Miami Beach's South Pointe Park has lost its luster

When local glitterati gathered at the new South Pointe Park in March 2009, leaders hailed the grassy knolls and wide sidewalks as a shining new jewel for Miami Beach. It's "a thing of beauty for all to enjoy," Mayor Matti Herrera Bower proclaimed.

Just more than a year later, the park's luster has faded and a lot fewer people are enjoying it.

The undulating emerald grass has died and faded to yellow and brown. The playground is closed. Even the kid-friendly fountains have been turned off.

Now the city is pointing fingers and considering a lawsuit against the world-famous architecture firm that earned millions to design the park. The company says the city is to blame. And while everyone slugs it out, it could take years to fix any of the problems.

"We believe there were some significant design errors," Miami Beach Assistant City Manager Jorge Gomez says. "We're reviewing our legal options right now."

For decades, the southernmost tip of Miami Beach languished as the area known as SoFi (south of Fifth Street) crumbled into decrepitude. In the mid-'80s, the city spent $3.5 million to build a park and promote free concerts to try to revitalize the area.

As millionaires' condos sprung up and SoFi turned into an exclusive neighborhood, city officials began looking for a way to turn the park into an iconic spot. They settled on Hargreaves Associates, one of the best-known landscape architecture firms in the nation.

Using mostly county bonds and resort taxes, the city paid $25 million for the 20-month project, with local contractor MCM at the lead. The results were roundly hailed — until the grass started dying and equipment began failing.

Gomez says city engineers believe a flaw in Hargreaves's irrigation plans could be to blame for the wilted grass. The company also failed to plan for lightning strikes on the tall metal light fixtures along the waterfront, he says, and didn't design the water fountain at the park's entrance to meet county codes.

Playground equipment installed near the beach has broken so many times in a year that the city has decided to replace it altogether.

The playground will cost $275,000 to replace, but the city hasn't come up with estimates to fix the grass, the fountains, or the lights.

"We weren't happy with the design," Gomez says.

Hargreaves disagrees. In a brief email statement, the company says it tried to fix the problems but that the city let its contract expire first.

"Initial good faith attempts by us to assist the city were not reciprocated by changing city staff," the company says. "If we were allowed to continue, it would have led to earlier and more successful outcomes."

Either way, it's likely the courts will decide this dispute. In the meantime, don't plan on taking your kids to romp on the playground or in the fountain.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink