
The Midtown project was first announced in March 2009, when a grandiose press release touted the installment as "a prototype for non-profit public gardens throughout our country' and a "true fantasy spectacle that will leave you speechless." It was scheduled to be completed by winter of that year.
Instead, residents seethed as the project stalled several times, transforming what had effectively been a much-used dog park into a barely traversable eyesore of mountains of soil and haphazardly placed plants, pallets and other construction junk. "It looks terrible," Shad Morin, a massage therapist who lives in Midtown, told Riptide a few days ago. "Everybody's asking what's going on with it, and nobody knows anything."
Making matters worse: the revelation that Nelson has been selling plants to nearby businesses. "I think the guy was more interested last week in selling plants to Sugarcane," one resident, Greg Walton, commented on Midtown's blog. "I believe this is his nursery, rent free."
Nelson has been down this road before. In 2003, he became a pariah of upscale Morningside when an ambitious landscaping project on his own sprawling property stretched for years, turning his grounds into a crazy, unkempt maze of vegetation and supplies resembling a haunted house. How bad did it get? Neighbors marched outside, waving signs reading "Burn the Witch!"
The city fined Nelson $500 a day for illegal renovations on his house, and Morningside residents accused him of using his residential property as an illegal hub for his business. Nelson denied that. From a Miami Herald article at the time: "[Neighbors] waited for the property's fabulous transformation. And waited. They watched heavy trucks lumber over the sidewalks and small armies of shovel-wielding minions dig and fill, with few visible results."
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Midtown Miami residents can surely relate.
So how did Midtown come to hand over this large parcel of central land in this all-important development project to Nelson, who is not a licensed landscape architect and has been sued at least six times in Miami-Dade County for allegedly not paying bills and subcontractors? He got the gig after working the South Beach yard of Deborah Samuel, a principal broker at Midtown Miami. Samuel has not returned Riptide's calls for comment.
Nelson stopped picking up our phone calls after that first chat on Friday. He also hasn't responded to a note we left in the mailbox of his scary-ass house.