Temporary Grand Central Park in Miami to close for development

This January 2012 file photo shows activist Brad Knoefler, left, at the site of Grand Central Park with project partner Mark Lesniak.
This January 2012 file photo shows activist Brad Knoefler, left, at the site of Grand Central Park with project partner Mark Lesniak.
Al Diaz / Miami Herald Staff

Come New Year’s, the skateboarders and dog walkers who had made a real neighborhood spot out of the temporary park at the old Miami Arena site downtown will have to find another place to do their thing.

The activists, who turned the arena rubble into the grassy, tree-lined Grand Central Park, are giving it up after two years into a three-year lease. Brad Knoefler and Mark Lesniak, co-founders of the Omni Parkwest Community Association, say they proved their point: that Miami can have more parks, community spaces and neighborhood cohesion with some creativity, elbow grease and not a huge amount of cash.

But Knoefler said the nonprofit’s small-bore efforts to create a cool neighborhood in the wasteland of Park West could not compete with the mega-bucks of commercial developers buying up everything in the neighborhood, a trend which contributed to an eviction fight with new owners of the private park property.

“The bottom line is, we gave it our best effort,’’ Knoefler, a small developer and entrepreneur, said on a recent morning as a dozen skateboarders essayed tricks at the homemade course just inside the 5-acre park’s gate on North Miami Avenue. “We always knew it was temporary. It’s all good. We did an amazing thing.’’

The association settled the eviction action, filed by property owner Miami World Center earlier this year, by agreeing to vacate the site by Dec. 31. In part because Miami World Center would not allow the group to use a portion of Grand Central for parking for Miami Heat games, which provided a substantial portion of the park’s revenue, the association could not keep up with the steep $12,000-plus monthly rent and operating expenses, Knoefler said.

“We did it this way so we could wind it up gracefully,’’ Knoefler said.

The last event: an all-ages Holiday Jam Fest for local and nearby Overtown residents on Dec. 27, followed by a party to mark the conclusion of the year’s final Critical Mass bike ride.

One key city leader said the park was at best a mixed success that never fully gelled and made only a “marginal’’ impact on the neighborhood.

The park, which was open to the public during daylight hours, hosted a score of paying concerts and free events underwritten by sponsors, including a few massive parties at the end of the monthly Critical Mass ride. But it was not heavily used outside those events, in part because few people live in the immediate surroundings, and because of a desolate environment and persistent hard-core homeless population in the area that discouraged others from venturing in.

“It was enjoyed by some,’’ said City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who backed a $200,000 grant that helped pay for park construction, a relative pittance compared to typical costs for urban parks. “But did we get a real park? No. You get what you pay for. Would I do it again? Probably not.’’

Sarnoff did applaud the activists for providing an outlet for skateboarders, the only one within city limits. The commissioner had long backed development of a city park for skateboarders to use as an alternative to office-tower plazas and Bayfront Park, where they damaged fixtures. Now the city parking authority is working on a plan for a skate park under Interstate 95, he said.

But Knoefler, who long battled Miami officials, said city leaders, fixated on big development as the sole solution to urban blight, never fully got behind the neighborhood-scale concept and made no effort to emulate its lessons elsewhere.

The park had its origins in the guerrilla activism of Knoefler, who renovated a century-old commercial building across the street into Grand Central Lofts, today home to the popular live-music venue of the same name.

He and other local business and property owners, frustrated by what they said was the city’s indifference to the dreary condition of the neighborhood, sandwiched between Overtown and renascent Biscayne Boulevard, embarked on a series of actions to draw attention to the issues. Knoefler, who lived in the loft building, painted curbs, patched sidewalks and, tired of staring at a pile of rubble left over from the arena’s demolition years before, rented a bulldozer to flatten it. He was arrested at least once.

To turn the vacant site into a temporary park for residents, an oasis for what they hoped would be a rising urban hostpot, Knoefler and Lesniak put up $65,000 and persuaded its then owner, developer Glenn Straub, to give them a three-year lease, at $12,000 a month, while he waited out the real estate collapse.

“We turned a heap of rocks into a great park with the help of a lot of amazing people in Miami,’’ Lesniak said in a statement issued to confirm the park’s rumored closing.

Such activist-instigated urban interventions have spread across the country and have earned the label “tactical urbanism’’ from planners, many of whom say it can lead to quick, workable and cheap ways to improve neighborhoods and streets. Grand Central Park was featured in an online guide, Tactical Urbanism 2, developed by The Street Plans Collaborative, a New York planning firm with an office in Miami.

But tactical urbanism ventures have had limited success in Miami, especially now that a new wave of unprecedented, large-scale development is sweeping through downtown, Brickell and surrounding areas, including Overtown and Park West. Shortly after acquiring the arena site from Straub, Miami World Center announced it was flipping the property for development of a hotel and convention center.

Knoefler, too, sold his loft building to Miami World Center and has left the neighborhood. The club is also now fighting eviction in court.

“There are these big, powerful forces that the little guy can’t compete with,’’ Knoefler said. “But neighborhoods depend on us little guys.’’

Last week, Miami World Center, which controls much of Park West, announced a third developer would build Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s stores as part of a massive commercial development on surrounding blocks. It’s unclear from the announcements whether the plans include any parks or green space.

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