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Picking Our Pocket PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jay Beskin -- BT Contributor   
January 2013

New development threatens to rob Aventura of George Berlin Park

TPix_JayBeskin_1-13his past November, the mayor of London announced he will create or enhance 100 new pocket parks across his city. Those of us who grew up in large urban areas are familiar with pocket parks. They are small, public spaces created from vacant lots or other forgotten spots frequently scattered throughout an urban area. They are used for events, as children’s play areas, and as spaces for relaxing and meeting.

The late Jane Jacobs, goddess of new urbanism, wrote that parks do not act upon neighborhoods, but that neighborhoods act upon parks. Hence, a pocket park will have a greater likelihood of success if located in an area where there is significant foot traffic.

Aventura has one pocket park, but you won’t find it on the city’s parks and recreation website. It’s the small piece of land on the northeast corner of N. Country Club Drive and NE 34th Avenue, bounded by the Ensenada Condominiums on the east and a canal with a marina to the north. It is across the street from the Soffer walking path that rings the Turnberry golf course. It’s not an official park of the city because the land is privately owned.

For the longest time, no one could tell you who owned this parcel. For all we knew, its most recent owner had abandoned it. The city’s principal residential organization, the Joint Council of Aventura, took it upon itself to maintain the lot, although it did not install any amenities there that might have created a true park.

Then about eight or nine years ago, the Joint Council and the Aventura Marketing Council took a small step by designating the lot a park, naming it George Berlin Park.

George Berlin was an employee of Turnberry Associates and its principal, Don Soffer. Berlin was an engineer by training. His job in the 1970s and 1980s was to implement Soffer’s vision -- to take an area called Ojus, full of mangroves and scrub brush, and develop it into what we now know as Aventura.

Berlin secured the necessary zoning approvals, supervised the construction of the finely built country club, residential and commercial buildings, roadways, and other infrastructure, and attended to the providing of utilities to Aventura. Berlin knew where every easement, underground pipeline, and sprinkler head in our city was located.

Long after he retired from Turnberry Associates, Berlin would appear at city meetings to instruct officials on the history of the matter under consideration and to offer his opinion about whether a proposed physical change to the city would work to its benefit or detriment. While the city’s founders created our government, George Berlin created the place called Aventura, and it was fitting and proper that the Joint Council and Aventura Marketing Council should honor Berlin by naming a park for him.

Around the same time as the designation of George Berlin Park, someone in New York City opened an old file cabinet and discovered -- lo and behold -- one of their companies, Aventura-Ensenada, owned the park. And notwithstanding that the city commission had rezoned this land so that nothing could be built on it, Aventura-Ensenada’s attorney advised his client that it had rights vested before the rezoning to build a dense development on the land. (What a windfall!)

Of course, Aventura-Ensenada threatened to build. When the city resisted, Aventura-Ensenada sued the city. In 2005 the parties entered into a settlement agreement, under which the city agreed to permit low-density development there, about six or eight units, so long as the adjacent marina was preserved. And then the matter languished -- until now.

The owner of George Berlin Park has applied to the city to up-zone the land to multifamily, medium-density residential. If the zoning change is granted, low- and mid-rise apartments of up to four stories could be built there. The hearing is scheduled for January 8. No doubt, the owner will make the usual argument that the zoning agreed to under the settlement is no longer economically feasible, that denser development is necessary for the owner to make a few bucks.

Although our city commissioners are duty-bound to consider the application, perhaps they should redirect their focus to acquiring the property through purchase or eminent domain for development as a true pocket park.

There is a little secret in Aventura which is really not such a secret. Under Florida law, a municipality must preserve a certain portion of land as open space or for recreational use by its residents. The amount of land subject to this rule depends upon the municipality’s population.

This law recognizes the essentialness of recreational facilities for the well-being of residents. Because Aventura was substantially built out at the time of its incorporation, the city could not provide the recreational facilities mandated by law. Instead, the city includes the Turnberry golf course as a designated recreational space for purposes of satisfying the rule.

This may have made sense many years ago, when the golf course -- in its incarnation as the Aventura Country Club -- was reasonable in cost and an amenity available to all residents. Now the golf fees and club dues at the Turnberry Resort make use of the course prohibitive to all but a few of us.

While the purchase of George Berlin Park by the city will not satisfy the land-use requirements of state law, it would surely signal an attempt by the city to redress its deficiency in usable passive parks.

The passive park located in the southern portion of Founders Park has not had a positive impact. It is a wide swath of lawn and little else, seducing neither pedestrians nor drivers as a destination. Efforts to install Japanese gardens or a gazebo there have failed.

With proper planning, George Berlin Park could attract many walkers and bikers along the Soffer Trail and Country Club Drive for a break, contemplation, or children’s play -- the purposes for which pocket parks are best suited. All it might take are well-designed gardens, benches, walkways, and perhaps a fountain.

Or George Berlin Park can become one more development along Country Club Drive. Maybe the developer will put a wall around it. If the developer does, it should be called the Berlin Wall. At least George Berlin would continue to have his name inscribed somewhere in Aventura.

Although Berlin worked for the largest developer of them all, if he were alive today, it’s a sure bet he would appear before the city commission on January 8 to oppose this rezoning as detrimental to his city.

 

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