The Biscayne Times

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Aug 15th
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Written by Rob Jordan Photos by Silvia Ros   
October 2008

Biscayne Bay may be our area’s most prominent feature, but just try getting close to it

The only sound in the world, it seems, is the rhythmic splashing of paddle on sun-speckled water. Boat traffic is light, the wind low on this weekday morning. A silent current propels us north as we paddle our brightly colored kayaks along downtown Miami’s bayfront.

Rick Poston, a third-generation Miamian whose grandfather helped build Henry Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel at the mouth of the Miami River, is my travel companion. It’s his 66th birthday. A volunteer with the Florida Paddling Trails Association, Poston is a steward for the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail, overseeing a segment of the statewide trail that stretches from John Pennekamp State Park to the northern end of Biscayne Bay. He had good-naturedly agreed to come on this somewhat quixotic mission.

We are looking for portals into Miami’s soul. More specifically, we are looking for waterfront access points. Where and how can the average person get to the bay at any point along the ten-mile stretch from downtown’s high-rise canyons to the mangrove forests of Oleta River State Park? Not just get to the water, but get in it to cool off, swim, launch a boat, or just float around.

The waterfront, after all, is synonymous with Miami. It is one of the main reasons millions flock here for vacations and new lives. It is a point of meditation, a source of sustenance literally and spiritually, an ecological wonderland.

But for many Miamians, perhaps most, the waterfront remains out of reach, concealed behind the walls of condominiums and private homes, or posted with signs prohibiting fishing, swimming, loitering, and a host of other innocent activities. As a 2006 study by the Trust for Public Land put it: “…A surprising number of South Florida residents rarely encounter the beautiful waters that characterize our community.”

“Who is the waterfront for?” asks Greg Bush, a founder and current vice president of programs for the Urban Environment League of Greater Miami. “Is it for the people with the fancy condos that overlook the water?” Bush would like to see schools mandate waterfront outings to familiarize local children with Biscayne Bay’s ecology. “How many kids as close as Overtown see the waterfront at their front door? To me, it’s just really sad.”

Past the relatively new promenade that stretches from the Miami River to Bayfront Park – roughly from SE 4th Street to NE 4th Street – and the American Airlines Arena, we float by Bicentennial Park’s empty, mainly shadeless expanse. Slated for a major and controversial renovation, Bicentennial will become Museum Park, home to the Miami Art Museum and the Museum of Science. Plans also call for extending a baywalk through the park, which stretches from 9th to 12th streets. The only apparent activity this morning isn’t really activity at all – someone dozes by the water. A few steel ladders scale the imposingly high seawall at long intervals, but otherwise there is no way of reaching the water.

Limited as it is, Bicentennial Park represents a historic step forward for Miami in terms of waterfront access. Less than 40 years ago, the area was a collection of old warehouses, port facilities, and a contaminated oil depository. In the Seventies, the city carved out a waterfront parcel, and began transforming it into a 30-acre park. Before then, the issue of waterfront access was barely a whisper in Miami thanks to geography and politics.

During the early part of the 20th Century, developers created the shoreline out of watery mangrove wilds. “All you had to do was get your dredge and start making land out of water,” historian Arva Moore Parks says of the era. How could the public have a right to land that hadn’t even existed a few years earlier?

In Miami’s early days, large estates along Brickell Avenue and northward gobbled up waterfront land. Over time, most of these properties were broken up and developed as condominiums or smaller private homes. A few were deeded to the city or county as parkland, according to Parks. Even with the newly available waterfront, however, local residents didn’t necessarily rush to take advantage, Parks says. Herself a native of Miami Shores, Parks recalls thinking of Biscayne Bay as dirty. The ocean was the destination. “You wouldn’t go to the bay,” she recalls.

As late as the 1960s, waterfront lots along the Miami River and parts of the bay were used for parking garages. At least one trailer park occupied prime waterfront real estate near 109th Street. “It’s interesting the way people viewed waterfront,” Parks says. “They just didn’t seem to appreciate it.”

That lack of appreciation was reflected in Biscayne Bay itself. The bay struggled for decades with fluctuating salinity levels owing to the canal and water-control system. Direct discharge of sewage into the bay and its tributaries continued until the 1950s.

Conditions have improved markedly since the county created a management plan for the bay in the Eighties. Today the overall health of the bay and its seagrass beds is “outstanding” and people should not think twice about swimming or fishing, according to Susan Markley, a senior biologist with the county’s Department of Environmental Resources Management.

As Poston and I paddle on, he points out the Miami Herald building just north of the MacArthur Causeway. He helped build it as a young ironworker before shipping off to Vietnam with the Marine Corps. Now a structural engineer, he has spent years inspecting waterfront buildings such as the Herald’s headquarters, which he’s certain is headed for the wrecking ball. “This is going to be a condo,” he predicts. “A huge condo.”

We pause for a few minutes to appreciate the building’s private waterfront, lined with benches, palms, and flowering plants. No one is enjoying the view at this hour. But then, only Herald employees are allowed there. It’s fenced off to the public.

Not much farther along, we glide past Margaret Pace Park. Remodeled five years ago, the eight-acre park is a waterfront gem amid the new, sparkling condo high-rises that line N. Bayshore Drive between 17th and 21st streets. Again, not much activity on a weekday morning, but we spot a couple of areas where adventurous souls could slide a kayak into the water or go for a dip.

From Pace Park, it is a while before we come upon another good water access spot. In the meantime, there are at least a dozen dead-end streets in the 20s and 30s that allow at least a glimpse of the bay, albeit crowded by parked cars and “No fishing, swimming, or loitering” signs. There’s plenty of grassy space to stretch out where 28th Street meets an inlet, and another shoreline empty lot between 31st and 32nd streets, both unbuilt high-rise sites. A few condominium parking lots here and there command priceless waterfront views.

More hopeful are the occasional small waterfront walkways where newer buildings meet the bay. A 1979 amendment to Miami’s city charter requires that all newly constructed buildings be sited at least 50 feet back from the water to allow for public walkways.

Longtime Miami attorney and activist Dan Paul, the amendment’s champion, recalls, “The government was primitive. They didn’t stand up and show any leadership to the public in terms of preserving these places.” Since then, however, local government has not become as enlightened as Paul had hoped. Using a provision in the charter, the city commission has granted numerous waivers to the mandatory setback.

“People feel helpless, powerless about a lot of the decisions made about the waterfront,” Poston says. Developers, he points out, are generally the largest contributors to local political campaigns. One of their primary concerns is protecting their stake in waterfront land. “The waterfront,” Poston says with a nod toward the shore. “That’s where the money is.”

For some, the waterfront is also a kind of sanctuary. At 27th Street, a man holding a bible stares out on the blue expanse. He seems to be intoning prayers. Nearby is a solitary fisherman, seated on an upturned bucket and holding his fishing rod as though it were an afterthought. Urban anglers like him seem to be the most common waterfront habitués.

Crossing under the Julia Tuttle Causeway at 36th Street, we come across a few little waterfront spots in quick succession. There’s Stearns Park, a tiny, dog-friendly piece of green below and between the causeway’s east-bound and west-bound lanes. Then there’s Magnolia Park, a somewhat grander open space that features a waterfront gazebo and riprap in place of a seawall. Tiptoeing into the water looks quite possible here, but signs clearly prohibit such frivolity.

Between 40th and 50th streets is the private community of Bay Point. You can look at the sprawling homes from the water, but good luck to any nonresident trying to get past the guard gate and anywhere close to the waterfront.

Next up is Morningside Park, a grand dame of bayfront parks, stretching from 50th Terrace to 55th Terrace. The nearly 40-acre park inside the historic Morningside neighborhood offers not only a wide boat ramp but also a smaller ramp and floating dock for paddle craft. Kayak rentals are available here Friday through Sunday for only $5 an hour.

Another boat-ramp option is nearby at Legion Park. It’s not so much in the park as next to it, at the end of 64th Street, though it is managed by the city’s parks department. The floating docks here and at Morningside double as great ways to slip into the water for a swim.

A few blocks north of Legion Park is Baywood Park, a shoebox-size green space at 70th Street favored by dog-walkers. A seawall cancels the likelihood of getting in or out of the water. In fact, high seawalls and private homes block access to the water from here north to the 79th Street Causeway.

Just past the causeway, Poston and I decide to call it a day. As we pull up to a seemingly abandoned dock, Poston recalls coming to the spot when it was Mike Gordon’s restaurant, one of the area’s only bayfront eateries. Now a lonely-looking sales center announces plans for two 20-story condominium towers called Oasis.

On another day, I set out from Pelican Harbor Marina just off the 79th Street Causeway. My paddling partners for the first few hundred yards are Marsha Colbert and Pamela Sweeney, manager and environmental specialist respectively of the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve. The state-protected preserve is made up of two separate portions of the bay, one to the north of Biscayne National Park (our location) and one to the south. In all, the preserve encompasses 69,000 acres, or 107 square miles of submerged land. Combined with the 256-square-mile Biscayne National Park, it is a body of water spreading more broadly than the Netherlands Antilles.

Colbert and Sweeney speak energetically and enthusiastically about the bay, its unique attributes, all the wonders it has to offer. Including the preserve and the national park. Biscayne Bay, they explain, is a shallow lagoon with an average depth of six to ten feet. It is carpeted with seagrass beds and inhabited by more than 500 species of fish and more than 800 bottom-dwelling (benthic) species, such as shrimp, crabs, sponges, and spiny lobsters.

Endangered creatures such as sea turtles and manatees roam these waters. So do all feather of birds. The bay is a major stopover for migrating North American shorebirds, with several islands serving as important rookeries, boisterous with the racket of different avian conversations. “People drive to the Keys to interact with species that are right here,” Colbert says with some exasperation.

After exploring a few islands that have been replanted with native species as part of a county project, we go our separate ways.

In quick succession, there’s a long, narrow inlet between 83rd and 84th streets and another between 86th and 87th. There’s Lake Belmar at 89th Street and Lake Ward at 90th Street. Two gardeners on their haunches look up at me and wave. A maid in uniform scurries from one room to another across an elegant house’s patio. But it’s all private property. No parks and nowhere to sit by the water here. And then, all of a sudden, there is.

At 94th Street a dramatic seawall rises up to a green railing. This is Miami Shores Village Bayfront Park. It’s about three blocks long, a narrow but pleasant strip of parkland. A long-haired young man on a bench is the only person using it on this day. Signs prohibit fishing and dog-walking. A prominent security camera surveys the scene from its perch on a tree.
At the foot of 105th Street, an elderly gentlemen is sitting on a bench at the mouth of the Biscayne Canal. The spot is owned by the Shores Condominium, where he lives. He says doesn’t know of anywhere for a regular Joe to get to the water between the canal and Oleta State Park. He’s half right.

Past a ghostly empty marina around 112th Street, at the foot of the Broad Causeway at 123rd Street, is a unique little locale. It’s called North Bayshore William Lehman Park. Badly damaged during Hurricane Wilma in 2005, the pocket park’s wooden boardwalk remains closed, leaning precariously over the water. It’s a shame, because it looks like a good spot to get up close and personal with the bay. People used to fish from it, hoping to land something big from the offshore reef.

The rest of the park is open, and there’s even a worn-down patch of shoreline that would be perfect as a ramp for your kayak or canoe. The park, owned and maintained by the City of North Miami, is open from sunrise to sunset and offers great views of the Intracoastal Waterway and a few islands.

From the Broad Causeway north to the campus of Florida International University, it’s pretty bleak for seekers of the waterfront: private homes and condos all the way -- not even a dead-end street.

The sense of opportunity lost continues up to FIU, where the shoreline becomes something altogether different. In places sandy or rocky, in others lined with mangroves, the coast here is calm and inviting. There are plenty of great waterfront walking trails, one of which you can reach from NE 135th Street in the Arch Creek East neighborhood, and plenty of beautiful spots to sit and take in the view. Low-lying areas close to the water abound. Unfortunately most of them are studded with signs prohibiting fishing, swimming, and “watercraft landing.”

More and more cities in the U.S. and abroad are realizing the potential of their waterfronts as public resources. As of last year, New York City had about 60 miles of waterfront access in the plans or under construction. New York law mandates new buildings provide public access to the waterfront and “view corridors” from the street.

Unlike many cities, however, Miami’s waterfront was never abandoned or blighted by large-scale industrial development. Therefore other cities’ tactics for reclaiming waterfront land -- easements from private property owners, the use of eminent domain, or simply making cheap purchases -- haven’t been available to Miami. But, says Ann Breen, co-director of The Waterfront Center, a Washington-based nonprofit educational group, there is hope for the Magic City.

After all, Milwaukee managed to avoid private-property issues on its riverfront by building a public promenade out over the Milwaukee River using stilts. Philadelphia’s city planners got moving on the long-stagnant Penns’ Landing waterfront when a University of Pennsylvania group held public meetings on the subject and presented a civic vision for redevelopment.
“It takes leadership,” Breen says. Miami needs political and business officials to team up with other community leaders on a plan for meaningful public access, Breen argues. “Somebody’s got to step up to the plate,” she says. “I feel sorry for Miami. It deserves better.”

There has been no shortage of talk and planning for waterfront access over the years, especially in the City of Miami. Ever since passage of the so-called Dan Paul amendment mandating a 50-foot setback, many city officials have envisioned grand waterfront plans. Despite this, Miami 21, the massive land-use document intended as a blueprint for the city’s long-term development, sets forth no specific intention to increase waterfront access.

There are, however, separate proposals for promenades and green spaces along the water at locations such as Dinner Key in Coconut Grove and Bicentennial Park. There is also a stated goal to continue downtown’s baywalk, now little more than a connection from the Miami River’s mouth to Bayfront Park, well up the river and as far north along the bay as possible.
As more people begin to appreciate the value of the waterfront, they will demand more access to it, Dan Paul believes. “The public,” he notes, “has been asleep from the point of view of their rights.”

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