Parks Vie For Space In Miami's Forest Of Condos

Aug 28, 2012
Originally published on August 28, 2012 6:52 pm

Many cities around the nation are trying to revive their downtowns, adding more apartments and condominiums — usually high-rises — to lure new residents.

But as urban dwellers grow in numbers, they need places to get outside. Yet, in many cities, like Miami, neighborhood parks can be hard to find. The Trust for Public Land ranks Miami 94 on a list of 100 cities when it comes to park acreage per 1,000 residents — just 2.8 acres per 1,000 residents, versus 4.5 in New York and 6.2 in Los Angeles.

The parkland ratio is even lower in the downtown neighborhood of Brickell, where about 30,000 people live crammed together in a forest of condos. The neighborhood sprang up practically overnight. Brickell was initially a financial district, a kind of "must have" address for Latin American and European Banks. But the residential population more than doubled in the past decade.

That's raised an interesting paradox — the more people want to live here, the harder it can be to make certain aspects of urban life actually livable.

Advocates say parks are about quality of life. They break up the monotony of a densely developed area, they say, and provide places for people to exercise or simply gather.

Big Dreams Of A Big Park

In Brickell, some residents hope to transform a vacant lot into a new urban park for the area. But there are varying visions of what kind of park the area needs.

Blogger Craig Chester is part of a small group of advocates called Brickell Green Space. The group would like to see an empty plot of land beside a cluster of modern and sparkling 40- and 50-story towers transformed into a large park.

"Until some of these giant condo buildings reach the end of their life cycle — which won't happen in my lifetime — this is really the last hurrah for undeveloped, raw, scrub parcel here in Brickell," Chester says.

The spot would be large enough for soccer and baseball fields, a full-sized dog park and a view of the Miami River. Currently, there's nothing like that in Brickell.

"I'd just love to come here after a day of work for a little bit of rest, an oasis, if you will, in the center of a very busy, bustling, vibrant place to live," Chester says.

"Maybe there's live music in the band shell," he adds. "Maybe there's a small urban farm where people are tending to some of their herb gardens or vegetables. Maybe there's a dog walk where people are running Spot and Fido around."

Chester's group has collected several hundred signatures on an online petition that supports a park in this location, next door to a billion-dollar mixed-use development that just broke ground.

Maybe, Chester says, Brickell Green Space could persuade that developer to buy up the vacant land and build a park. After all, he says, parks add value to neighboring real estate.

"We feel like we could find some private interests to really make this happen. And it's not that unfathomable," he says.

Space At A Premium

Looking down from 100 feet up, at a city Metrorail station, the plot does look like it would make a great park. But down on the ground, the view is a little bit different.

"Unfortunately, Miami's a frontier town where the dollars drive everything," says Peter Zalewski, who analyzes the real estate picture in South Florida. He says, despite the economic downturn, development in Miami is booming again.

"We're standing under the shadow of a construction crane, which for the longest time was thought to be an extinct type of creature down here in South Florida," Zalewski says. "But it's suddenly re-emerged, just like the American bald eagle."

And with that picture, Zalewski offers this reality check: Eleven more towers are slated to go up in downtown Miami, he says. During the recession, foreign money has poured into the city. And the lot the park advocates have their eye on was just purchased — and not by the developer Chester was hoping for.

Instead, it was snatched up by Colombian investors for $28 million. "Effectively $256 a square foot," Zalewski says. At that rate, he says, a park would be a very pricey proposition.

"I could not imagine a better park for greater downtown Miami than this site we're standing at right now," Zalewski says. "Unfortunately, for dogs to run around, and people to play Frisbee, and mothers to push their babies in strollers, it's just simply too expensive. It's not going to happen."

"Well, I don't think anything is often impossible," says Maria Nardi of the Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department. "It may be possible, but it's not in the county's park plan."

Nardi is standing at a different — and smaller — potential park site in Brickell, underneath a Metrorail track. "This is an area that the parks department is looking at to convert into a transit-oriented park," she says.

Partly because of the extraordinary cost of land in this area, the county is looking to make parks out of land it already controls. In this case, that means directly under an elevated train, on a parcel that's only big enough for, say, a small amphitheater.

"And I mean, people playing the guitar — one person playing a guitar or reading a poem. Whatever it might be," Nardi says.

Even Small Spaces A Challenge

Brickell does have a brand-new park, at the opposite end of town about a mile from the vacant lot Chester has his eye on.

The city held a dedication ceremony for the park, the 1814 Brickell Park, on a recent afternoon. Neighbors Ileana Norton and Melissa Bartolini were there in the park's playground, holding a 4-month-old and a 2-month-old, respectively.

Bartolini says the small park was "just an ugly empty lot" before its transformation.

This park was within the scope of what Brickell can afford, but it took years, and $4 million, to come together — including a huge donation from a private developer.

"We live in the building complex across the street," Norton said. "But [we] just met here coming to the dedication ceremony today. ... I think it will be a very nice way to meet people that ... otherwise you don't even know, living in your own building complex."

This may be the reality for a place as expensive and densely developed as Brickell: There will be enough space when the two mothers' children are big enough to swing from this jungle gym and spin around this crash-landing merry-go-round.

But when it's time for T-ball or peewee soccer, their boys will probably have to go in search of greener, bigger pastures.

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