County Commission Cabal Print
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
June 2017

Parcel B is losing out to the fourth Cuban museum in Miami

Behind the AmericanAirlines Arena and just south of Museum Park and the old FEC boat slip are 2.8 acres of publicly owned land with sweeping views of Biscayne Bay, PortMiami, the MacArthur Causeway, and the Miami Beach skyline.

Twenty-one years ago county officials promised to designate this waterfront property, officially known as Parcel B, as a public park in order to gain voter support for the construction of Parcel_B_1the AmericanAirlines Arena, a taxpayer-subsidized sports stadium and concert venue managed by the Miami Heat basketball team.

After the arena was completed, Parcel B did not become a park. It was fenced off instead, and used as valet parking by the Miami Heat, a staging area for concerts, and for special events like the Formula E electric car race in February 2015.

Then, two years ago, Parcel B was opened to the public, though it was still primarily concrete and asphalt. In the summer of 2015, the civic groups Emerge Miami and the Urban Environment League of Greater Miami held picnics and chalk-drawing events on Parcel B that attracted hundreds of people. Both groups also unofficially renamed Parcel B “Dan Paul Park” after the renowned attorney who championed public access to the waterfront prior to his death in 2010.

Today the county still doesn’t consider Parcel B parkland, and it is still leased to the Miami Heat for around $80,000 per year for valet parking and event staging. Yet the waterfront land does remain public most of the time -- at least during daylight hours.

Last month, at the request of Miami-Dade County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, whose district includes Parcel B, the county undertook a $315,000 project to add lighting, benches, and coconut palms along the property’s baywalk.

But Parcel B may not remain as open space for long.

Parcel_B_2A lease agreement between Miami-Dade County and the nonprofit Cuban Exile History Museum Inc. is nearly complete, confirms José Galán, director of real estate development for the county’s Internal Services Division.

The contents of that lease were not available at deadline, but it will enable the construction of a $125 million facility designed by architect Robert Chisholm that will occupy up to 90,000 square feet and will include some 42,000 square feet of exhibition space, a 300-seat theater, a Cuban restaurant, a 145- to 200-space parking garage, and a special events pavilion.

The lease that Galán and other county staffers are drafting has been three years in the making. Back in the summer of 2014, the county commission decided that it was better to use Parcel B as a museum site that honored the history of Cuban exiles than to turn it into a public park, as promised. So the county commission directed Mayor Carlos Gimenez to negotiate a lease with the Cuban Exile History Museum.

“We’re at the end of this excruciatingly long process,” notes Nicolás J. Gutiérrez, secretary of Cuban Exile History Museum’s board of directors.

Galán says the lease agreement could come before a county committee in two to six months. But Gutiérrez is hopeful that the lease agreement will skip the committee process and be heard directly by the Miami-Dade County Commission as early as July.

“We believe we have the votes on the commission to approve the lease,” says Gutiérrez. That lease, he continues, will allow the museum to lease Parcel B for $1 per year for at least the next 55 years.

But unlike the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Frost Museum of Science at neighboring Museum Park, which received $314 million from county taxpayers, Gutiérrez insists that county taxpayers won’t need to contribute money toward the Cuban Exile History Museum’s construction or operations. Rather, the museum will raise the $125 million it needs through private donations and grants from the federal government.

“We have some significant connections with the current [Trump] administration,” Gutiérrez boasts. (Gutiérrez, an attorney, had his law license suspended by the Florida Supreme Court in 2012 for falsifying evidence in a civil case. He tells the BT that he’s in the process of having his license reinstated. “Hopefully in a few months I’ll be back to normal,” he says.)

Parcel_B_3Peter Ehrlich, a board member of the Urban Environment League of Greater Miami, has long advocated for Parcel B to become a park. He’s appalled at the prospect of a museum being built there, and doubts that the Cuban Exile History Museum will be able to raise the funds.

“That’s disgusting and absolutely ludicrous,” Ehrlich says. “The Cuban exile museum group has shown no proof and no justification for anyone signing a lease with them. They have admitted that they don’t have the money.”

Gutiérrez counters that fundraising efforts will receive a boost once they have a lease with the county. In fact, Gutiérrez is confident his group could break ground in three to five years.

Park advocates interviewed by the BT say that constructing a museum on Parcel B would be a tragedy. “We have so little open public space on the water,” says Eileen Bottari, a member of the City of Miami’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. “The last thing we should do is build anything on Parcel B. Leave it as green space and open to the public so they can enjoy the bay.”

Adds Rob Biskupic-Knight, executive director of Engage Miami: “In 1996 we were promised a world-class park. We hope that will be fulfilled.”

Parcel B was just a small portion of what was supposed to be a much larger park. Back in 1981, the City of Miami bought 23 acres of land from the Florida East Coast Railroad for $23 million. (With inflation, that figure would be $64.6 million today.)

The city intended to merge the old FEC tract with the 35-acre Bicentennial Park (now called Museum Park). Instead, the FEC tract was used annually as a racetrack by the Miami Grand Prix and as a hangout for vagrants the rest of the year.

In 1996 county voters were asked to approve a plan to use the FEC tract as the site for a $210 million, 16,600-seat basketball stadium. In exchange for their support, county officials promised to preserve the 2.8-acre waterfront remnant of the FEC tract as a park. Brochures depicted a soccer field along the water. After voters blessed the arena project, the county bought the tract from the City of Miami for $37.6 million in 1997.

And then the county seemingly forgot about its park promise. In 1999 the county entertained the idea of allowing the Miami Heat to build shops and a parking garage on Parcel B. A year later the Miami Heat and developer Armando Codina wanted to use Parcel B as the site for a 23-story residential tower.

Then, in 2004, the Bay of Pigs Museum in Little Havana was looking for a new home. Former City of Miami manager Pedro Hernandez, a museum board member, suggested Parcel B, recalls Nicolas Gutiérrez.

The rest of the museum’s board embraced the idea. (The museum is devoted to preserving the history of the ill-fated 1961 invasion by Cuban exiles -- trained by the CIA -- at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, an unsuccessful effort to overthrow the Castro regime.)

In 2007, board members persuaded the county commission to authorize a study on the feasibility of building their museum behind the arena. The campaign fizzled a year later. “The recession hit and everything slowed down,” Gutiérrez says, “but we took up the cause again.”

Only this time, Gutiérrez, Hernandez, and the other Bay of Pigs Museum board members campaigned for a Cuban Exile History Museum that would chronicle the Cuban exile experience in the United States.

Again the Miami-Dade County Commission supported the initiative. In July 2014, over the objections of parks advocates, the commission approved a resolution by a vote of 8 to 3 that directed county staff to draft a lease with the Cuban Exile History Museum, Inc.

Key to that vote was a promise from the commission majority, extracted by Commissioner Dennis Moss, that the county fund the construction of an African-American history museum.

Gutiérrez says the Cuban exile museum will fill a needed niche. “There is no Cuban exile museum in South Florida,” he asserts.

Actually, there are at least three museums in Miami-Dade County alone related to Cuban exiles. The original Bay of Pigs Museum in Little Havana was founded in 1986 and is slated to get a new home in Hialeah Gardens thanks to a $900,000 state grant.

This past January, the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora, funded in part by a $10 million grant from the county, opened on Coral Way.

And later this year, El Museo de Little Havana is set to open at 1637 SW 8th St.

Gutiérrez argues that none of these museums is dedicated to chronicling the history of Cuban exiles in the United States.

This particular museum, Gutiérrez asserts, must be on the water. “Cuba is an island,” he says. “Our history is about the water. And looking toward Cuba from the coast, it’s a perfect fit. A place to sit back and look out.”

And a place that will include a park -- or at least what the Cuban exile group calls “Freedom Park.” Gutiérrez says the museum will only occupy one acre of Parcel B. Basketball courts, tennis courts, and mini-soccer fields can be built on the rest of the land. “The desire of the neighborhood that wants a park is that it’s sustainable and secure,” he says. “There will be a restaurant, bathrooms, and we would accommodate the parking and logistic needs of the Miami Heat and the arena.”

ConsultEcon Inc., a Massachusetts-based nonprofit advisory firm hired by Cuban Exile Museum Inc., drafted a report in December 2016 predicting that a museum on Parcel B will attract from 166,000 to 333,000 people annually. “The project will capitalize on the existing base of visitation in Museum Park and adjacent areas of downtown,” the report states. “In turn it will further catalyze the downtown Miami waterfront as a dynamic, interesting, and important year-round destination.”

That destination, in addition to the restrooms and restaurant, will include a research library, a cultural event center, and exhibits on Cuban Exile history and culture. The cost of admission, as suggested by ConsultEcon, would be $10 for senior citizens, $8 for children, and $12 for everyone else.

Gutiérrez claims to have the support of Mayor Gimenez “and, we believe, that at a bare minimum, all of the Cuban-American commissioners -- and one or two of the other commissioners will vote with us.”

Cuban Americans comprise 7 of the county commission’s 13 members. They include Bruno Barreiro, Rebeca Sosa, Xavier Suárez, Javier Souto, Joe Martinez, José “Pepe” Díaz, and Esteban Bovo Jr.

Barreiro, Sosa, Souto, Martinez, Díaz, and Bovo voted with Dennis Moss in supporting negotiations with the Cuban Exile History Museum group three years ago. (Juan Zapata and Lynda Bell, who also voted for lease negotiations, are no longer on the commission.) Souto is a Bay of Pigs veteran. The father of Bovo, who is now chairman of the county commission, is also a Bay of Pigs veteran.

But Xavier Suárez, former mayor of the City of Miami, says he’s still skeptical about allowing a museum on Parcel B. “I voted against it [in 2014] and I haven’t changed my vote,” he says. “They recently showed me some sketches, I guess with the objective of trying to convince me to be in favor, but I’m still not supporting them.”

On his own, Suárez did come up with what he calls a “creative alternative.” Why not build a bridge-like museum over the mouth of the adjacent FEC slip? That would allow Parcel B to remain as open space, fulfill the desires of advocates for the Cuban Exile History Museum, and create a link between the arena and Museum Park, Suárez explains. Juan Garrido, Suárez’s aide, even created a rendering of such a proposed museum.

“It’s kind of a neat idea,” Suárez muses. “It really solves a lot of problems, including the battle over Parcel B.”

It may be kind of neat, but it was rejected by the exile museum board as impractical. “While it might be a nice idea,” Gutiérrez says, “it’s cost prohibitive.”

 

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