The Biscayne Times

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Private Interests and Public Parks PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
September 2014

A clash of ideas over the future of Morningside Park in Miami’s Upper Eastside

AMorningsidePark_1t 45-acres, Morningside Park is the second-largest public park in the City of Miami. In addition to access to Biscayne Bay, the park has wide expanses of green space, winding paved paths, seven tennis courts, a basketball court, a swimming pool, a boat ramp, a kayak launch, a playground, a community center, a baseball field, and a primitive soccer field.

As the name implies, Morningside Park is located within the Upper Eastside Miami neighborhood of Morningside. In spite of the traffic barricades that surround the neighborhood of 440 homes, the park draws people living in surrounding neighborhoods, including those west of Biscayne Boulevard.

The park is so popular that a civil war is brewing in Morningside over the future of the space -- a conflict spreading beyond the posh neighborhood’s barricades.

On one side are various members of the Morningside Civic Association who want to tap into $100 million in “park impact fees” the city has collected from developers. They’d like to make improvements at the park.

“Beyond upgrading existing facilities, this is also an excellent time to revisit the overall park design to find solutions for parking, security, increased access to the waterfront, infrastructure improvements, increased shade trees, and open greenspaces,” writes Marc Billings, president of the Morningside Civic Association, in a statement to the BT. “For this purpose, the MCA has begun working with professional [consultants] to study the park to assure that as a community we have the best park resources for the Upper Eastside, Morningside residents, and the city as a whole.”

MorningsidePark_2On the other side are those who generally like the park the way it is and worry that a small group with an agenda is manipulating the process. Longtime Morningside resident and avid boater Tom Domack is among them. He thinks that some MCA members want to phase out the boat dock for motorized boating use.

As a result, Domack is forming his own organization to preserve the rights of boat owners at Morningside Park. “I’ve handed out over 500 flyers to boaters, fisherman, and marine business owners,” he says.

Basketball court regulars, many of whom are black and live outside of white-majority Morningside, say they’re also ready to mobilize to protect the court they’ve been using for years. “I heard the tennis people complain because we make too much noise,” says 40-year-old Patrick Estiuen, who has played at Morningside Park’s court since he was 16 and now commutes from Miami Gardens.

Billings insists that changes within the park are years away and will be up to the City of Miami, which owns and operates the park. All the MCA board wants, he says, is to get Morningside residents talking about how to improve the park. “Frankly I’m trying to contemplate a way to not get in the way of what seems to be great momentum already,” he tells the BT. “What I don’t want to do is [provoke] polarizing opinions. That’s not really a job I volunteered for.”

Elvis Cruz, a Morningside activist and a dissenting member of the MCA’s parks committee, points out that committee members have already listed their goals in an outline. Those goals include replacing the parking lot by the boat ramp with grass, getting rid of the basketball court and moving it to a different park, expanding the tennis facilities, demolishing the pool and replacing it with a new facility, reducing the number of looping roads in the park, and creating a new soccer field.

Billings says the outline simply listed ideas put forth by a number of MCA members. They are, he says, individual points of view.

MorningsidePark_3But Domack, Cruz, and other critics of major alterations maintain that the pro-renovation side is being sneaky. Following a lively meeting at Morningside Park’s community center on August 18, which included the city’s new parks director, Stan Motley, a public meeting notice for the MCA’s parks committee for the next day was withdrawn. Yet Billings soon learned that the August 19 meeting was held anyway. Among those in attendance at the meeting: Stan Motley.

Bradley Colmer, chair of the MCA’s parks committee, says the Tuesday meeting wasn’t intended to be public and was just an educational session on processes with the city’s parks director. Both he and Billings insist they don’t want to operate in secret. In fact, they hope to host a public charrette on possible improvements for Morningside Park in the near future.

“Our efforts are designed not only to activate greater community involvement and enhanced experience at the park,” says Billings, “but to position Morningside Park positively to receive the funds necessary to materially improve the park’s infrastructure and facilities.”

Cruz doesn’t think Morningside Park needs a massive overhaul, just maintenance. Unfortunately, the city has more money dedicated to capital improvements than it does for services.

“The ‘neglect, demolish, and rebuild’ syndrome is enabled because the money that should be available soon is coming from impact fees,” Cruz states in an e-mail. “That money can be used to buy land for new parks or for new construction (capital improvements), but it can’t be used for maintenance or staffing.”

Dredged from Biscayne Bay in 1953, Morningside Park originally had sandy beaches, cabanas, and a 14-acre hibiscus flower garden. There were even bus tours to the park. The pool, tennis courts, and basketball court were added in 1953.

The city made other enhancements over the years, many of which weren’t popular with parkgoers, Domack says. Around 25 years ago, boulders and concrete blocks were placed atop the beaches. When Hurricane Andrew wiped out the hibiscus garden, “the city wouldn’t let us replace it,” he says.

In more recent years, Domack says, the city developed a boat warehouse near the pool that it then couldn’t afford to staff; created a sandy volleyball court that residents demanded to be removed; and installed an iron fence that surrounded the pool area but also prevented access to part of Biscayne Bay.

Billings, though, says Morningside Park needs much more than maintenance. The pool facility is disintegrating, the surface of the tennis courts is cracked, the playground is constantly hit by speeding baseballs from the neighboring ball field, and the kayak/paddleboard launch is failing. He’d also like to see the iron fence removed, an action that is technically a capital improvement.

“While Mr. Cruz has excellent points as it relates to lack of maintenance of the park, according to park officials, the key facilities of the park -- such as pool, tennis courts, and boat ramp -- are beyond the point where simple maintenance will restore the facilities to full utilization,” says Billings. “We must look to capital improvement financial resources, such as the impact fees, to create upgrades that can be classified as new construction.”

Colmer says he’d like to see the parking lot by the boat ramp made smaller and replaced with grass. It tends to flood there, he notes, and besides, there aren’t a lot of people who launch their vessels from Morningside Park’s boat ramp. The park’s bayfront is mainly used by kayakers and paddleboarders.

Domack counters that most motorized boat operators think the city has already closed Morningside Park’s boat ramp. The ramp is limited to a few hours of use on the weekend. He also recently discovered that the city had closed the boat ramp for the summer without any public notice.

“My interest is simple,” he says. “I’m a boater, and I’ll be damned if someone is going to take away a public ramp, public access, or limit it or hinder it in any way. This treads on boaters’ rights to federal and state waters, and a boating public that’s way bigger than a civic association in Morningside.”

 

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