Paving paradise: Another Miami park gets the concrete treatment

Pallot Park rendering with M sculpture and Baywalk.
Pallot Park rendering with M sculpture and Baywalk. City of Miami

A city predisposed to paving paradise is at it again, this time giving the concrete treatment to a soothing pocket of bayfront green called E. Albert Pallot Park.

Is a park still a park if one-quarter of the land is covered by pavement, if the grass is buried under a hard, gray slab, if the shoreline is bordered by what looks like an airport runway?

Dismayed neighbors of the three-acre oasis located two blocks east of Biscayne Boulevard at Northeast 38th Street and just north of the Julia Tuttle Causeway ramps don’t understand why improvements to the park are turning it into something they don’t recognize. They’re uneasy that the area’s signature piece of public art will be a 10-foot tall sculpture that memorializes its prime developer, the late Jose Milton, who was sued for housing discrimination.

“The park needed a manicure, not plastic surgery,” said Ana Cristina Desa, who lives nearby and visits the park twice daily with her dog, Panda. “It feels very artificial. Miami already lacks parks and trees and now we’re subtracting from our green space. Every time I look at it my heart gets smaller.”

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Neighborhood dogs, including Panda in the middle, lounging at Pallot Park before it underwent construction. Ana Cristina Desa

Neighbors are broiling mad, too, as they realize how painfully polarizing the 30- to 40-foot-wide swath of concrete by the seawall will be on hot and sunny days, like a sizzling griddle. They don’t want to fry an egg. They want to sit on the ground, enjoy the view of Biscayne Bay and absorb the breeze. Even more concrete is being poured to create broad perimeter and central walkways.

“They’ve installed a giant hot plate and removed the shoreline trees that provided shade so that no one will want to step foot there,” said Geoffrey Bash, who lives on Northeast 39th Street. “This pavement is also a canvas for graffiti artists. I guarantee it will be covered with spray paint.

“The amount of concrete is totally out of proportion to the size of the park. This isn’t the Lincoln Road Mall promenade.”

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Neighbors Geoffrey Bash and Elizabeth Kristin on the waterfront strip at Pallot Park. Linda Robertson

A rendering shows a much more elaborate and busy place than neighbors were expecting, renewing the debate about what a park should be in the city of Miami, which tends toward “activating” its green spaces rather than leaving them natural.

“We’re shocked to see so much concrete,” said Elizabeth Kristin, who has lived in the neighborhood for 45 years. She said she felt like she was walking across a parking lot when she visited the construction site on Monday. “Keep it simple and green. People want to relax, walk their dogs, talk with neighbors, look at the water. Trees, benches, a couple of picnic tables. Period.”

Three months ago, a seawall was built to prevent erosion and flooding, although some neighbors and environmentalists preferred a living, resilient shoreline. Then trees were uprooted and, a couple of weeks ago, pavement was installed. So were anchors for 16-foot light poles, which appalls Bash, who expected low, pathway lighting, not “lighting up the park like a stadium,” he said.

Another design feature is a large concrete platform smack dab in the middle of the waterfront view. Neighbors aren’t sure what it is, exactly — some thought it would be a life-size chess board — but developer Joseph Milton confirmed that it will display a sculpture of four 10-foot tall red and white dominoes in the shape of the letter M, in honor of Milton’s father, developer Jose Milton, who loved to play dominoes.

Yoga session at Pallot Park before construction began. Ana Cristina Desa

Milton, who died in 2013, was sued by the U.S. Justice Department in the 1980s and 1990s for racial discrimination against black renters. Those cases were settled. Miami-Dade County commissioners voted down a proposal to name a street Jose Milton Way in 2015 because of his ignoble reputation as a landlord, and because of a new lawsuit again claiming discrimination. In 2017, when that lawsuit was dropped, the street was named after the Cuban-American developer after all, and commissioners hailed his philanthropic contributions as well as his “tireless” funding of public parks.

In October Miami city commissioners voted unanimously to accept the donation of the $485,000 M sculpture from the Milton family. Joseph Milton, who built three new apartment buildings surrounding the park to replace his father’s old ones, is paying $2.5 million to refurbish the park as part of the city’s Public Benefits program.

“My father loved that community and for years he wanted to do something special with that park,” said Joseph Milton, CEO of J. Milton and Associates, which has developed more than 50,000 apartment and condominium units since its founding in 1963. “Yes, controversies happened during his career. But he did great things for Miami to remedy the consequences of those controversies. How do you correct your mistakes — that’s what makes the person.”

The M also stands for Miami and Magnolia Park, the original name of the neighborhood platted in 1916 that straddles Edgewater and the Upper East Side. The park is named after the late Al Pallot, founder of Biscayne Federal Savings and Loan.

Milton believes the park will be an asset. He and Commissioner Ken Russell said planning was a public process with feedback from neighbors. Milton discarded plans for exercise equipment, a fenced dog run and a restroom when neighbors objected.

“When you see the plaza cement poured in an unfinished park, it makes it look bigger than it actually is, and, honestly, I’d feel the same way they do if I focused on that baywalk strip by the seawall,” said Milton, pointing out that the width is required by Miami 21 design rules. “We’ll be planting mature trees and lots of landscaping in two weeks. The majority of the park remains green space. It’s going to look beautiful.”

Russell acknowledged that park design is a matter of taste.

“The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation is always working to balance the passive and active uses of our parks through smart design with public input,” Russell said.

Russell, who participated in shoreline cleanups at the park in past years, described it as a “forgotten space that was undermaintained and susceptible to storm surge.”

The neighbors disagree. They say the improvements funded by Milton are well-intentioned but too much of a good thing. They don’t want a 50- by 80-foot plaza.

“Pallot Park will lose its appeal with all of the concrete poured around the perimeter,” said neighbor William Pena, who is concerned about drainage when seawater washes over the seawall. “In the end we will inherit a concrete slab with very little green area and trees in comparison to what the park used to be. This is certainly not progress.”

Pena’s misgivings echo those applied to other park projects. Bayfront Park downtown is dominated by a bald plaza and its central feature is the huge circular Claude Pepper fountain, which has not spouted a drop of water in years because the city did not properly budget for the expense of running it. Visitors have mistaken it for a bunker, a skateboard park, a war monument — even a grounded UFO.

The city spent $24 million to pave the 16-acre site next to Miami Marine Stadium, with the promise of leasing it to the Boat Show once a year and converting it to a waterfront Flex Park the rest of the year. It has remained a parking lot.

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Concrete platform in Pallot Park that will display a giant M sculpture — that’s M for developer Jose Milton. Linda Robertson

“City officials are pushing to demolish at least 73 acres of Melreese Park and concurrently cover its only public golf course with office buildings, a hotel and a mall is another well publicized example,” said Peter Ehrlich, a Miami real estate investor and community activist, referring to the plan to turn Melreese into a commerical hub and soccer stadium. “Activists and downtown residents have been fighting since 1995 to get waterfront Parcel B behind AmericanAirlines Arena renovated into a park. Instead, the Miami Heat and Miami-Dade County officials keep that 3-acre site covered in asphalt.

“Virginia Key Advisory Board members and local supporters have been fighting to protect the old Jimbo’s site from initial city efforts to install a $2.2 million seawall and extensive concrete roadways where currently plants and trees reside by the lagoon.”

Milton wants neighbors to give Pallot Park a chance.

Bash has asked for the concrete to be removed and grass replanted. Bash measured other sections of the baywalk that are only 8 to 14 feet wide.

“People in our neighborhood feed off the energy of this park,” Desa said. “Don’t destroy it.”

Linda Robertson has written about a variety of compelling subjects during an award-winning career. As a sports columnist she covered 13 Olympics, Final Fours, World Cups, Wimbledon, Heat and Hurricanes, Super Bowls, Soul Bowls, Cuban defectors, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Lance Armstrong, Tonya Harding. She golfed with Donald Trump, fished with Jimmy Johnson, learned a magic trick from Muhammad Ali and partnered with Venus Williams to defeat Serena. She now chronicles our love-hate relationship with Miami, where she grew up.