Waterfront should remain public park

The Lake front by right belongs to the people. Not a foot of its shores should be appropriated by individuals to the exclusion of the people. On the contrary, everything possible should be done to enhance its attractiveness and develop its natural beauties, thus fitting it for the part it has to play in the life of the whole city.

This poetic testimonial to the allure of the waterfront comes from Daniel Burnham, the preeminent 20th-century architect and planner who created the 1909 Plan of Chicago that made the Chicago lakefront into one of the greatest public waterfront spaces in America. His statement highlights the central role public parks play in symbolizing the civic ideals of a city.

World-class public parks are reflections of the civic-mindedness of urban populations and are testaments to the degree to which cities value the public good.

This civic role of the waterfront is an element that seems to have been lost in the latest discussions over the Miami bay front and the prospect of building a 20,000-person soccer stadium on it. Local elected officials have offered up the option of filling in the FEC boat slip for David Beckham’s soccer stadium without proper consideration of the dramatic impact this structure would have on obstructing the little accessible public waterfront that remains.

The waterfront stadium option also would undermine the vision for a premier public park, accessible to all citizens of Miami, that grew out of the Museum Park Charrette and Master Planning Process.

Interestingly, Beckham’s representatives speak about the existing waterfront as being derelict and underutilized. Yet this criticism is disingenuous, for it fails to acknowledge that the new Museum Park, designed by renowned planning firm Cooper Robertson, is about to be inaugurated in just a few days.

Indeed, the park design, which preserves significant stretches of bayfront, includes a grand pedestrian promenade, and features mature shade trees, a great lawn, and public plaza, grew out of the years-long park planning process and reflects the desires articulated by residents during that public process.

It’s no wonder, then, that some of Miami’s most prominent architects and urban planners have come out publicly against the stadium plan. In their statement, they argue, “Allowing a private venture to take over the last remaining waterfront site in Downtown Miami for use as a stadium reduces quality open space, obstructs public views of the waterfront and disrupts waterfront recreational uses.” Miami architect Raul Rodriguez calls the plan for a professional soccer stadium on the waterfront space “an abomination.”

Beckham’s real-estate representative says that adding a professional soccer stadium to the site will help activate the space, attracting more people and thereby promoting greater public use of the park. Yet that public use already is increasing dramatically as a result of the recently inaugurated Pérez Art Museum Miami. Visitors are attracted as much to the public plazas, walkways and seating areas surrounding the museum as they are to the collections inside. Public activity in the park will only increase after the Frost Museum of Science opens next door.

Decades of studies by economists have shown that professional sports stadiums rarely activate the urban neighborhoods around them. While team owners tout the benefits to the local community that will result from having a major sports attraction in their neighborhood, the reality is that most spectators come to the stadium in droves for the duration of an event, park close by, then leave the area once the event concludes.

Remember all of the promises about the urban renaissance that would occur around the Marlins stadium? How much revitalization of that neighborhood have we actually witnessed?

Nobody is questioning whether Beckham should be welcomed into Miami. There is no city in the nation more appropriate to house a new Major League Soccer franchise than Miami. With the legions of Brazilians and Argentinians, Spaniards and Germans who increasingly call Miami home, we certainly will have one of the biggest fan bases in the country for a professional soccer team.

Yet embracing Beckham and Major League Soccer does not mean that we have to sacrifice our public waterfront. Let’s hope that our civic and business leaders, planners and politicians can craft a solution that enables both the preservation of our open, accessible waterfront park and the introduction of professional soccer to Miami.

Robin F. Bachin is the assistant provost for Civic and Community Engagement and the Charlton W. Tebeau associate professor of history at the University of Miami.

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