When Museum Park, neé Bicentennial Park, formally reopened last year after long delays, it seemed to be repeating a 40-year history of unfulfilled promises at the downtown Miami site. The fiscally challenged city delivered a severely stripped-down version of what had once been an ambitious vision for lush gardens, fountains, play areas and a grand entranceway framing vistas of Biscayne Bay.
Now a group of civic leaders and current and former city officials say they’ve hit on a strategy to ensure Museum Park becomes all it was meant to be: Turn control of the 19-acre city park over to a private organization that could raise millions of dollars to improve, manage and maintain it as a fully public space.
Supporters of the proposed Museum Park Conservancy, including Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff and former Mayor Manny Diaz, say they’re off with a bang. They’ve secured at least $7.5 million in pledges from private donors, an amount they say is just the start to a campaign that aims to raise tens of millions more to create an iconic downtown park.
Their goal, they say, is to quickly raise at least half of the $50 million needed to build out the park as designed by the prominent New York firm Cooper Robertson & Partners, with updates and revisions to reflect both what’s been already done at the site as well as changes in downtown Miami, and then build and run it.
“It really comes down to concerned citizens who can raise the funds to turn this into a world-class park,” Sarnoff said. “This should be Miami’s most elegant park.”
Backers say the plan takes after some proven models — the nonprofits that operate, fund and maintain the similarly sized Millenium Park in Chicago and New York’s far larger Central Park, among others.
The Central Park Conservancy, which is credited with saving the famous park from ruin when the city was nearly bankrupt 35 years ago, raises 75 percent of its annual budget and is fully responsible for its maintenance and operation. The Central Park Conservancy also runs an institute that provided guidance to the advocates looking to establish the Museum Park Conservancy.
Under a proposed agreement that could go to the City Commission as early as the end of this month, the Museum Park Conservancy would be established under the aegis of the Miami Foundation, which developed the plan with strategic and grant support from the Miami-based Knight Foundation. The planned conservancy would be split into two independent arms — one to raise money for the park, and another to manage it — while the city would retain ownership of the park. The mayor, commission and administration would have seats on the operating board as well.
Sarnoff and foundation officials say that setup, which parallels the structure of the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, is designed to reassure donors who would be hesitant to give money directly to the notoriously inefficient city, and to generate direct public engagement in running and maintaining the park.
“I think there will be people who will flock to this project,” said Miami Foundation President Javier Alberto Soto.
The conservancy would be responsible for the park and the adjoining deep-water boat slip, but not the northern flank of the site that’s occupied by the 21-month-old Perez Art Museum Miami and the under-construction Frost Museum of Science, scheduled to open next summer. Both museums support the conservancy idea.
“Museum Park is a signature open space for Miami and as a community, we need to come together to support it and create the kind of quality destination the two world-class museums, Frost Science and PAMM, merit and that everyone can enjoy,” said Trish and Dan M. Bell, co-chairs of the Frost board of trustees, in a brief statement of support issued Friday.
The conservancy’s backers also promise Museum Park would never be closed or fenced off for private or ticketed events, in contrast to neighboring Bayfront Park. The city-owned Bayfront Park is run by a semi-autonomous trust that doesn’t receive any public funding and must raise its full operating and maintenance budget from rentals and special events, including the Ultra music festival.
Because the Bayfront trust has also managed Museum Park since its opening, it’s held several private events in it, including an auto show and an exhibit during the recent electric-car auto race that Sarnoff and others say caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage to its newly installed grass, walkways and equipment. Repairs are being covered by revenue from the events.
That’s a model backers of the Museum Park Conservancy say they’re deliberately trying to avoid.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” Sarnoff said. “That’s not a proper use of a park.”
The Bayfront Park Trust chairman, Miami Commissioner Frank Carollo, defended the agency’s track record in maintaining Museum Park to the tune of around $1 million since its opening.
Carollo said he’s undecided about the conservancy proposal. Though he and Trust executive director Tim Schmand were briefed by the Miami Foundation’s Soto, Carollo said he’s been too busy with the city’s 2016 budget to delve into it much. But he said he’s willing to listen.
“We’re open to anything,” he said.
Conservancy backers say they hope to reach a separate agreement with the trust to contract its services for some maintenance and support so that Bayfront Park continues to receive some revenue from its neighbor. But they note the conservancy would relieve the Bayfront Trust from the burden of maintaining Museum Park.
The idea for Museum Park dates to former mayor Diaz’s first term in office, when parks advocates managed to kill a move to build a Marlins ballpark on the site of forlorn Bicentennial Park. Though opened to great fanfare in 1976, the park, built on land once occupied by Miami’s port, had failed to draw visitors, in part because it was in a depressed corner of downtown and hidden behind earthen berms meant to provide a sense of enclosure. It was carved up for a defunct auto race and baseball fields, then largely left to languish, serving mostly as an encampment for the homeless.
Diaz called a public workshop in which attendees settled on building new homes for Miami’s art and science museums with a new park as its frontispiece. Initial plans for the park by Cooper Robertson proved too costly to realize, however, and were gradually whittled back. The final approved plan called for a series of gardens, water features, shady trees and a great lawn with a new baywalk, but a restaurant, pavilion and underground parking — ideas conservancy backers would like to revive — were dropped.
By the time the city got around to building the park, during the administration of Diaz’s successor, Mayor Tomas Regalado, it was in financial straits and even that blueprint proved unaffordable. Instead the city spent an estimated $40 million to rebuild the seawall, restore and upgrade the boat slip, do an environmental cleanup install the baywalk and a promenade from Biscayne Bay to the new museums. It also sodded, built some pathways and planted large, mature trees moved from a Brickell construction site.
Even before it opened, even that blueprint was threatened. Regalado briefly flirted with letting retired soccer star David Beckham fill in the boat slip to build a stadium that would have encroached significantly on the park land. Since opening, the park has seen steady but light use, mostly by residents of condo towers across the boulevard and visitors to PAMM. Park use is expected to rise once the Frost science museum, which is projecting high attendance numbers, opens next summer.
But conservancy supporters say Museum Park needs much more, including shade and attractive gardens as well as a full program of free events to draw visitors and keep them coming back, just as Chicago’s Millenium Park has done in becoming one of that city’s top tourist destinations.
The conservancy idea has been kicking around for some time. The Trust for Public Land, a national organization that’s been active in planning and promoting greenways and pedestrian paths along the Miami River and Biscayne Bay, approached the city with an idea years ago, Sarnoff said.
The Miami and Knight foundations hired a consultant, Rebecca Mandelman, to explore its feasibility and develop a plan, and also paid Cooper Robertson to update its original plans. Mandelman is now spearheading the effort as a Miami Foundation vice president.
The plan’s backers say the city is unlikely to finance the estimated $50 million it would take to execute the plan and is ill-equipped to manage it properly. They still expect the city to provide some of the capital funding, but say they’re confident they can raise the balance through private donations and grants, as well as enough money to operate and maintain it to a high standard.
That could include naming rights for portions of the park, but not renaming the entire park, they say.
Though the park would be privately run, they stress the public would not notice.
“This is still always public land, which is a really important aspect of this,” Mandelman said.
Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.