More than four years ago, the city of Miami eagerly embraced an ambitious scheme for the park portion of the mega-million-dollar Museum Park project on the bay in downtown Miami.
Unanimously approved by the City Commission, the plan for a $68 million, 20-acre green space was supposed to turn most of near-derelict Bicentennial Park into Miami’s version of Chicago’s celebrated Millennium Park. The vision: lure thousands of visitors with lush public gardens, a dramatic entrance on Biscayne Boulevard with rows of royal palms growing out of a shallow pool, a great lawn, glass pavilions and a sculpted mound to provide visitors sweeping vistas of water and greenery.
Well, scratch all that. At least for the foreseeable future.
Facing a daunting fiscal crunch, city administrators have drastically scaled back the long-delayed park plan to a roughly $10 million basic blueprint. City officials have put aside most of the park’s distinctive features until an undetermined future date to focus on building two key if also simplified elements: a new baywalk, and a promenade from Biscayne Boulevard to Biscayne Bay that will provide pedestrian access to the art and science museums now rising on Bicentennial’s north end.
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There will still be a park with trees, sod and pathways between the promenade and the deepwater boat slip that marks the project’s southern boundary, city leaders pledge.
It just won’t be anything like the elaborate plan that the city paid the New York firm of Cooper Robertson & Partners, famed planners of Battery Park City on Manhattan’s lower tip, $4.2 million to design.
“It will be trees and open space,’’ said city Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, chairman of the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency, which is funding the bulk of the park project. “You will be able to walk around, take a nap under a tree, play soccer. But it will not have that Millennium identity.’’
‘Still the vision’
Sarnoff and city administrators, who are now weighing five bids from contractors for the baywalk and promenade, say the reduced scope of work will include some needed environmental remediation to cover contaminated soil as well as basic infrastructure so that the Cooper Robertson plan can some day be realized.
“That’s still the vision our commission has embraced, although it was a few years ago,’’ said assistant city manager Alice Bravo. “We’re putting in the bones. We’re going to have an aesthetically pleasing park that will be in harmony with the museums and over time can be enhanced further.’’
The city had previously, and quietly, discarded some costlier elements of the Cooper Robertson plan, including a planned underground parking garage and a restaurant, reducing the estimated cost to around $45 million.
But the decision to scale back the park plan much further comes as the $220 million art museum building reaches the halfway point in construction, on schedule for a fall 2013 opening. The new Miami Science Museum, due for completion by the end of 2014, broke ground in February.
The museums, which occupy about eight acres just south of the ramp to the MacArthur Causeway, have their own extensive landscaping plan by Miami’s ArquitectonicaGeo. So will a broad plaza between the two museums that is being designed by James Corner Field Operations, the New York firm that collaborated on the wildly popular High Line, the abandoned elevated rail line in lower Manhattan that was converted into a linear park.
But Miami Art Museum leaders say they’re worried about what the downsized city park will look like, and whether it will be ready in time for their grand opening, scheduled to coincide with the arrival of the international art hordes for the Art Basel/Miami Beach fair in early December 2013. They’re especially concerned about the critical promenade, without which they say the museum could not open.
Their worst fear: Having an unfinished mud pit at their doorstep just when they have the attention of the international art world. Almost as bad, they say, would be a bare-bones park that detracts from the impact of their lavish new building, designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & deMeuron.
“We remain very concerned about the quality of the overall scheme,’’ said MAM director Thom Collins. “Think about it. The park could be such an incredible amenity. This is the last parcel in that crown of downtown waterfront. It should be a real jewel. Our building is going to be beautiful. The plaza will be incredible. Our immediate landscaping will be beautiful. But what will happen south of there is in question.’’
Aside from plans for the simplified baywalk and promenade, the city has released no plans or renderings of the scaled-down green space, nor issued any descriptions of its scope. No work is apparent at the park.
Several mature trees, uprooted from the site of the Brickell CitiCentre project, were recently moved to the park by the developer, Swire Properties, and clumps of Bicentennial Park trees survive. But the center of the park space — used for special events like the Cirque du Soleil tent — remains a bare, treeless desert.
Sarnoff said the scaling down answers the city’s fiscal reality.
The Omni CRA special taxing district, which was to finance the full-fledged Cooper Robertson park, saw revenues drop significantly during the economic crash and has yet to fully recover, he said. The agency is also now on the hook to repay a $45 million loan the city took out to cover its share of the under-construction PortMiami tunnel, leaving relatively little cash for the park, he said.
The bulk of the baywalk is being financed by the Florida Inland Navigation Board, a special taxing district that pays for improvements along the state’s coastlines and financed reconstruction of the site’s seawall. The Omni CRA, meanwhile, is contributing about $5 million toward the park.
The Museum Park plan, including the new homes for the art museum and the science museum, was a cornerstone of former Mayor Manny Diaz’s efforts to revitalize downtown Miami. The museum buildings are being funded through a combination of Miami-Dade County bonds and private donations.
The park portion was included separately in the so-called mega-plan that Diaz negotiated with Miami-Dade County to simultaneously finance the PortMiami tunnel, the new Miami Marlins stadium and affordable housing in Overtown, using in part revenue generated by the Omni and Overtown CRAs. The tunnel is halfway done, the stadium is open, and the Overtown CRA is set to consider a plan to issue $50 million in bonds to subsidize several new housing developments in the historic but impoverished black neighborhood.
Some wonder if the promised park will ever materialize.
“It’s a shame, really,’’ said Science Museum director Gillian Thomas, whose building is scheduled for completion a year after the art museum is done.
Thomas said the city’s piecemeal approach is reasonable given the fiscal constraints it faces. In any case, she added, she is not a fan of some aspects of the Cooper Robertson park plan, singling out the palms-in-the-pond element.
“This approach creates a nice canvas, with quite a good frame with the waterfront and promenade,’’ Thomas said, adding: “It’s such a lovely spot. I’m sure long-term there will be a fabulous plan. Whether it’s the Cooper Robertson plan or some other plan is open for discussion.’’
But she said an artfully designed park along the lines of what the city originally promised is essential to the success of the broader Museum Park project, whose goal was to attract thousands of people to a stunning but sorely underused corner of downtown Miami.
A park with features such as interactive installations would likely attract numerous visitors independently of the museums, she said, just as art-filled Millennium Park, which was built over an old rail yard next to the Chicago Institute of Art and the home of the Chicago Symphony, sharply boosted tourism to that city’s downtown Loop.
Making that happen at Museum Park, however, may now require donations or corporate support, possibly through the formation of a park conservancy like that established for Central Park in New York, Thomas said.
Tax revenues are also sure to rise at the Omni CRA in coming years, especially if Malaysian casino giant Genting builds a planned resort on the site of The Miami Herald’s building, which it bought from the newspaper company.
“If you have a fabulous park, you get even more people down there,’’ Thomas said. “It would be great for the city and it would be a sensible thing to do, but they would need to find the cash.’’