Out with old, in with new Coconut Grove park

Say goodbye to the old, but not exactly revered, Coconut Grove Exhibition Center. The now-obsolete hall where Doors frontman Jim Morrison once (allegedly) publicly wagged what should remain private is coming down. Fast.

Now say hello to our new little friend: Regatta Park, 12 acres of long-promised bayfront green space in the place where the last remaining sections of the exhibition center are now being reduced to rubble by demolition crews.

It could be a significant addition to Miami’s undernourished parks system — if the cash-strapped city can figure out exactly what to put there, and then how to pay for it.

Here’s the dilemma: The new park, part of the so-called Sasaki Plan that was developed in 2008 to revamp the Grove’s cluttered waterfront, would cost around $26 million to build as conceived, with a new pier, a grassy amphitheater, a new baywalk and a thick planting of trees.

The amount the city has for the job? A mere $2 million.

City officials say that’s just about enough to install a watering system and some electrical connections, then cover the whole thing with nice sod, and maybe a few trees and furnishings.

At least for now, that’s what the new park will have to be, said Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, a principal backer of the Sasaki Plan whose district includes the Grove.

“My vision for it is the world’s greatest field,’’ Sarnoff said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. “It will be open space with the best grass we can grow.’’

The city still hopes eventually to build a full-fledged park. City planners are holding a series of public meetings to solicit ideas for park features and uses, though they say they can’t say when or if anything beyond the stripped-down park would be built.

“Right now, we don’t have any answers,’’ deputy planning director Cesar Garcia-Pons told a packed house at Miami City Hall last week during the first of three planned meetings.

It’s not the first time the city has had to scale back its ambitions for a new park because of fiscal constraints. Last year, an elaborate plan for a new Museum Park to accompany the new art and science museums downtown was scrapped for the time being. Instead, the park area at the foot of the newly opened Perez Art Museum of Miami, like Regatta Park, will consist of grass, trees and pathways.

The ill-defined Regatta Park idea has upset some skeptical Grove residents, including some who say the city was too quick to demolish the exhibition center, until recently used to film interiors for the cable TV series Burn Notice, and which might have attracted other film work.

The park launch also comes on the heels of a controversial citywide referendum in which voters easily approved a proposal — furiously opposed by many Grovites — to replace the adjacent Scotty’s Landing, a popular rustic watering hole, and the landmark Chart House restaurant with glitzy new dining spots. Many remain angry at Sarnoff, who backed the plan, and suspicious of his motives.

On an easel on which city planners asked attendees to write down suggestions, one demanded a “guarantee’’ to rebut rumors that the land would be developed or fenced off for the private use of residents of new luxury condos going up across South Bayshore Drive — something city officials say they have never contemplated.

At least some attendees were willing to give the city credit for laying out the financial circumstances and seeking public input for the park.

“I have to support that,’’ said Grove activist Hadley Williams. “From that aspect, it’s very positive.’’

The keep-it-simple park idea actually sits right with some Grove residents concerned about commercialization of the historic village’s waterfront and the current lack of easy access to the water for pedestrians and boaters.

Several said the new park offers the city a chance to open up access to the shoreline, and called for an inviting, pedestrian-friendly space animated with a new dock and kayak and paddleboard rentals.

“If you do that, you would see an explosion of rowers, kayakers and paddleboarders,’’ said Andy Parrish, a longtime activist and small developer in the Grove.

At very least, Sarnoff said, the new park would fulfill a key mandate of the Sasaki Plan, named after the renown landscape architecture firm that designed it after extensive public consultation: to open up bay vistas long blocked by the bulky exhibition center, and provide a green link between City Hall and Peacock and Myers parks directly to the south.

It would provide another amenity that inspired the park’s name — to serve as staging area for the big sailing regattas held along the Grove waterfront, home to several sailing clubs and an Olympic training site, the U.S. Sailing Center. Unbeknownst to many Miamians, it’s the main hot spot in the nation for winter sailing competitions, with some of the biggest regattas in the world taking place just offshore.

The overflow of boat trailers drawn to the regattas now takes up a portion of the exhibition center parking lot, most of which will temporarily remain, as well as a swale bordering the popular running and cycling trail that runs along the east side of Bayshore Drive. But that swale space will disappear with upcoming plans to renovate and widen the trail, Sarnoff said.

Another element of the Sasaki Plan calls for consolidating the U.S. Sailing Center and the Coconut Grove Sailing Club, now located to the south, in a modern facility at Regatta Park, though city officials say that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

But sailing advocates asked the city that, whatever they do at that spot, they remember to leave enough wide-open grassy space to accommodate them.

“We are known as the best regatta launching place in the world,’’ said Mark Kamilar, from the U.S. Sailing Center. “But it takes a tremendous amount of space.’’

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