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Morningside Park Will Get a New Pool PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
September 2019

But the park’s overall redesign remains an unknown

APark_1fter pleading with parkgoers for consensus on how to renovate Morningside Park, City of Miami officials say they’ve received enough direction to proceed with a plan to revamp the entire 42-acre expanse -- a plan that includes demolishing the 65-year-old pool and constructing a replacement facility elsewhere within the park.

“I feel like we have consensus and we’re going to move with this general plan,” said Steve Williamson, the city’s director of the capital improvements.

Williamson made the proclamation after a two-and-a-half-hour workshop held on the muggy evening of August 21, attended by dozens of people, and held in the Morningside Park Community Center’s meeting room, which was cramped and lacked air conditioning.

Besides Morningside homeowners, the meeting was attended by avid parkgoers who live outside the affluent neighborhood, including a brief appearance by a contingent of sweaty men with baseball gloves, and suit-wearing Miami officials and consultants, including Mayor Francis Suarez and the city’s District 2 Commissioner, Ken Russell.

Tempers flared over differing opinions about whether or not rebuilding the pool, instead of simply repairing it, was even necessary; the possible elimination of a softball field; shrinking the size of the park’s loop road; and shifting around park features.

But Commissioner Russell reasons that such arguments are necessary in order for the city to get some sort of direction for Morningside Park’s future, “This was a good, cathartic experience to get the neighborhood together,” he tells the BT.

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And he insists that getting the neighborhood together is a needed step before he can secure up to $7 million in funds to revamp the park. Already, Russell says, funds that were previously earmarked for Morningside Park have been diverted to recreational spaces in another districts.

“The hardest part of any of these projects is to find the money and political will to spend it,” Russell says. “So the first part is that we have to fight, and then we start coming together.”

Eli Stiers, president of the Morningside Civic Association, says there are probably a hundred different ideas for improving the park. However, he thinks there’s just enough common ground to proceed with a generalized plan that can be tweaked into a more detailed master plan.

“The general plan is a strong plan,” he says. “It’s better than previous iterations I’ve seen, and I’m hopeful we can move forward with this.”

But outspoken Morningside activist Elvis Cruz says while some aspects of the general plan are good -- such as removing wooden bollards along the loop road and enhancing protections for the shoreline -- he insists there’s plenty of disagreement, especially regarding the proposal to build a new pool facility where the softball field now stands.

“They promised us repeatedly that this plan would be driven by public input. But nobody, and I mean nobody, asked for the pool to be moved to the softball field,” Cruz states in an e-mail to the BT.

Williamson says the city will take a second look at that idea. “If it [the softball field] is significantly used, we might have to take it in a different direction,” he explains.

Dredged from Biscayne Bay, Morningside Park was dedicated in 1953, and while some of its original features, including a hibiscus garden, no longer exist, its pool facility has stood by the bay from the very beginning. The loop road, a feature indicative of post-World War II car culture, has also always been present, as well as tennis courts, basketball courts, and a community center.

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Other features of the park include a winding pedestrian path, a freestanding restroom facility, a soccer field, a softball field, a boat ramp, a children’s playground, and picnic tables. A boathouse, located just south of the pool facility, was added in 2000.

The park is surrounded by Morningside, a predominately wealthy enclave of historic homes east of Biscayne Boulevard that’s only accessible by car through NE 50th and 58th streets, which are overseen by two guardhouses. (Because the streets are public, no one is denied entry, though security guards have been known to write down license plates.)

The future of Morningside Park has been debated for at least five years, sparked by a request from Morningside’s neighborhood association, the Morningside Civic Association, that the city modernize the park. Suggestions by a few MCA members to remove the pool, basketball courts, or the boat dock were often met with anger by parkgoers. (See “Private Interests and Public Parks,” September 2014.)

The fate of the pool took center stage in 2016, after the city declared it an unsafe structure and shut it down. Elvis Cruz pushed for the pool’s immediate renovation and collected a petition with 2100 signatures. He has insisted that three city engineering studies agreed that the pool could be fixed for as little as $3.5 million. (See “Not in the Swim of Things,” April 2019.)

But Joe Webb, a consultant affiliated with the strategic planning group AECOM, argued that fixing the pool facility would actually cost almost the same as building a new one, about $6.4 million. Webb also stated that keeping the pool in a flood zone is not sustainable, given climate-change projections. “We cannot ignore the fact that sea level is [projected] to rise, by 2030, six to ten inches, and by 2060, 26 inches higher,” he told meeting attendees.

Instead, Webb recommended that the pool be moved closer to the park’s entrance, where the softball field is now, allowing the bayfront area to be opened up. The ball field would be moved and joined with a multipurpose field in an area now usually used for soccer matches.

Park_4At first Cruz blasted Webb’s analysis, but by the end of the meeting was willing to accept the idea of a new pool facility. But in a subsequent exchange with the BT, he insists that the new pool be built at its current bayfront location. “That way we don’t lose assets. We don’t lose a softball field. We don’t lose the children’s playground,” he reasons. All those assets, Cruz adds, are not only used by adults, but by children as well, including children from outside the Morningside neighborhood.

Adds Ulysee Kemp, president of the Buena Vista Heights Neighborhood Association, who has visited the park for decades: “They got to build a new seawall anyway, so they’re going to protect the area. By putting in drainage, you’ll be able to reach the pool without going through a swamp.”

But many Morningside residents at the meeting liked the idea of a revamped pool being moved further toward the front of the park.

“For me, it’s bizarre that we have fellow residents who are fighting to rehab the pool when the city is going to give us a new pool in a much better location that opens the waterfront to the enjoyment of the entire community,” says Jonathan Lieberman, who has lived in Morningside for the past 20 years.

Some MCA members suggested that by shrinking the loop road, they could shift the park’s assets around in such a way that places more parking spaces by the front entrance of the park, allows for more green space, keeps the baseball field, and increases the size of the children’s park.

Jamie Rosenberg, chairman of the MCA’s parks committee, says such a reconfigured plan would not only create more greenspace, it would reduce the number of visitors parking their cars within the residential areas. “The biggest impact that the park has on the [Morningside] community is when people park outside of the park,” Rosenberg says.

Cruz says shrinking or removing the loop road will have adverse effect on Morningside Park’s primary visitors: its picnickers. Currently, people only have to walk about 70 feet from parking spaces near the loop road. By shifting the parking to the front, they would have to walk more than 400 yards with their coolers and other gear to the picnic area. That’s another reason Cruz thinks the park’s assets can be upgraded while staying at their present locations. “This park is extremely well designed,” he asserts.

Eli Stiers disagrees: “The park has suffered from decades of poor maintenance, mangroves have taken over the basin, the walking paths are rutted and cracked, and walking into the bathroom here is…ugh.”

Stiers’s harshest criticism is aimed at the loop road. It was fine in the 1950s, when people wanted to take a drive in the park, Stiers says, but not in a modern city where greenspace is at a premium. Besides, he says, it’s a potential safety hazard for young children: “In my opinion, parks were made for people and not cars.”

The revamped park also won’t just be for people living in Morningside, Stiers adds. “We’re not looking for a park that will serve any one person or any one subset of people,” he says. “We want a good park for the city. I think everyone is in agreement that something needs to be done with this park. This park needs significant infrastructure and investment from the city.”

In recent years, there have been reports that some Morningside residents want to discourage outsiders from visiting the park. That infuriates Andrea Lieberman, wife of Jonathan Lieberman. “I feel, from knowing my neighbors, that that is furthest from the truth,” she says. “Everything that we’re contributing to the conversation is about inviting people in and making it a park that everyone can enjoy.”

Cruz notes that he has read e-mails from Morningside residents who do want to discourage outsiders from visiting, hence the previous suggestions of eliminating the pool or removing the basketball courts. Nevertheless, Cruz says, most of the people who attended the workshop, even those he disagrees with, do want to make a better park for the city at large. “These are all good people here,” he says.

But whether the intentions are good or not, at least one brain surgeon will be deeply saddened if the softball field were to disappear.

Ricardo Komotar, director of the University of Miami’s Brain Tumor Initiative, says his fellow neurosurgeons regularly play ball at Morningside Park. “We use that field every Saturday, from January until July, and it’s great for our department and helps build morale,” says Komotar, an Edgewater resident.

Should the softball field disappear, Komotar doesn’t know where they’d play. And he isn’t sure how baseball would fit into a multisport field that would often be occupied by soccer players.

“I think those two sports are enough in demand to need two separate fields,” he says.

 

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