Sabrina Cohen was only a sophomore at Miami Beach Senior High when the car, barreling down Alton Road, crashed at 90 mph. There were six kids inside, she recalls, "but I was the only one who didn't walk away."
That was two decades and several nearly lethal surgeries ago. Now Cohen — and a foundation she formed to help people with disabilities — is the focus of a debate about development of a rare waterfront park in Miami Beach. Opponents of the center for the disabled at Allison Park, 6475 Collins Ave., say it will block views, take up much-needed public beachfront, and limit nesting space for rare sea turtles. Cohen, who has spent two decades fighting back from her injury and become a nationally prominent figure in the battle for disabled rights, contends, "This is about equality."
Miami Beach commissioners will review the proposal December 9 and vote on a proposal to hold a public referendum on the matter.
Cohen grew up in the Mid-Beach area, near 41st Street. She was an avid swimmer. After the accident, though, she was paralyzed from the neck down and had to learn to live her life all over again. After barely surviving surgery, she returned to school a few months later and graduated on time.
In the years since, she has regained some motion in her arms and upper body. She even rides a special bike. She has also served as a mentor and role model for hundreds of kids across the nation and has been involved with a group founded by the famous paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve, who died in 2004.
Three years ago, Cohen approached the City of Miami Beach with a novel idea: create a center on the beach that could be used by people with disabilities, who generally can't access America's most famous beach now because wheelchairs don't roll very well in the sand. Also, she suggested adding a building that would be useful for storage and where the handicapped could become stronger and fitter, as she has.
She formed a foundation that has garnered millions of dollars of support for the plan. The city, she says, would only need to offer the land, a playground, and some parking. Indeed, when the project is complete, she claims, there will be more parking than there is now in Allison Park. And the building will be 50 feet tall and will take up only a small part of the park. "We need a project like this," she says. "The center will serve as a facility where people can train indoors to get stronger for outdoor access."
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The city declared Allison Park a good location, and commissioners in September voted preliminarily in favor of a plan for a public referendum. But neighbors have grown increasingly vociferous in their opposition, even shouting down Cohen and driving her to tears recently at a public hearing. They acknowledge the need for such a facility but note there are already underused buildings on the beach that could be used and wouldn't fill a public park.
"The biggest problem is the lack of transparency on the part of the city," Sylvia Ospina, an attorney and real-estate agent who has lived next to the park for 16 years, recently told New Times. "No notice has been given to most of the owners and residents in the adjacent buildings."
Both sides have collected hundreds of signatures on petitions. The meeting later this month is sure to be hot.
"This is about equality and change for the better," Cohen says. "Our change does not exclude anybody. It doesn't mean the residents can't get there... If you are a mother with a stroller or pulling a cooler, it will actually be easier to use the beach. It welcomes everybody."