The Biscayne Times

Oct 16th
Green Piece PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky -- BT Senior Writer, Photos by Silvia Ros   
June 2013

Greynolds Park is a treasure, a serene oasis of natural beauty. Now imagine a 130-foot tall building right next door.

JCoverStory_1onathan Welch is a temporary maintenance employee who works hard for his paycheck at Miami-Dade County. His shift finally over, Welch, who is 21 years old, sits on a park bench beneath a tree, savoring an aromatic cigar. It’s a spot he regularly visits.

“It’s peaceful to me,” Welch says of his surroundings. “It’s quiet. It’s away from everybody.”

Welch isn’t in the middle of nowhere. He’s in Greynolds Park, just a few yards away from The Arbors at Greynolds Park, an apartment complex where he and his family live.

On this particular weekday afternoon, Welch is among dozens of other people enjoying the park. It’s a very big park -- some 250 acres of trees, wildlife, and waterways. On any given day you might see golfers hitting the links at the nine-hole course, bicyclists pedaling along winding paths, families celebrating birthdays at the picnic pavilions, lovers holding hands beneath the quaint covered bridge, and kids rolling down the 42-foot-high artificial hill topped by a coral-rock tower. On special days, you might catch a free bluegrass concert, or the annual Love-In Party in the Park.

Open to the public since 1936, Greynolds Park is visited by more than 400,000 people each year. The main park, flanked on the east by the Oleta River, stretches north to Miami Gardens Drive (NE 186th Street), south to NE 174th Street, and west to NE 20th Avenue.

But that’s not all there is to this Miami-Dade County regional park. Greynolds also has two nearby satellite parks. North of Miami Gardens Drive is Camp Greynolds, a five-acre area with seven cedar log cabins and a mess hall that’s often rented to youth groups. Located beside Maule Lake at 16700 Biscayne Blvd. is East Greynolds Park, which boasts a fenced dog park, a park shelter, a campground, a fishing pier, and dozens of acres of mangroves.

At Jonathan Welch’s favorite spot there are no log cabins or picnic pavilions -- just a sweeping vista of lush forest, ferns, vines, and water. But this serene setting may soon change forever. The vegetation camouflages a nearby fence that separates public parkland from a privately owned vacant parcel where a nursing home once stood.

CoverStory_2Braha Dixie, LLC, a company comprising numerous investors mainly from New York and New Jersey, and headed by Ralph Braha, bought the four-acre parcel in 2006 for $9.8 million. Braha Dixie’s plan for the site at 17400 W. Dixie Hwy. is to build a 130-foot-tall complex anchored by a 275-room Hyatt hotel.

According Keith Donner, a political consultant who has worked as Braha Dixie’s lobbyist since December 2011, the development will also have 85,000 square feet of Class-A office space, at least 30,000 square feet of retail, a 9000-square-foot conference center, a 3000-square-foot balcony lounge, and 739 parking spaces.

If built as planned, the Hyatt will be sandwiched between The Arbors apartment complex at 2375 NE 173rd St. and the W. Dixie Highway entrance to Greynolds Park. Welch raises an eyebrow when told about the Hyatt that may soon loom over his secluded spot, as well as his place of residence, but he takes in the news with equanimity. “I think it’s going to be bringing a lot of change for the community,” he says. “Maybe good, maybe bad.”

Donner argues that the changes will be good, bringing new jobs, $800,000 per year in tax revenue, and encouraging more investment in the city of North Miami Beach, where the hotel will be located. “The city council voted to approve our land-use applications and they did so in the hope that our project will be the catalyst for W. Dixie Highway, which has seen much better days,” Donner says. “There has been nothing of substance built in North Miami Beach in more than a decade.”

CoverStory_3Donner’s views are repeated by Mayor George Vallejo, who hopes to attract enough “reasonable development” to enable NMB to expand its tax base. “As mayor, I make my decisions based on what is best for all 42,000 residents,” Vallejo tells the BT via e-mail. “Our city’s long-term viability and livability depend on allowing high-quality, reasonable applications like this hotel project to move forward.”

This past September, Vallejo and his colleagues on the city council unanimously approved a B-2 zoning classification for Braha Dixie’s land, giving the developer the right to build a 15-story or 150-foot-tall complex. A covenant with the city, however, restricts the height to just ten-floors or 130-feet, whichever is shorter. The covenant also requires that a hotel be built on the site. Otherwise, the land reverts to its previous split zoning: RM-23 and CF.

The CF zoning, or community facility, allows museums, schools, government buildings, hospitals, or nursing homes no taller than 35 feet -- much like the convalescent home Greynolds Park Manor, prior to its demolition in 2009.

RM-23 allows 35-foot-tall multifamily buildings, though the city council can grant a height variance of up to 65 feet.

Some people believe 65 feet should be the maximum height allowed on a piece of land that’s borders a residential street (NE 173rd), is serviced by an ancient two-lane road (W. Dixie Highway), and is hard up against Greynolds Park, the second-oldest park in Miami-Dade County and, many argue, its most exceptional.

CoverStory_4“In our view, it would ruin the eastern portion of the park,” says attorney Charles Baron, a regular parkgoer and resident of the seven-story Greynolds Park Club condominium, which borders the Oleta River directly across from the park. Baron, along with former North Miami Beach councilman Robert Taylor and Arbors resident Alvey Errol, have fought the land’s rezoning since 2009, when Braha Dixie first sought a change. (It fizzled after the developers failed to pay an application fee.)

A few months ago, Baron, Taylor, and Errol filed a lawsuit against the city and the developers, alleging that NMB officials violated their own laws when they granted the B-2 zoning, and failed to disclose the details of their conversations with representatives of the developer, including Donner.

The Donner Group helped Vallejo, Councilwoman Barbara Kramer, and Councilwoman Beth Spiegel win their elections in 2011. During NMB’s election last month, Donner also worked on the campaign of newly elected Councilman Tony DeFillipo, as well as Spiegel’s successful re-election campaign.

The lawsuit is steadily moving ahead. Baron says a judge will hear oral arguments from both sides as early as July. “If this development is allowed to go forward, there will be a project the height of Aventura Hospital towering over a pond, and just feet away from the [Greynolds’] tree line,” Baron contends. “This is not only immoral to those of us who seek out the nature, solitude, and peace Greynolds offers, but legally it’s totally in conflict with the city’s zoning code.”

CoverStory_5North Miami Beach city attorney Darcee Siegel insists that the council obeyed the law. “The bottom line,” she says, “is that some people don’t like change.”

Mayor Vallejo vows that his city won’t be held back by such intransigents any longer: “We can’t allow the shrill, unreasonable demands of a few people -- most of whom don’t even live in the city -- to dictate what’s in the overall best interest of NMB. That’s what happened in the past that kept us from lowering taxes, improving services, and making our city better for those who actually live here.”

But it isn’t just a few individuals who oppose the project. More than 2000 people have expressed their support on Facebook for a group called Save Greynolds Park, which fiercely opposes the project. The controversy has also revived the once inert Friends of Oleta River, a 25-year-old environmental group that has now created a special Save Greynolds Park committee.

Bill Campbell, a Skylake resident who grew up in NMB, points out that Greynolds is a regional park. “It belongs to all of us,” says Campbell, who recently joined Friends of Oleta River and helps maintain the Save Greynolds Park Facebook site. “A park like this, with all of its history, is loved by everyone who once lived near it or visited it.”

In April, the Miami-Dade County Historic Preservation Board unanimously passed a resolution opposing a ten-story development adjacent to Greynolds. Also opposing the project is the Greater North Miami Historical Society.

CoverStory_6“It’s nothing short of a crime,” says Seth Bramson, a Miami Shores-based historian who has written several books chronicling the Biscayne Corridor’s past. “Because once you build it, you will destroy Greynolds Park.”

At least one environmental scientist is worried that the project’s impact on Greynolds won’t be limited to aesthetics. In a letter to NMB officials, Joel Heinen, a Florida International University earth and environment professor, emphasized that Greynolds is “home to over 175 native plant species, including at least 11 plant species and 13 animal species that are threatened or endangered under state or federal statutes.”

The shadows cast on the park’s south side by the Hyatt will be “detrimental” to its vegetation, Heinen warned, harming Greynolds’s complex eco-system.

Donner scoffs at such concerns, pointing out that Greynolds is hundreds of acres in size. “Our opponents lack all credibility because what they’re claiming is just absurd,” he declares. “You would think that nuclear winter is coming to North Miami Beach because of our project.”

Jack Kardys, director of the Miami-Dade Parks, Recreation, and Open Space Department, notes that the area abutting the future Hyatt site is already shaded by trees and The Arbors apartment complex. So the county parks department is not too worried about adverse environmental effects caused by the building.

CoverStory_7Nevertheless, county parks officials are still uneasy about such a large project being built so close to Greynolds. On June 5, Maria Nardi, the parks department’s chief of planning and research, sent NMB city officials a letter opposing the zoning change. “We believe this proposal will negatively impact the historic character of the park, and the experience of the users of Greynolds Park,” she wrote.

Donner dismisses that letter as well. “A staff person at the parks department wrote a letter vaguely hinting that maybe our project might somehow do something,” he says. “This letter has absolutely no authority or relevance to our application.”

Kardys admits there is little his department can do about the project. “We don’t control the zoning,” he says. At the same time, Kardys says Nardi’s opposition letter mirrors the unease of his entire department. “It’s our job to point out those things,” he says. “When you are looking at a structure that size, the view while walking down the tree canopy and from other open areas of the park -- it will have a visual impact.”

In June 1988, FIU biology professor George Dalrymple completed a detailed environmental report on Greynolds Park. The phone-book size document catalogued more than 200 plant species, 21 wading bird species, five turtle species, four snake species, and a multitude of raccoons, squirrels, and rats dwelling in the main park.

CoverStory_8Once in a while Dalrymple and his team of graduate students would spot a gray fox, a marsh rabbit, or an alligator. As for fish, apparently there were so many swimming in the lakes and lagoons fed by the Oleta River that the team couldn’t count them all. Dalrymple noted that 194 fish species have been found in Biscayne Bay in previous environmental studies. (Fishing inside Greynolds Park is prohibited.)

Ten years later, Dalrymple’s Everglades Research Group conducted a follow-up study. The 1998 report noted a “severe decline in upland and wading birds,” writes Doris Howe, the county parks department’s manager of communications and marketing, in an e-mail to the BT. The cause for the shrinkage in the upland bird population (woodpeckers, blue jays, and other non-water fowl) was a colony of feral cats that invaded the park, but the decrease in wading birds was blamed on “the overall decline in nearby foraging habitat in northeast Dade County as a result of development,” Howe says.

The Cat Network has since found new homes for most of the feral cats, but developers continue to proliferate.

Jack Lieberman, vice chairman of Friends of Oleta Park, grew up in North Dade in the 1960s, back when Greynolds Park was a vast, forested nesting area for birds. “Half of Aventura was in the woods or marshland,” says Lieberman, who operates a liberal-themed clothing business, Progressive Rags, in North Miami Beach. “Back then, the park was surrounded by a lot of areas that were undeveloped.”

CoverStory_9In spite of the loss of forested habitat around the park, Greynolds still has plenty of wildlife, though not all of its creatures are native. During recent visits, the BT saw fish and turtles swimming in the lakes and lagoons, herons and egrets searching for a meal, a peacock calling for a mate atop a palm tree, a large iguana sunning itself by the water, and brazen raccoons ransacking trash cans for food or trailing behind humans, hoping for scraps.

A visitor told the BT that he saw baby alligators by a lagoon just a few months ago, while Howe noted that “a family of red shouldered hawks routinely nests in an Australian pine southwest of the boat house.”

Normally Australian pines are considered an invasive species, but the county parks department has no plans to remove them, Howe says, since their habitat in the park is limited and they contribute to the foliage used for nesting by native and migratory birds.

“The Australian pines appear to play an extremely important role in the birds’ perception of their vulnerability to disturbance, and visitors are able to watch them for long periods of time without disturbing them,” Dalrymple wrote in 1988. “In the opinions of experts in the field, these species should not successfully breed so close to human disturbance, and yet in Greynolds Park they do!”

The area that would become Greynolds Park was adjacent to the old Military Trail that connected Fort Lauderdale and Fort Dallas (the future Miami) in the mid-19th Century. It was about midway between the two military installations, making it an ideal trading post for exchanging goods between the Seminoles and white settlers and troops.

CoverStory_10_1989-011-1302By 1896, railroad tracks constructed by Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway passed next to the trading post. A year later, Dade County bought 61 acres of land near the trail (which one day would become W. Dixie Highway) and the tracks, where a farm and convict labor camp was established.

The prisoners mined oolitic limestone to atone for their crimes, which were often offenses like drinking liquor in a dry county. Apparently, many of Miami’s locals and visitors were scared straight. “During prohibition, in 1916, the camp was closed due to insufficient arrests of intoxicated persons,” states a 1988 county report on the park.

In 1918, A.O. Greynolds bought the county land and an additional 40 acres for his own rock-mining operation, Ojus Rock Company. By the 1930s, the mine was almost out of limestone and Greynolds was left owing $1200 in back property taxes and a $1548 mortgage to the Florida East Coast Railway.

C.H. Crandon, chairman of the Dade County Commission, saw an opportunity in Greynolds’s failing money pit: a future park developed at the federal government’s expense, using Civilian Conservation Corps labor. Greynolds readily agreed to hand over the land in exchange for the cancellation of his tax bill, but first Crandon had to persuade the FEC (Flagler’s rail company) to lift the lien free of charge. His selling point: The land was worthless.

“There is a large rock pit which has been dug out, and the property was finally abandoned by the Ojus Rock Company because of the poor quality of the rock,” Crandon explained to an FEC representative in a September 1933 letter. But if the FEC allows Greynolds to deed the land to the county for a public park, Crandon argued, the railway would benefit because it would be transporting Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers to the site. “The business that the FEC would derive from the movement of these 200 men and equipment is certainly worth far more than the value of this property,” Crandon wrote.

Indeed, Greynolds Park was not just a parks project, it was a jobs project launched by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration at the height of the Depression.

Among those receiving steady employment, thanks to the WPA, was William Lyman Phillips, a New England-born landscape architect who, by 1933, had 20 years of experience designing parks, estates, and even military bases. Under Phillips’s leadership, the CCC crews paved two miles of roads in Greynolds Park, cleared trails through the hammocks, turned rock pits into “meandering lagoons, creeks, and a lake,” and used explosives to form artificial islands, according to Pioneer of Tropical Landscape Architecture, a 1997 book about Phillips written by Faith Reyher Jackson. (Following the Greynolds job, Phillips supervised CCC teams working on Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and Matheson Hammock Park.)


Greynolds, however, wasn’t solely a William Lyman Phillips creation. Civil engineer Raymond Ward helped Phillips locate and design the shelters and buildings in Greynolds Park, including the iconic boathouse at the park’s main lake. A.D. Barnes, the county’s parks director from 1929 to 1969, not only helped C.H. Crandon secure additional land for Greynolds Park, he kept the work crews supplied with equipment, and he forged the park’s first picnic tables from materials “fashioned out of salvaged creosoted railroad ties,” Jackson wrote.

The hill? That was Phillips’s baby -- and his way of cleaning up the mess left from the rock mining operation. “[Phillips] ordered all of the scrap metal and old concrete footings to be collected in the center of the park on top of an old rock crusher,” Jackson wrote. “The whole mass he covered with fill and sod, making a large hill, and he built a coral rock tower on the new ‘observation mound,’ often called the castle.”

The park opened in 1936 to huge crowds, but the evolution of Greynolds Park continued. Just the year before, Sunny Isles developer H.B. Graves donated 56 acres of land so that it, too, could be merged into Greynolds. “I believe that this area, lying as it does on the main road coming into the county, is a very valuable addition to our park,” parks director Barnes wrote to Graves. “It is the first real glimpse of any natural beauty after one crosses the county line.”

This attraction, which was named East Greynolds Park, is located 2000 feet southeast of the main Greynolds Park and on the east side of the railroad tracks. During the 1940s, Barnes searched for more land south and east of Greynolds Park, but by that time land prices were climbing rapidly as development boomed in North Dade.

That boom would soon put parks department officials on the defensive.

ICoverStory_12_1989-011-7017n 1953, North Miami Beach officials tried to take over East Greynolds Park, arguing that the county had abandoned it. (Graves had deeded the land to NMB, which, in turn, gave it to the county.) The case went all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the county parks department. The county later undertook modest improvements, such as a dock and a boat launch. That wasn’t enough for NMB city manager Oliver Merrian who, in 1974, demanded that the county either “develop” the park (i.e., build playgrounds and baseball fields) or return it to the city.

“Regarding East Greynolds Park: for the ‘umteenth’ time, the area is as developed as the county intends to have it,” replied county parks planner R.S. Tietgen. “This is a park site that will be preserved in as natural a state as possible.” (The county built a dog park at East Greynolds in 2007.)

In 1956, the school board wanted to use 15 acres of western Greynolds Park, between NE 20th and 22nd avenues along 174th Street, for a junior high school. Barnes opposed the idea and even solicited advice from other park systems across the country on how to fight the proposal. Ultimately the county commission rejected the idea. As a result, that part of Greynolds was preserved -- for a 3100-yard golf course. Designed by Mark Mahannah, Greynolds Park Golf Course was opened in 1964, after the area was cleared of the thick forest that once grew there. “There was no public golf course up in that area,” reasons historian Seth Bramson.

In 1975, county manager R. Ray Goode wanted to use a 1.5-acre segment of a Greynolds picnic area at NE 22nd Avenue and Miami Gardens Drive for a regional library that would serve the growing Aventura area. Parks director A.H. Peavy sternly objected to the idea. “According to national standards, Dade County is over 6000 acres short of park sites,” Peavy wrote. “I do not want to increase this deficit.” The state’s Division of Recreation and Parks also wrote a letter opposing the proposal.

Despite such opposition, Dade County commissioners approved the construction of a library on the land. The Greynolds library project was aborted only after citizen outcry and a last-minute land donation by developer Donald Soffer, which enabled the creation of a regional library and other public amenities to be built in Aventura.


The defense of Greynolds Park from nonrecreational government projects paid off. In 1964, more than 1.5 million people visited the park, according to a memo from Barnes, thanks in part to attractions by the park’s main lake that are no longer present: paddle boats for rent and the Dixie Belle, a Mississippi-style showboat that ferried passengers around the lake. By the latter part of that decade, Greynolds was becoming a popular hangout for the young “counterculture” generation, says Paul George, a Miami-Dade College history professor and BT contributor. East Greynolds, meanwhile, hosted outdoor concerts in the late 1960s and early 1970s by bands like the Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin.

The parks department was less lucky in regards to private development just outside Greynolds. When developers proposed building apartments and a nursing home along NE 173rd Street and W. Dixie Highway in 1967, Barnes renewed his effort to buy the land. “In this and other suburban areas of the county, useable open space is rapidly becoming as rare as in the core city from which many of the suburbanites fled,” Barnes wrote in a memo to the Dade County Commission. “People find themselves traveling farther and farther from home in search of pleasant, uncrowded places to enjoy a feeling of openness.”

A year later, Barnes’s successor, Bill Bird, wrote a letter opposing developer Martin Margulies’s apartment project next to Greynolds, called The Woods, which, decades later, became The Arbors. “The illusion of being in a large natural environment, though surrounded by the concrete, steel, and asphalt of the city, is especially strongest in the southeastern part of the park, where the lakes, islands, and world-famous bird rookery is located,” Bird wrote. “We are vitally concerned about the harmful effect the proposed three-story building, only 20 feet to 30 feet from the park boundary, will have on the aesthetic quality of the park.”

Developer George Leader, meanwhile, had to contend with the bureaucracy of North Miami Beach prior to building Greynolds Park Manor in 1967. But eventually Leader’s argument that a nursing home was better than a hotel won over the North Miami Beach City Council, particularly Councilman Newton Green. “Imagine,” Green was quoted as saying in a North Dade Journal article, “having the Castaways next to Greynolds Park.” (Built in 1957, the Castaways was a raucous 540-room hotel in Sunny Isles with seven bars, a bevy of go-go dancers, and rock-star patrons that included the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. It was demolished in 1984 and replaced by a pair of high-rise luxury condos known as Oceania IV and Oceania V.)

NCoverStory_14orth Miami Beach residents Joe and Anne Davis have lived in a house at 23rd Avenue and NE 173rd Street for 30 years. The mention of the Hyatt doesn’t make them jump for joy. It makes Anne want to move.

“I sat in on that council meeting,” she remembers, referring to the September 2012 meeting when the nursing home parcel was rezoned. “I was shocked that they [the mayor and council] were not listening to what everybody was saying. There is no building anywhere near that height…and this is going to be next door.”

The Davises frequently visit Greynolds Park, often riding there on bicycles. How the Hyatt would affect Greynolds isn’t their primary concern. They’re more worried about traffic the project will generate. Traffic at the intersection, the Davises say, already backs up during peak hours.

“If they wanted to put up a five- or six-story building that will blend in and not be a heavy impact on traffic, and all the infrastructure, that would be one thing,” says Joe Davis, a retired Miami-Dade firefighter. “What they’re planning is huge.”

Keith Donner, Braha Dixie’s lobbyist, says the traffic plans are still being worked out, but he insists that the project is in compliance with the city’s traffic criteria. “As such our project can’t be denied for anything having to do with traffic,” he says.

Donner also rejects the notion that his clients should build something smaller. “A number of opponents have told me that they want nothing more than a two-story structure built on our site,” he notes. “That’s not going to happen…. There are not a lot of financially viable options for that property. If you want redevelopment, then this is it.”

“They obviously intended to do some condo project and couldn’t because the market crashed,” he theorizes. “They’re trying to get approval for some monster project and get a return on their investment.”Attorney Charles Baron believes Braha Dixie is trying to get the zoning it needs in order to increase the value of the land and recoup some of the money they sank into it. Braha Dixie bought the land from George Leader for nearly $10 million at the height of the real estate market. This year the Miami-Dade Property Appraiser estimates the market value of the parcel to be $794,680.


Donner says his clients, who invest in real estate projects, initially wanted to build a brand-new nursing home. “Nursing homes are not the easiest things to run,” he says. “So they looked at that and that didn’t make sense. So then [the plans] morphed into offices only, and that didn’t make any sense.”

But a mixed-use project anchored by a 110-room extended-stay Hyatt House and a 165-room limited-stay Hyatt Place? That’ll work, Donner says. “The nearest existing hotels on Biscayne Boulevard are 122nd Street in North Miami (Best Western) and at 191st Street in Aventura (Courtyard by Marriott),” Donner observes in an e-mail. “The Courtyard gets some unbelievably high rates and occupancy.”

Evidently, Hyatt agrees with Braha Dixie’s reasoning, at least thus far. Brett Lasher, Hyatt’s vice president of development, told the North Miami Beach City Council that his company approved a “dual brand” hotel at that site “going forward.”

Hyatt spokeswoman Sian Martin won’t say how committed the hotel chain is to the project. “We are certainly interested in increasing our brand representation in Miami, and we are actively pursuing opportunities to do so,” she says. “That said, it is our practice only to discuss transactions or potential deals once an agreement has been reached.”

Donner admits the project is far from being a done deal. Both the city’s planning board and the city council must approve the site plan before the project can break ground.

First, however, Braha Dixie will have to deal with the lawsuit, Charles Baron maintains. “Legally, no steps whatsoever can be taken while the lawsuit is pending,” he says, adding that he’ll take the case to the Third District Court of Appeal if it’s defeated in circuit court.

Regardless, Donner says his clients are proceeding with their plans. “The case is without merit,” he asserts, “and it will be dismissed at some point. Whether that is next month or two months from now or tomorrow, I don’t know. In the meantime, we are moving forward.”

Once the Hyatt is built, Donner predicts it will in fact benefit Greynolds Park by providing additional taxes that can be used to enhance security and maintenance at the park. “A few years from now,” he says, “we’ll look back on this and wonder what all the fuss was about.”


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