Parks advocates last week suffered a setback in their struggle to save Bicentennial Park from the evil clutches of millionaire Marlins owner John Henry. Independent consultants hired by the City of Miami presented their findings March 13 at a meeting of a committee considering options for a downtown baseball stadium. The consultants studied two sites: Bicentennial Park and an area just west of Biscayne Boulevard in the neighborhood known as Park West. Their conclusions could spell doom for those who believe Miami's last undeveloped tract of publicly owned bayfront land should be preserved as a park.

According to the consultants' estimates, the cost of purchasing the privately owned land west of Biscayne Boulevard, plus associated costs of utilities and street realignments, could easily exceed $100 million. One expert puts the figure closer to $130 million. Add to that the loss of tax revenue from Park West land that would be taken off the rolls as a result, and the true costs appear impossibly steep. Compare that to the cost of simply giving away Bicentennial Park: $0.

It gets worse.

The time it would take to acquire the Park West property is estimated, at minimum, to be a full year. At that rate the Marlin's goal of opening a new stadium for play in 2003 also would be impossible. In addition the consultants believe a massive stadium in that depressed neighborhood would harm revitalization efforts, in part by impeding commercial development that might otherwise occur, and in part because a stadium would "create a 'dead' space 280 days a year within the fabric of downtown."

On the other hand, according to the report, the advantages of building a stadium in Bicentennial Park glisten like pearls on a necklace: No need to condemn and purchase private property, no space problems, no deed restrictions, no loss of revenue since it isn't taxed now. Furthermore, say the consultants, a stadium would rehabilitate Bicentennial, enhance Park West "redevelopment dynamics," and offer inherent value as a landmark.

From the sound of it, the report could have been written by officers in John Henry's private army of lobbyists, lawyers, and designers. But it wasn't. And that, I'm certain, put a smile on Henry's face. Not surprisingly it put a frown on the faces of those who steadfastly oppose a baseball stadium in Bicentennial Park.

At that committee meeting last week, Urban Environment League president Greg Bush and his associates did their best to raise critical questions about the study, but they received copies of it only moments before being asked to speak, and so weren't as prepared as they would have liked. Since then these parkland defenders have had a chance to review it and are now advancing several challenges to assertions it makes, not least of which involves the actual size of Bicentennial. (It appears to be about five acres smaller than the Marlins and some city officials have contended, a fact that could have profound implications for any stadium designs.)

But the consultants' overwhelmingly negative analysis of the alternative site deflated park supporters' buoyant hopes of shifting public attention to Park West while they busied themselves hatching plans for restoring Bicentennial. At a meeting the next day, hosted by Greg Bush in his role as a member of the Bayfront Park Management Trust (which oversees Bicentennial Park), the mood was understandably glum. The gathering was a sequel to a lively brainstorming session that took place Sunday, March 12, at which some 25 participants kicked around many ideas for fixing up Bicentennial. This meeting, by contrast, was sparsely attended and anything but lively. "We're in a political fight," Bush grimly reminded the group at one point. "We can't forget that."

True enough. The battle over Bicentennial Park has been colored by politics since it began three months ago, but never so much as now. John Henry's hired guns currently are pursuing an overtly political agenda at the state legislature in hopes of striking a deal to tax cruise-line passengers as a source of construction funding. Gov. Jeb Bush has stepped into the fray by expressing enthusiasm for the idea of bayside ballgames and a willingness to allow a countywide vote on the cruise-line tax. And now, thanks to last week's report, the local debate has become mired in politics, principally as a result of Commissioner Art Teele's reaction to the bad news about the Park West site.

Because of his formidable influence over affairs at city hall, Teele's adamant opposition to a stadium in Bicentennial Park had been tantamount to a death knell for the Marlins' waterfront dreams. The commissioner had promoted a Park West location for a number of reasons, an obvious one being the fact that he is chairman of the city's Southeast Overtown-Park West Community Redevelopment Agency, which wields extraordinary control over the area. If he could maneuver the baseball stadium on to his turf, he'd not only win favor with politically active parks advocates, he'd have a special opportunity to reinvigorate the neighborhood, something countless public officials have failed to do following the civic devastation wreaked by the construction of I-95 and its concrete tributaries. But the consultants' report changed all that. Noting the irony of his having initiated the process that led to the study, Teele jokes, "It's now put me in a position that I'm eating a little crow, but I don't intend to eat the whole bird."

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Jim Mullin
Contact: Jim Mullin