The Biscayne Times

Jun 05th
Gardens Grow in Midtown -- At Least for Now PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky   
December 2009

A landscaper with a vision, a vacant parcel of land, an expansive project with a limited lifespan

Where there was once a rail yard there is now a ten-square-block community of high-rises and shopping malls known as Midtown Miami. And where there was once a 2.5-acre field of weeds there are now trees, bushes, and vines -- some planted in the ground, many still in their nursery containers.

The manmade jungle that is cropping up along Midtown’s NE 36th Street entrance is being called World Gardens at Midtown Miami. When completed in about a year, World Gardens will be, according to a breathless press release, a “true fantasy spectacle” with a “sensuality of endless arrays of blossoms and texture” that will “leave you speechless.” A soft opening of the garden was scheduled for December 1, just in time for the Art Basel throngs.

When finished, World Gardens will consist of nine mini gardens in different styles, a 100-foot-long reflecting pool with water lilies and fountains, 75-foot-tall trees, and “exotic evergreens.” The garden’s creators say that visitors will also encounter live poetry readings, yoga classes, musical concerts, dance performances, and landscaping courses.

Best of all, World Gardens’ planners promise free admission. In fact the public will soon be urged to contribute to the effort, either through volunteering their labor or by contributing money, both of which are being solicited via, a nonprofit group headed by landscaper Harry Nelson and former technology-development executive José Acosta.

The catch: World Gardens at Midtown is doomed. Once the economy turns around, the property’s owner, New York-based Midtown Equities, plans to develop it as an entertainment complex, complete with multiplex cinema, restaurants, and retail stores. At most, one acre of the parcel will remain green space. (Midtown Equities, whose principal is Miami Beach native Joe Cayre, owns most of the property that was once the Buena Vista Rail Yard. The Shops at Midtown retail complex is independently owned by Ohio-based Developers Diversified Realty.)

Nelson, the creative force behind World Gardens, says he has been a landscape designer for 30 years, specializing in high-end residences. The Midtown press release proclaims that his “notable clientele” includes “Versace and Hollywood directors and playwrights.” He describes his Midtown work-in-progress as a “garden art installation with an educational purpose” that will serve as a prototype for 20-acre, permanent garden parks he hopes to establish in cities around the U.S. with the help of volunteers, generous patrons, and corporate sponsorship. “I have wanted to do this for 20 years,” he says. “This garden will literally be changing the face of landscape design.”

According to Nelson, the landscaping industry, particularly in Florida, is filled with unimaginative hacks. “Landscapers need to stop using the same stuff over and over again just because everyone else is doing it,” he complains. With World Gardens he intends to showcase how he thinks landscaping should be done, featuring vegetation he says is rarely used in Florida, like the Japanese blueberry, a hardy plant that can be used as a tree or hedge.

Moreover the World Gardens will include eight distinct styles: Italian, English, French, Spanish, Japanese, Modern, Fantasy, and Tropical. (Only two of the garden styles, Fantasy and Tropical, will be ready in time for the soft opening.) Nelson even wants to educate underprivileged and handicapped children, free of charge, on proper landscaping techniques at World Gardens. “I want to get more people involved in landscape design,” he says.

Acosta, who maintains the (still evolving) website and handles logistics for the project, says inspiration for World Gardens came from the lack of green space in Miami. “In the Northeast you have Central Park or Boston Commons. I didn’t see anything like that in Miami,” notes Acosta, who moved back to Florida from Boston this past January.

After a chance meeting in February, Acosta hired Nelson to landscape the backyard of his Miami Shores home. The two began to talk about creating a giant garden somewhere in Miami-Dade County. That’s when a third person became part of the conversation: Deborah Samuel, a principal broker for Midtown Miami’s commercial and residential developments and wife of Michael Samuel, who partnered with Joe Cayre to purchase the old rail yard but has since sold his interest in the project.

Nelson landscaped a home the Samuels owned in South Beach. “We became friendly,” Deborah Samuel recalls. “I heard him speaking to another gentleman about a prototype for the gardens.” Samuel suggested the temporary use of the vacant Midtown parcel, an idea that was soon embraced by Joe Cayre. Thus far Cayre’s contribution to the garden effort has been to give Nelson and Acosta a three-year lease at a dollar per year and free access to the complex’s water, electricity, and security.

So who is actually paying for World Gardens at Midtown Miami? And how much is it going to cost? Neither Nelson nor Acosta will say. “The money is the least interesting thing about it,” Acosta sniffs. The website claims, somewhat vaguely, that “through a philanthropic effort, funds to support the Gardens were donated by generous patrons interested in the design, garden, and art worlds to provide a public garden for all people.”

Any chance Midtown Miami will shelve the entertainment complex idea and keep the gardens -- funded by donations and built by volunteers? “As a business practicality, probably not,” Samuel answers, though she believes “it would be great” if a portion of the gardens were incorporated into the future complex. “We have always been involved with this being an installation,” she says. “That is how it was approached. It’s going to be a great installation for the community to enjoy.”

And if the garden project draws visitors to Midtown, all the better for Cayre and brokers like Samuel, who hope to create a Lincoln Road atmosphere and a restaurant row. It seems to be working. In just one month, four restaurants have moved into Midtown’s retail spaces near World Gardens.

Anthony Barbera, owner of Primo Pizza, on the east side of World Gardens, is one of them. “I think it’s phenomenal,” he says. “It’s going to do great things for the area. Countless thousands of people will come just for the events alone.”

Lili Abraham is manager of Captain Joe’s, a fast-casual seafood restaurant on the west side of World Gardens. She’s a bit more skeptical of the garden’s potential as a crowd magnet: “If they have events, it will be a good idea. If there are no events, it will be no different [than it is now]. They need to revive the area.”

Juliana Seo, who works at her family’s Seo Jewelry store, also on the west side, doesn’t care for the trees. “Grass is better, but that is my opinion,” she says, adding, “That is not a people park, but a dog park.”

Indeed on a recent afternoon, every single person walking by or through the evolving World Gardens had dogs. Evidence of their presence could be seen scattered along the grass. “Actually, they’re supposed to pick it up,” Acosta says after nearly stepping in a pile. “New York is a little different. People there are taught to pick up after their dogs.”


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