|Giving Way to Green|
|Written by Jim W. Harper -- BT Contributor|
Town Center Park in Sunny Isles Beach is a former strip-mall site transformed into an oasis for the city’s children
The City of Sunny Isles Beach packs in towering condominiums throughout the thin strip of land it occupies between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway. It also seems intent on packing in parks. Before long, Gateway Park -- at 163rd Street, on the former site of a strip mall -- will become the city’s tenth park, providing a substantial link between the city’s historic Newport Pier, currently under reconstruction, and the Intracoastal.
Since Gateway is still nothing more than an empty lot surrounded by a turquoise fence, however, we’ll turn our attention a bit farther north to another park adjacent to Collins Avenue: Town Center Park.
This park is mostly invisible from ground level, and one of the first things visitors encounter is a sign dissuading them from entering: “Protected Habitat Beyond Fence: No Trespassing.” Fortunately, there’s only one part of Town Center Park that you cannot enter, a state-protected wetlands that honors the “Original Creator of the Sunny Isles area, Harvey Baker Graves,” according to a plaque located in the park’s accessible, playground area. This “Mangrove Preserve” was dedicated in 2007.
The preserve is shaped like a golf club, with the rounded head section visible from the playground, but the shaft remains hidden as a long, thin strip of land, about 30 feet wide, that parallels a canal. (The side connected to land is mostly hidden by a long apartment complex, and the fence is formidable. Trespassing simply would not be worth the effort.)
This narrow section of protected wetlands is both commendable and lamentable. Commendable because it reminds us of what used to cover the area; lamentable because it is laughably small. Just around the corner is the massive Oleta River State Park and its hundreds of acres of mangroves, so by comparison the approximately two acres here seems like a lost piece of a puzzle. Several invasive plants, such as Brazilian pepper, are visible.
Another lamentable attribute is the lack of accessibility: The children playing in the park can only see what appears to be a wall of vegetation being held prisoner behind a black iron fence.
Do not waste your time, like I did, trying to walk and drive around the neighborhood to get a closer look at the wetlands. You will get stuck between a private parking lot on one side and the canal on the other.
For the average soccer mom and child visiting Town Center Park, the essential “park” is the half that consists mainly of an open, grassy field surrounded by a walking trail and corners of activity. The park gets a lot of traffic in every sense, being that it faces Collins Avenue and that it offers the most centrally located of the six public playgrounds in Sunny Isles Beach.
For the more mature crowd, the park’s walking path and exercise stations offer a change of pace from the beach across the street -- not that you can see the beach, as it is obscured by this strip’s expansive condominiums. On the other hand, the vertical views of the condominiums impress, especially on a clear day.
In stark contrast to the towers of white and blue are the two human-scale sculptures along Collins Avenue: One features three tiny tots in bronze playing ring-around-the-rosie, while the other, unnamed modern piece is a purple zigzag that creates the optical illusion of three floating cartons. They seem to be asking, “Why not here?”
Town Center Park opened in 2005, replacing a strip mall (that seems to be a theme in Sunny Isles Beach), and today serves small children best of all. A wide, square lawn is large enough for tossing Frisbees and kicking soccer balls. The main playground near the entrance has a pavilion where parents can rest in the shade while their kids tumble around on the gleaming playground equipment. Yes, children, you are free to squeal.
But the biggest draw of all may be the addition in 2011 of a skate park. Tucked away in the main section’s northwest corner, the skate park charges an entrance fee. For residents it’s $2 on weekdays and $5 on weekends; for visitors, $4 and $7, respectively.
To a nonskater like myself, it looks “cool,” but not necessarily intimidating, as the tallest point seems no higher than a few feet. The unmarked concrete structure is somewhat larger than a basketball court, and it has steps, railings, and a curved wall in the back with a ramp. Shining in the sun, the smooth concrete wall resembles aluminum.
Opening times for the skate park vary (after 3:00 p.m. on school days), and it closes daily at 7:00 p.m. Waivers and helmets are required, and helmets and skateboards can be rented onsite from Sugar’s Drop Shop. (Note to skate boys and girls: Wheels are not allowed in the rest of the park, so you will have to carry your skateboard until you reach the designated entrance.)
Town Center Park has signs at the main entrance explaining its many rules. “Park in marked stalls only.” “No skates. No skateboards. No bicycles.” “Lightning Warning.” “No rough or injurious activity.” “No fires, cooking, or tents.” “Thou shalt not sue.” (I made up that last one.)
Two conveniences also make this park noteworthy: bathrooms and free parking. Many signs warn visitors by car to visit the park only; if you wander across the street to eat at Epicure or head over to the beach, you are inviting the tow truck.
Town Center Park is clean, pleasant, and kid-friendly. There are plenty of benches, but no tables. Its fitness stations dispense witty advice, such as: “A positive attitude may not solve all of your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.”
The park’s mixture of elements creates a little something for everyone. It seems to be singing, “I’m a little bit swampy, I’m a little bit upper class.”
Volume 12, Issue 8. October 2014
The Smithsonian honors a local documentary photographer
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