It was a bold experiment, and it proved that more urban green space is possible using determination, hard work and, of course, some money. The Grand Central Park on the site of the old arena in downtown Miami brought together skateboarders, strollers, dog walkers, concertgoers and revelers at after-event parties, like the monthly Critical Mass bike rides.
Created by urban activists Brad Knoefler and Mark Lesniak, co-founders of the Omni ParkWest Community Association, Grand Central Park was never meant to last, but it was nice while it did. A few years ago Messrs. Knoefler and Lesniak and other local business and property owners felt frustrated by Miami officialdom’s indifference to the dreary conditions of the Park West neighborhood tucked between Overtown and Biscayne Boulevard. Mr. Knoefler, who renovated a century-old commercial building in the area, sees himself as an “urban guerrilla” — activists who work to improve aging, inner-city neighborhoods. Where others see blight, these activists see opportunities to rebuild and beautify decaying urban cores with some ingenuity and muscle, but without huge cash outlays.
Mr. Knoefler painted curbs, patched sidewalks and, finally, in exasperation, rented a bulldozer to flatten the pile of rubble left over from the arena’s demolition that had been an eyesore for years. With an eye to building a temporary park on land idled during the real-estate downturn, he and Mr. Lesniak put up $65,000 and persuaded the property’s then-owner, developer Glen Straub, to give them a three-year lease on the five-acre property along North Miami Avenue. A $200,000 city grant helped pay for modest park construction. Revenue to pay the $12,000-plus monthly rent came from charging for parking during Miami Heat games on part of the park land.
Trees and grass replaced rubble, concourses lured skateboarders and concerts and other events found a home on the north side of downtown. There was a certain innovative symmetry about using the old arena site to earn money from parking for the new arena.
But there were problems. The park, open during daylight hours, lacked as many visitors as had been envisioned, largely because there aren’t a lot of people living in the immediate area, whereas there is a substantial homeless population. And after Mr. Straub sold the property to Miami World Center, the new owner would not allow the park group to use its land for parking, so the group lost its ability to pay the rent. The new owner also sued to evict them.
The two sides settled recently, with the park group giving up its lease after two years and agreeing to vacate by Dec. 31. Miami World Center plans to use the property for the development of a hotel and convention center, and has announced that a third developer would build Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s stores as part of development on surrounding blocks.
In one sense, that’s good news because it means the real-estate market is improving in South Florida. New residential construction has also resumed in downtown Fort Lauderdale, too.
Still, Grand Central Park’s creators and supporters showed that Miami and other South Florida cities can have more green spaces and community gathering sites to encourage neighborhood activities — if city officials have the will and wherewithal to make it happen. Miami, which ranks poorly in its ratio of parks and green space per resident, could use more of this kind of urban-guerrilla ingenuity.