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Debate Over Miami Soccer Stadium Centers on Park Use

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June 01 --The vision for Miami's new Museum Park began 14 years ago with a ferocious tussle over a proposed baseball stadium on downtown Miami's waterfront, and it could soon end the same way -- this time in a new battle over ex-footballer David Beckham's campaign for a pro soccer stadium on the very spot.

Back then, a band of urban activists, civic leaders and politicians beat back a plan to build the Florida Marlins a ballpark in what was then semi-derelict Bicentennial Park . After scores of often-contentious public meetings and city commission hearings, multiple revisions, lawsuits and one referendum, a compromise plan emerged that explicitly aimed to preserve and enhance the rare public parcel of open bayfront.

That vision -- for two new museums and a refurbished deepwater boat slip book-ending an expanse of open, tree-shaded parkland -- is finally rounding into reality.

On June 14 , six months after the splashy debut of the bayfront Perez Art Museum Miami, the U.S. Coast Guard tall ship Eagle will sail into the long-closed slip for a three-day visit, inaugurating the long-awaited park.

Yes, a new park -- encompassing shade trees, palms, a great lawn, paved paths, lights, benches, a sandy "beach," mooring piers for boats, a new plaza on Biscayne Boulevard at the foot of the slip, and a grand new pedestrian promenade leading from the boulevard to the bay -- is in the final, feverish stages of construction, and just about to open.

A finished, broad new baywalk now stretches from PAMM to the slip, and all the way around the open body of water's half-mile perimeter to the edge of the AmericanAirlines Arena and the publicly owned, and still unimproved, county-owned plot of land behind it known as Parcel B. At the foot of the slip stands a striking, donated bronze statue by the late Cuban artist Cundo Bermudez.

The full cost to taxpayers to design, develop and build the park, including slip improvements, according to city officials: as much as $40 million , evenly divided between the park and the slip.

Swire Properties , the developer of Brickell City Centre , chipped in $700,000 more to barge dozens of 100-year-old oaks and other mature trees from the development site to the park. The semi-autonomous trust that runs nearby Bayfront Park and will manage Museum Park has budgeted $800,000 for maintenance, programming and 24-hour security for this year and expects to set aside $1 million annually after that.

But much of it may not last.

The Beckham plans

The Beckham group proposes to fill in the slip and take a substantial 4.2-acre chunk of the new park's roughly 19 acres of green space to accommodate a stadium with at least 20,000 seats. The group has pitched the rough plan as a significant improvement and expansion for the city's soon-to-open Museum Park , a scaled-down budget version of a blueprint by Cooper Robertson & Partners , famed designers of Manhattan's Battery Park City and its popular esplanade.

The team has pledged to add 8.5 acres of green space behind the stadium, for a claimed net gain of 4.3 acres, including Parcel B, which would become part of their park. They say the stadium, to be used for about 25 events a year, would include restaurants to "activate" a park that they claim now consists of little more than grass and would otherwise be "dead space."

"It's much more than 20 percent better. It's 100 percent better," Beckham's real estate advisor, John Alschuler said earlier this month during the group's presentation of watercolor sketches and computer renderings outlining their plan, which is being developed by Miami's Arquitectonica firm.

But the new Museum Park could be rapidly turning into an inconvenient, and possibly substantial, obstacle to Beckham's campaign to put another stadium, though likely a smaller one, in the same prime public property once coveted by the Marlins .

Because the property has been closed and fenced off for years, many Miamians seem unaware that the new park and its fully refurbished slip are nearly ready for public use. The slip, a remnant of the old Port of Miami , had long been unusable because its seawall had collapsed and it lacked moorings for boats.

Alschuler, who has made a name as a sharp facilitator of some of the country's most successful urban turnarounds and new parks, is brusquely dismissive of Museum Park -- which he has likened to a Chevy in comparison to Beckham's "Cadillac" -- and its supporters.

"The slip is not a source of energy and activity, and never can be," he said in an interview Thursday. "No one can defend this park. It's going to be a failed park."

But those who have long been awaiting the park are outraged.

The rapid embrace of the Museum Park stadium plan by Beckham's team, along with Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado and County Mayor Carlos Gimenez , has provoked a heated reaction from many downtown residents, in particular those in the four new condo towers across from the park site, whose associations are organizing to oppose it.

Many say they had purchased expensive units in full expectation of one day enjoying the unobstructed green space in Museum Park that the city commission, then including Regalado, unanimously approved in 2008.

Some find it galling that Beckham and local political leaders would try to undo more than a decade's worth of work and public investment for the private benefit of the retired soccer star and his investors just as it's all about to finally pay off for Miami residents.

"It was always meant to be parkland. To me that was huge," said Dalia Lagoa , president of the association at 900 Biscayne. "It's a park that all people will be able to enjoy. It's quiet. It's open to the south. It's a peaceful environment. The most appealing thing about the park is that you can take a stroll down Biscayne Boulevard and there's trees and grass and benches and water right there, not hidden behind some monstrosity.

"I can't imagine Beckham going to the mayor of London and asking to put a soccer stadium in Kensington Park , in James Park or in Hyde Park . He'd get run out of town."

The Beckham team's plan and its assertions have also drawn unusually direct and sharply worded criticism from a cadre of well known architects, urban designers and planners who played a role in the development of Museum Park , including Cooper Robertson principal Alexander Cooper .

The legendary designer, who has worked with Alschuler on a dozen major projects, last week signed on to a statement urging the city to reject the Beckham plan because it would "radically" disrupt the Museum Park goal of preserving open waterfront space.

The statement was coordinated by former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz , who made Museum Park a cornerstone of his administration. Diaz, who envisaged a Major League Soccer stadium at Marlins Park , has come out of political retirement to fight the Museum Park stadium proposal.

"An abomination"

The design professionals say the Beckham site plan, which puts a stadium 10 stories tall on Biscayne Boulevard and orients it north-to-south, would effectively obliterate much if not most of the already built park, seal off the green space the team proposes to build from the surrounding downtown, and forever shut off the views from Biscayne Boulevard of parkland and open water now afforded by the slip, which comes right up to the sidewalk.

"It's like landing a flying saucer in the middle of the park. It's an abomination," said Raul Rodriguez , a prominent local architect whose firm is doing the construction drawings for the new Frost Museum of Science , now under way at Museum Park .

Ironically, the designers argue, the Beckham alternative would re-create and exacerbate the design problems that led to the failure of Bicentenial Park , a prizewinning space that was rarely visited in part because it was cut off from Biscayne Boulevard by concrete walls and earthen berms, and became instead a haunt for the homeless. They say it's the Beckham plan, not the Cooper Robertson version, that risks becoming a lifeless zone.

In a dissection of the Beckham plan during an interview, Terence Riley , a prominent architect who as director of the former Miami Art Museum guided the development of the lavishly praised and heavily visited PAMM, called the stadium site plan "mind-boggling," "preposterous," "misguided" and "kind of crazy."

"I can't understand the urban logic behind it," said Riley, former chief curator of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York . "I've done a lot of research on stadiums and arenas, and, no matter what is promised, they are virtually always empty.

"The only population it would bring is a very large crowd on occasion, and that's not what the park needs. It simply doesn't fulfill its promise as a large urban park," Riley said. "This puts a bad light on whoever's advising them.

"Show me another example of an American city that after all this thoughtful planning and strategizing just sets it aside. It doesn't exist. This is not the way urban planners who are experts in reviving cities would do things. This would be considered anathema."

Museum Park , by contrast, was carefully designed to provide ample and inviting views into the park and the water beyond by keeping most of its perimeter open, except for where it's blocked by an unsightly sewage pump station that would be too costly to move, supporters say.

The idea, planners say, is that residents and visitors could casually enter the park because it's easily visible, accessible and safe.

"To put this stadium on Biscayne Boulevard would kill everything that this plan calls for, the whole idea of the open space," said former Miami planning chief Ana Gelabert-Sanchez , who oversaw development of the Museum Park master plan and is now a consultant who also teaches urban planning at Harvard . "You would have a wall facing Biscayne Boulevard ."

Differing visions

The design professionals also dispute the Beckham's team assertions that their plan would expand the park. Because the open-water slip encompasses some nine acres that are meant to be an integral part of Museum Park , filling it in and putting a stadium in the middle of the park would actually result in a net loss of open space, even taking the addition of Parcel B to the park into account, Diaz and others say.

Moreover, critics contend it's disingenous for Alschuler and the Beckham team to claim their plan would provide a continous baywalk through the area for the first time.

The new baywalk already does that, they note, and in fact provides far more waterfront length than the Beckham alternative since it traverses the full length of the slip. Because Parcel B is already supposed to be public parkland, all that would remain is for the county, which owns it, to improve it, critics of the Beckham scheme say.

"It's silly," said Avra Jain , president of the Marina Blue condo association across from the park, and developer of the resuscitated MiMo Vagabond motel, soon to open farther up the boulevard. "Parcel B was already ours. That's not a gift."

The Beckham team's renderings of the stadium -- which Alschuler acknowledged represent "a vision, not a design" -- have also come in for ridicule. In them, the presumably large stadium structure is barely discernible, and then mostly as a green mound or a transparent glass wall surrounded by greenery.

Sean McCaughan , a blogger on Curbed Miami, sardonically called it "the magical disappearing stadium for 25,000 people."

Critics also say it's telling the team did not release images showing views of the stadium from Biscayne Boulevard . Alschuler says they're in design and should be ready in a few weeks.

Alschuler's response to the critics is characteristically blunt: "They're wrong."

The issue comes down to differing conceptions of parks, Alschuler said. Successful urban and downtown parks need features and activities to turn them into "destination parks" that attract visitors, as opposed to "pastoral" or "passive" parks that consist mostly of trees and greenery, which don't draw people.

Though Museum Park includes two large museums and a slip that city administrators insist will get significant use -- the Miami International Boat Show wants to use it, and other tall ships are eager to visit, they say -- the green space as it now exists fits the latter label, he argues. Alschuler also contends the slip is filled with floating beer cans --although no floating trash could be seen in several recent visits by reporters.

But that's a view echoed by Beckham plan supporters.

Businessman Todd Oretsky , who co-founded Pipeline Brickell, a shared working space, attended the unveiling of the Beckham group's latest renderings and said a stadium would bring more people to the waterfront.

"This is not a utilized park," said Oretsky, a Bay Point resident and boater. "Nor is the water. Right now, it's filled with garbage. It's terrible."

"In my experience, opportunities like this only come around once in a blue moon," he said. "I've never seen a proposed deal so good for the public."

To be sure, the park that will open in mid-June is not the full-fledged Cooper Robertson plan.

City officials, facing a budget crunch, have spent just about $10 million to $12 million on the green space, instead of the $45 million called for in the Cooper Robertson plan, which included an observation mound, a bamboo grove, a children's garden, a park pavilion and other elaborate features that have yet to be built. (The balance of the $40 million total spent so far represents design fees, the cost of rebuilding the park's and the slip's seawall, environmental cleanup, and the cost of installing mooring bollards, among other big-ticket items.)

Because the park as built contains the full infrastructure framework for the more-elaborate park plan, said the project manager for the city, John De Pazos , those features can be built as money becomes available.

Alschuler said he doubts that. "Even if they had the money, that's a very big if," he said.

Because the basic framework is already in, Alschuler contends, it would be a simple matter to build Beckham's alternative park template over it, meaning much of the public investment would not be wasted.

But Alschuler said the group does not intend to refund taxpayers any of the money spent on Museum Park or on slip improvements, noting that they plan instead to build the stadium, fill in the slip and rebuild the park at their own expense, "whatever the cost," without public funds.

The team has also said it expects to pay "reasonable" rent for the land. Miami voters would have to approve the deal in November if the city commission puts the measure on the ballot.

Alschuler acknowledged the group is asking Miamians to reconsider a plan many thought long settled.

"I wasn't here for that debate. But I've lived that debate many times," he said. "I don't want to be cavalier or flip about it, but this is what's wonderful about American cities. We are constantly reopening these debates. Are we asking a community to take a second look at this question? Yes."

But Museum Park supporters -- many of whom say they want soccer in Miami and believe it should be downtown -- say that debate is closed and the new park a fact.

"We are very close to seeing this come together. There is a critical mass downtown now. There are people there now. There is a need for open space," Rodriguez said. "Go somewhere else."

If the stadium is built, they contend, what would be lost -- the unique proximity of Biscayne Boulevard and a body of water where porpoises and manatees are frequently sighted -- could never be replaced, no matter how good Beckham's designers are.

"It's the only place where the water touches Biscayne Boulevard ," Gelabert-Sanchez said. "It adds recreational opportunities we otherwise would not have. It's like having a balcony into the water. It is part of the urban aspect, to be able to look out and say, 'This is where we live.'

"If you take this away, you're taking away that possibility forever."

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

___

(c)2014 The Miami Herald

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