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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
April 2018

Neighbors want to block Morningside Park historic designation

TPark_1here’s a conflict brewing over the future of Morningside Park, a 64-year-old, 42-acre waterfront expanse that’s surrounded by a historic, predominately affluent residential neighborhood with only two vehicular entry points, both of which feature guard gates.

On one side are a group of local homeowners who’d like to see Morningside Park, the second-largest park in the City of Miami, redesigned from its old 1950s-era configuration.

On the other side are residents who fear those improvements will make the park less accessible to those who live outside Morningside.

Thrust into the middle of the dispute are five city commissioners, including Ken Russell, a congressional candidate and Coconut Grove resident whose district includes Morningside Park.

On April 26, Russell and his colleagues on the Miami City Commission are scheduled to hear an appeal of Morningside Park’s historic designation, filed by nine Morningside residents, eight of whom are board members of neighborhood’s homeowner group, the Morningside Civic Association (MCA).

In their January 30 letter, the appellants argue that the historic designation, which was granted by the city’s Historic and Environmental Protection Board on January 2, should wait until after a $100,000-plus report on Morningside Park’s renovation is completed by AECOM, a national consulting firm.

“Our preference is to allow the parks department to propose options to the community at large unimpeded by the restrictions of designation,” states Marc Billings, an MCA board member and one of appellants, in an e-mail to the BT. Once that plan is approved by the community and city planners, he adds, historic designation can be “revisited.”

However, many Morningside Park users insist historic designation won’t prevent any needed improvements to the park. Instead, they argue, historic designation will require a public hearing prior to the removal of significant elements of the park -- namely the vehicular loop road, parking spaces, swimming pool, baseball field, boat ramp, and basketball court.

“Morningside Park was very well designed, with a scenic loop road that allows easy and convenient access to various activity areas, like the swimming pool, the open green space where soccer is often played, the picnic area, the Palmetum and the boat ramp,” says longtime Morningside resident and activist Elvis Cruz.

Park_2And while those features are popular with parkgoers, Cruz points out that some Morningside residents want to remove them.

“I was told by one of them that, ‘This is all about the gentrification of the Upper Eastside,’ and ‘The basketball court attracts the wrong demographic,’” asserts Cruz, an MCA board member.

Billings insists that he and his fellow appellants just want to see AECOM present its proposed suggestions on Morningside Park’s redesign, which will be based on consultations with city planners and parkgoers. Of paramount concern, Billings claims, is making Morningside Park resilient against flooding.

He notes that, prior to the HEP Board vote, both the parks department and the city’s planning department wanted to delay historic designation until after AECOM finishes its report.

“The City of Miami Parks and Recreation Department is studying ways to harden the city against sea level rise, and Morningside Park is one area of that study and future work effort,” says Billings, an entrepreneur who founded Blackdove Inc., a company that makes video wall screens to display visual art.

He adds that “the parks department is considering spending additional dollars to update and improve elements of the park that will be enjoyed by Morningside Park users for decades to come.”

Kevin Kirwin, the city’s parks and recreation director, says via e-mail that AECOM’s report should be finished within three months. Kirwin adds that although the study was originally started eight months ago to “gauge the effects and impacts of sea level rise,” it also seeks to “improve the operational sustainability of the park for all city residents.”

Kirwin didn’t provide a figure for how much the city would spend to improve Morningside Park. However, in an e-mail sent to Morningside residents on January 16, MCA president David Holtzman declared that “the city’s interest in investing $20-$30 [million] into Morningside Park will have an immensely positive impact on our popular values.”

Some Morningside homes are already pretty pricey. Although there are studio condominiums in the Morningside area listing on Redfin.com for as low as $123,000, modern bayfront houses ask up to $14 million.

And while Morningside has its fair share of retirees and the working class, there are plenty of attorneys, business owners, and real estate developers. Holtzman, for example, is vice president of Dacra, the Craig Robins-headed company that led the redevelopment of the Miami Design District. Jonathan Raiffe, another Morningside MCA board member appealing historic designation, is senior vice president of Adler Development Inc., a real estate company that owns and develops properties throughout Florida. James “Jamie” Rosenberg, the only appellant who is not an MCA board member, is the founder of AdoptAClassroom.org and ClassWallet.com.

Park_3

Besides Billings, the rest of the Morningside residents appealing the park’s historic designation include real estate agent Ignacio Villanueva, former engineer Pedro da Silva, recent New York transplant Mike Evans, and attorneys Michael Puchades and Eli Stiers.

In their appeal letter, the critics of historic designation already advocate the “closure or redesign of the loop road” as a key potential improvement that would create more space for pedestrians, bicyclists, and vegetation. “Quite simply, 21st Century parks are for people, not cars,” the letter declares. “Yet the HEPB designation appears to favor a use and purpose of the loop road which actively detracts from the park’s value, at best, and preserves a conspicuously unsafe and unnecessary aspect of the car, at worst. Worse, this homage to 1950s American car culture handicaps our Parks Department’s ability to maximize the full potential of Morningside Park.”

“As if the car is any less popular now than it was in the 1950s,” scoffs Alexandra de Lara, an educator and regular Morningside Park user who lives west of Biscayne Boulevard near Little Haiti. The loop road, de Lara says, is what enables people who live outside of Morningside to drive to that park, especially Little Haiti dwellers. Removing the road, she maintains, will make it harder for people living outside of the neighborhood to picnic or play soccer in that park, and that, she believes, is the intent: to dissuade non-white and working-class families from visiting a park that’s surrounded by a predominately white neighborhood.

“It’s clear to me they want to keep a certain demographic out,” says de Lara, a Haitian American.

De Lara says the appeal letter reminds her of a June 2014 email of goals circulated among Morningside residents that included removing parking spaces, demolishing or replacing the pool, eliminating “unnecessary roadways and vehicular “cruising” of the park, getting rid of the baseball field, and moving the park’s basketball court to another Upper Eastside Park.

“This park should ultimately be upgraded to address the changing character of our neighborhood and the preferred uses of our larger community,” declared an outline from the Morningside Park and Public Spaces Committee.

In another e-mail sent in June 2014, Billings, then president of the MCA, listed the creation of a “yoga/exercise” area as among the new amenities that could be created in Morningside Park if the basketball court was relocated

When the e-mails were shared with the BT more than three years ago, Billings told this paper that goals like removing the basketball court were merely ideas (see “Private Interests and Public Parks,” September 2014.)

Park_4

The suggestion of removing the basketball court alarmed some area residents and parkgoers. It was enough to inspire George Perez, a 19-year-old college student who grew up in Morningside, to collect more than 1000 signatures from park users in favor of preserving the park. Perez says he made friends with people who live in areas like Little Haiti while playing basketball at Morningside. But besides saving the basketball court, Perez says he hopes historic designation will encourage the city to properly maintain the park.

Originally part of the Buena Vista settlement that predated Miami’s existence, much of the land that would become Morningside Park was once owned by William Gleason, a controversial politician who briefly served as Florida’s lieutenant governor and acting governor in 1868, before he was ousted by the state senate.

In subsequent years, the land was owned by Roney Plaza Hotel developer Newton Baker Taylor and Coral Gables founder George Merrick.

In 1952, under the leadership of P. Raymond Plumer, Miami’s parks director at the time, the city invested $300,000 to turn a 42-acre tract into a public park. Besides building “ancillary buildings” like a pool with 35 cabanas, a field house, a baseball field, and a boat ramp, Plumer created one of the largest hibiscus gardens in the country, spanning 15 acres and including 5000 hibiscus plants, according to a HEP Board report prepared by historic preservation officer Warren Adams. Plumer also created “an artificial tidal lake” and a winding canal.

“One of the most striking features of the plan,” the report states, “is the curvilinear layout of the walkways, the canal, and long sweeping driveway leading to parking areas, which was designed for the rise in popularity of the automobile at the time.”

Hurricane Andrew killed off the hibiscus garden, and the cabanas by the pool are gone. However, much of the park’s original layout remains. Local historian Paul George says that Morningside Park is indeed historic. “What made it compelling to me,” he says, “is that the year that this park was created, the automobile dictated its design.”

Instead of spending millions of dollars ripping the park apart, Elvis Cruz says the city could save millions of dollars by maintaining what’s there and repairing the pool.

“There is much local culture and history associated with the pool,” Cruz states. “The pool is well located and designed, set back 120 feet from the bay, and very solidly built. It has a relatively small amount of concrete spalling, which is a simple repair.”

Kirwin insists that the pool “has been found to be structurally unsound through a study conducted by a certified engineer.” However, Kirwin adds, “the repair or replacement of the pool is being evaluated at this time.”

Besides the 1000-plus signatures obtained by Perez, Alexandra de Lara gathered 525 signatures online through Change.org in favor of designating Morningside Park historic. In contrast, a petition of some 70 signatures was presented to the city, historic preservation officer Adams told the HEP Board on January 2.

Assuming the historic designation remains, Kirwin states that he’ll just include the HEP Board in the parks department’s resilience plans for Morningside Park. “We clearly heard from the members of the HEP Board that would welcome an opportunity to listen to proposed actions that would save the park and elements of the park from impacts [of] sea level rise,” Kirwin tells the BT in an e-mail.

 

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