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Should private Coconut Grove school pay for Miami public park rehab?

No one disagrees that Peacock Park in Coconut Grove needs a facelift.

Miami City Commission Vice Chairman Marc Sarnoff has a solution — and it involves a prominent private school.

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Day School, which neighbors the park, has offered to shell out $500,000 for new Astroturf soccer fields, a CrossFit surface, fresh landscaping and improvements to the basketball court. In exchange, Miami would extend an existing arrangement that gives St. Stephen’s exclusive access to the upper portion of the park during school hours.

The park’s soccer fields and basketball courts, both in that upper section, would be open to the public at all other times.

Sarnoff says the partnership with the school makes sense, particularly in a tight budget year.

But the commissioner is getting pushback from some Coconut Grove community leaders, who have concerns about private entities getting special rights to use a public park. Moreover, they say Sarnoff should have sought more public input when crafting his plan.

“Peacock Park could be the jewel of Coconut Grove,” said Glenn Terry, who co-founded a civic group called the Friends of Peacock Park nearly a decade ago. “It could shine. But in order for it to reach its potential, the public has to be part of the decision-making process, and nobody was consulted.”

Sarnoff said he spoke with parents of the school’s students.

“I met with the people who occupy and use the park,” he said. “There were parents involved in the conversations.”

He sees the partnership as a way for a private school and the city to help each other.

“We have a small budget and they need a place for their children to play,” Sarnoff said. “It’s a home run for everybody.”

The renovations, Sarnoff said, are part of a larger plan to revitalize the park. He would like to see the office building known as the Glass House transformed into a recreation center with a trendy café. The café would help finance park programming, including adult soccer leagues, and a full-time city staffer, Sarnoff said.

All park projects would go through the competitive bidding process, he added.

Those ideas, however, are at least a year away from becoming reality. The renovations that St. Stephen’s has offered to finance could start as early as this year.

Peacock Park sits on 9.4 acres of waterfront property in downtown Coconut Grove.

Longtime Coconut Grove residents remember Peacock Park in the ‘60s, when hippies played music by Biscayne Bay and the kilns in the Glass House, then a neighborhood center, fired handmade pottery.

“It was really something special,” Terry said.

But over the next five decades, the park fell into disrepair. The shuffleboard courts cracked and were never fixed. The mangroves grew tall enough to block the view of Biscayne Bay. The Glass House was converted into office space for the Coconut Grove Chamber of Commerce and the city’s Neighborhood Enhancement Team.

In recent years, a skate-park operator set up shop off of McFarlane Road. Operator Gregg Hinds pays the city $550 in monthly rent.

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Day School has been using the park for physical education classes for more than a decade. The school pays the city about $2,600 annually, based on the number of instructional days in any given year, city officials said.

The new agreement would be different because St. Stephen’s would no longer have to pay for a park permit.

School principal Silvia Larrauri said nothing would really change.

“We’re already using the park,” she said. “This gives us the opportunity to spruce it up a little and give back to the community. Hopefully, we will inspire other groups to get involved in the revitalization of the park.”

But some Coconut Grove residents don’t think a private school should have exclusive use of a neighborhood park.

“Public parks should not be rented out to wealthy private schools just because they have no other way to expand,” said Harry Emilio Gottlieb, a Coconut Grove activist. “Parks belong to the community.”

Gottlieb called for a public referendum to “permit the community to vote on what is best for them.”

Community members will have the opportunity to voice their opinions when the agreement comes before the City Commission. That will likely happen next month, Sarnoff’s chief of staff Ron Nelson said.

Plans for Peacock Park have spurred controversy before.

Former Commissioner Johnny Winton once tried to build a roller hockey pavilion on the grounds. But the Friends of Peacock Park and other community activists blocked the move, saying roller hockey wasn’t the right fit.

The group organized a charrette in 2004 to generate new ideas for the park. But members say their ideas fell on deaf ears at City Hall.

Terry concedes that the Friends of Peacock Park isn’t as active as the group used to be. But he said Sarnoff should have reached out to the group when drawing up the plans for a revitalized Peacock Park.

He likes the idea of the Glass House becoming a community center once again, and says local activists have other ideas to share.

“It’s frustrating,” Terry said. “The park has so much potential.”