Miami-Dade County

Will cafes in shipping containers and a pop-up park bring life to desolate Omni west?

In this file photo, a shipping container was repurposed to serve as an outdoor bar at Cinquecento restaurant in Boston.
In this file photo, a shipping container was repurposed to serve as an outdoor bar at Cinquecento restaurant in Boston. The Boston Globe

If there’s one thing not lacking in the western reaches of Miami’s desolate but very-slowly-coming-to-life Omni district, it’s vacant land. So a city agency, neighborhood activists and the Pérez Art Museum Miami have agreed to collaborate on an enticing idea to put some of it to good use right away.

Their plan: to create a pop-up park on seven acres of state-owned land stretching along Interstate 395 from the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts nearly to Interstate 95.

 

The blueprint for the proposed Omni Park, drawn up by the same guys who built an elaborate temporary park on the site of the old Miami Arena, is creative but simple and relatively inexpensive, backers say.

It calls for planting grass, putting in some gravel paths and commissioning artwork consisting in part of chickee huts made of recycled materials like chain-link fence. But the plan doesn’t stop there. To lure people to an area where now most fear to tread, the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency would install a skate park and a soundstage for live music, and deploy repurposed shipping containers for use as cafes, restaurants and even a barbershop — a concept that’s proven a hit in cities from Stockholm to Boston and San Juan.

Activist and entrepreneur Brad Knoefler, who came up with the concept with working partner Mark Lesniak, said it builds on lessons the duo learned from their two-year experience running the private Grand Central Park, which hosted some large events in Miami, including concerts and community gatherings, but never drew the day-to-day activity they’d hoped before the land was sold for development.

This time, the Omni CRA would pay for a program of concerts and events, and the food and beverage idea — some well-known local operators are interested, Knoefler said — is meant to make the park, which would sit at the Arsht opera house’s doorstep and a short stroll from two Metromover stations, a different sort of attraction. Instead of the scores of trees they planted at Grand Central Park, this plan would use existing trees on the site and provide shade and cover through the chickees and other devices.

“One thing we learned is that it’s great to have a beautiful park, but if there’s not a reason for people to visit, it doesn’t get activated. If we can create enough bars and restaurants, it could be a destination,” said Knoefler, who co-owns the Bar at 1306 near the proposed park. “It’s what I’ve been saying for years. All you have to do is copy what they’re doing in San Francisco, in Portland, in Sweden. It’s not rocket science.”

The land, comprising four city blocks, belongs to the Florida Department of Transportation, and will someday soon be the site of construction for a new, higher “signature” I-395 overpass. For now, the CRA and Knoefler say, FDOT has guaranteed that the park can stay at least until next August, but they feel confident the term can be extended to a full year or two before work actually begins.

The city commission, sitting as the CRA’s board, will vote on the proposal on Wednesday.

The CRA chairman, Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, says the park idea is part of a new strategy to re-energize the agency, criticized in the past for misspending and not doing enough to reverse slum and blighted conditions in the area, which includes a corner of Overtown. That strategy includes a focus on developing affordable housing to complement market-rate apartment development now edging into the Omni district’s western portion along Northwest 14th Street.

Drawing people into the area and making it appealing is a necessary first step, Russell said.

“The before and after picture of this land will be dramatic. Right now it’s weeds, broken pavement and broken glass. This is the classic definition of what a CRA should be doing — incentivizing future development,” he said. “I don’t want to fall into the same trap as other CRA chairs in the past and stray off from the mission.”

Russell also notes that FDOT’s I-395 plan calls for turning the land beneath the elevated roadway into a park after the new span is completed and the old one torn down, and the temporary park would serve to, in his words, “pre-activate” the area, getting people used to thinking of it as public open space and conceiving ways for its future use. The permanent park is to connect PAMM and Museum Park to the Arsht, the burgeoning arts district to the center’s west, and the residential Overtown blocks around it, now sundered by roadway embankments and the visual and psychological barrier of the low overpass spanning Biscayne Boulevard.

“The idea is this would rebind a broken Overtown, but we decided to activate the space now,” Russell said.

The CRA has earmarked up to $300,000 to build the park, but more than half of that would go to the stage, shipping containers and other materials the agency can reuse elsewhere, making the project cost-effective, Russell and Knoefler say. Exactly how much the agency, which collects a portion of property taxes on new development in the district, spends on the project will depend on how long the park can stay in place. Knoefler’s group, acting as design and planning contractor, would be paid a percentage of the budget plus a $20,000 design fee.

The nearby PAMM, which sits within the Omni district boundary, would contribute an additional $150,000 to commission chickee huts and landscaping evoking Everglades islands by Miami artist Michael Loveland, among other improvements. The PAMM money comes from a $1 million grant from the CRA that won support from four other commissioners last year over the objections of Russell, who said he then asked the museum to invest some of that in the park to benefit the district’s blighted areas.

“PAMM is excited to be part of the team bringing a revitalized vision to our extended neighborhood,” museum director Franklin Sirmans said in a statement. “We are working with a local artist who envisions an artistic and transformative use of the chain-link fence material currently surrounding the land, to help turn it into a welcoming gathering place with a nod to Miami’s history.”

One expert on CRA law who has been critical of the free-spending ways of some agencies in Miami-Dade County endorsed the park idea. But he questioned whether the city had done enough to find other sources of public funding, including development impact fees meant to support new parks. Frank Schnidman, a recently retired professor of urban planning at Florida Atlantic University, said CRA money should be used for “bricks and mortar” projects that eliminate blight, not programming or promotions.

“Putting a pop-up park there is a good idea. It can activate the place. It takes a dead zone between two areas of Omni and provides a reason for people to explore the community redevelopment area,” Schnidman said. “The question is, who should be responsible for paying for it?”

Russell said he believes the park project “meets the test.”

“What we’ve got here is different from a park improvement,” he said. “The majority of the spend will be for modular stuff we can relocate or move back in once 395 is completed.”

Knoefler, meanwhile, said he’s tired of seeing neighborhoods stagnate and valuable urban land go to waste when it could be put to use now. He and his partners are not doing it for the money, he said, but to improve the neighborhood.

“We’re not making our living from this,” Knoefler said. “It’s fun. All I ever wanted to do is cool stuff around the neighborhood.”

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