Key West’s most famous street will get a “pocket park,” plus a sidewalk cafe, all paid for by private donors led by hotel owner Michael Halpern.
“It will be beautiful,” Halpern told city commissioners during a meeting Tuesday night that lasted until midnight to accommodate dozens of speakers for and against the project.
In the end, the commission approved the project — with a host of added conditions — in a 5-2 vote.
The park, or pedestrian mall as Halpern said it would be better described, will replace the dingy-looking 1400 block of Duval Street that now is anchored by a garbage bin filled with rotting seaweed, and nine metered, diagonal parking spaces from which drivers must back out to leave.
Halpern, who owns the Southernmost House hotel mansion, plans to have a food truck on his property to prepare pizza and sides. Visitors may also buy food from the Southernmost Beach Café, which bookends the 1400 block along with the Southernmost House.
Halpern, who said he was originally approached by city planners years ago to help improve the block, promises sculptures, landscaping in planters, no music and benches. People wouldn’t have to buy food to enjoy the oceanfront view.
The park will cost nearly $1 million in a project that includes tearing out the curbs and pavement, he said. Halpern offered to pay to maintain the new park located on city property.
Supporters said Halpern is beautifying an important spot on the tourist map of Key West.
“I hope this is only a beginning of what else we can do on Duval Street,” resident John Wells said.
“I took a look today,” said Chris Schultz, a restaurant and bar owner. “This is the end of our most famous street, this is the street that brings people here and it looks terrible. It’s been awful for a long time and until now no one’s offered to stand up and do something.”
Opponents said the private-public partnership smells of a sweetheart deal that benefits Halpern more than the people of Key West. And they say this will privatize the city’s South Beach, which is already an unfriendly spot for locals, who are sometimes asked whether they would like to rent a lounge chair or for their hotel number.
“I wasn’t aware South Beach was public property,” said Gigi Varnum, remembering her experience arriving at the beach a couple of years ago.. “I was immediately asked what my room number was. I packed up my bag and I left.”
Varnum was in favor of the new park.
But in Key West, where locals scrutinize each and every proposed change to the land-strapped island — particularly Duval Street — many locals were skeptical of the plan to commercialize beachfront property.
Others balked at the idea of a restaurant, which would pay rent to the city, selling its food on city property.
“This plan takes space away from the residents in favor of expanding a private business,” said Dakin Weekley, whose father, City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley, was one of the two dissenting votes.
“This isn’t a minor development, it’s a major development,” said Marcela Gregory, whose family owns a home close to the spot. “A lease can be a land grab. We will lose what makes Key West special.”
City Commissioner Sam Kaufman also voted against the idea.
“We want to have access to the public,” said Kaufman. “It is not a classic park. It does not have lawn, it does not have trees.”
Voting for the park were Mayor Craig Cates and City Commissioners Clayton Lopez, Richard Payne, Margaret Romero and Billy Wardlow.
The commission added several conditions to the approval: No food preparation on the park site. And while the park, like all Key West parks, will be open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., food may only be served from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.