For years after Helen Swartz moved to Miami Beach in 2011, she was saddened by the fact that she couldn’t go for a swim at the beach. In a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis, she finds it a challenge to enjoy the beach the same way so many able-bodied people can.
But in 2016, she started attending a charity-sponsored, twice-monthly event that provides equipment and trained staff to assist people with disabilities take a dip in the ocean. The Sabrina Cohen Foundation, an organization that works with disabled people, began holding these “adaptive beach days” at the Allison Park beach access last year. Hundreds of people with disabilities have had the opportunity to get in the water with special equipment and volunteers provided by the foundation.
“I just really wanted to get close to the water and be in the water like anybody else,” Swartz said this week. She felt “ecstatic” to be immersed in the ocean in a special chair that keeps her afloat, along with able-bodied assistants, while a lifeguard supervises.
It’s a scene Cohen and her foundation would like to see more often, so she’s been working with city officials to get a permanent beachside facility built where she could store the bulky equipment necessary to make the beach days possible. The building would also house therapy programming where people with disabilities could build their strength.
But talk of building a new structure on its proposed location at 53rd Street and Collins Avenue has sparked opposition from residents in neighboring condo towers. The two-story building, which would have a height limit of 24 feet on a 5,000-square-foot footprint, would belong to the city. Construction would be funded by the foundation, which would operate the facility under a management agreement that would a last a little less than 10 years.
The city commission on Wednesday will consider approving the deal and the location in two separate votes. While advocates and some commissioners are enthusiastic about the possibility, some neighbors have emphatically stated they do not want the facility in their backyard.
Many neighbors are disgruntled because they don’t want to see any structure built in the parking lot, which would lose up to 20 of its 139 spaces. They say parking is already scarce, even though the city’s parking department noted in a memo that, on average, about half of the lot is empty.
Jessica Broder, a resident of the neighboring Imperial Towers, said on Monday that she feels building a facility in the space would constitute rezoning.
“It’s a change of land use,” she said. “I don’t want to see it developed.”
Others have spoken out harshly about the proposal, arguing that people with disabilities should be in a pool, not the ocean, that having them in the water would be a liability to the city, and that the facility would limit the public’s access to the beach.
“My specific concern is that we are benefiting special interests and limiting the right of the general public to use the beach and the park,” said resident Diana L. Rodriguez at a public hearing in April.
The tone of the debate has offended those who want to see people with disabilities have easier and more frequent access to the ocean. Conversely, they feel the facility will make the beach more inclusive, so the disabled and able-bodied can enjoy the ocean together.
“I think [their arguments] are just completely silly,” said Susan Solmon, a podiatric physician and clinical pharmacist who has benefited from the adaptive beach days. “They are made by people who are scared of something that they don’t know. I would encourage them to come out and be part of an adaptive beach day.”
If the agreement is approved Wednesday, the foundation would have three years to raise the money needed to construct the building. If the money doesn’t come in, the city can terminate the agreement.
I just really wanted to get close to the water and be in the water like anybody else. Helen Swartz
The beach access has a park with a bathroom facility, covered playground and shady pathway lined with exercise equipment. Some neighbors would prefer to see no further development of the area.
The Mid-Beach Neighborhood Association stated its opposition in a resolution sent to the commission Monday. Besides the loss of parking, the association says there has not been community outreach to inform neighbors about the proposal.
This opposition comes at an earlier stage than the movement against the previous proposal at Allison Park. There are no details on the facility’s design yet. If the commission approves on Wednesday, the city could require the foundation to meet strict deadlines for fundraising before the project can proceed. If those deadlines weren’t met, the city could walk away.
The hours of operation would not exceed 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., according to the proposed agreement, with specific hours to be determined in a future agreement.
Cohen wants the commission’s blessing for the location and management deal, so she goes out and raises the money for construction, which is estimated to cost about $4.5 million. A city memo states that no public money would be used for the development of the facility. Construction would not begin until the foundation raises all necessary funds to build the facility.
The commission will consider the matter at 3 p.m. Wednesday, which is also the 27-year anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).