Miami-Dade County

Some want Miami urban park redone. Others say it should be preserved. Who’s right?

Morningside Park basketball courts are open for business and being used as of Friday, October 6, 2017.
Morningside Park basketball courts are open for business and being used as of Friday, October 6, 2017. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

Miami's Morningside Park, a tree-shaded bayfront gem in a city woefully short of green space, is indisputably in need of more than a little TLC.

The rundown swimming pool has been closed for two years, the adjoining bathrooms even longer. The surface of the popular tennis courts is cracked. When it rains, portions of the low-lying park flood and remain a swamp for days afterwards.

But when some homeowners in the affluent abutting neighborhood of Morningside persuaded the city to study a makeover for the park, their effort provoked a sharp backlash from some other Morningside and Upper East Side residents, spurring a debate that’s raised touchy questions of history, gentrification, class and racial mistrust in one of Miami’s hottest areas.

Proponents of the makeover include relatively recent newcomers to Morningside with young kids. They say they want a modernized park better attuned to the needs of families who prefer soccer and paddling watersports to basketball or softball. They also say it needs to be better protected from inundation and sea-level rise, and made safer and more kid- and pedestrian-friendly by curtailing parking and driving.

The critics, who include what one proponent of a park redesign referred to as Morningside’s “old guard,” contend the changes their neighbors seek would erase some of the 64-year-old park’s most distinctive — and historic — features, including the swimming pavilion and a finely rendered landscape design that’s survived the decades mostly intact.

To forestall drastic changes, they’re backing an effort by noted Miami historian Paul George and longtime Morningside activist Elvis Cruz to have the city designate the park a protected historic landmark.

Last week, the city historic preservation board voted 9-0 to consider George’s designation application, which argues that the park merits protection because it was created by prominent Miamians of the day, and its landscape and some of its buildings are outstanding examples of mid-20th Century planning and design in Miami. Though historic designation would not bar changes or improvements to the park, it could rule out an extensive park redesign that some have sought.

But some critics don’t stop there.

They say the features that some Morningside residents want to alter or remove, including a basketball court, the pool and a scenic road that loops through the 42-acre park and connects a series of small parking lots, happen to be those heavily used by black Miamians who live across Biscayne Boulevard in low-income neighborhoods like Little Haiti, and who drive and park to play and picnic by the water.

Whether deliberately or not, the critics contend, those changes would discourage the park’s use by people from outside the fenced and gated Morningside enclave, whose residents are mostly white.

Already, they note, users from outside the immediate neighborhood must cross security gates to drive in, though guards can’t stop anyone because the streets and the park are public. But the gates, installed years ago at a time when Biscayne Boulevard was plagued by drug traffic and street prostitution, have had the effect of turning Morningside Park into something of a well-kept secret even though, as one of the city’s largest and most beautiful parks, it’s meant to serve the broader community.

A petition drive backing historic designation for the park gathered about 1,000 signatures, many of them from residents of neighborhoods outside Morningside.

“We have used the park for many years and we love it the way it is,” said one of the petition organizers, Alexandra De Lara, who lives across the boulevard from Morningside and walks to the park twice a day. “We don’t want it redesigned. We’re not stupid. It’s to keep the community and black folks out, especially the Haitians who come there. This group, in our view, is trying to make the park their private backyard. But this is not your private backyard.”

Racial tension has been an undercurrent in the neighborhood since at least the 1970s, when white flight and economic stagnation sent neighborhoods along Biscayne Boulevard north of downtown into a sharp decline, and made Morningside Park a magnet for prostitution and drug dealing.

Morningside residents, Cruz among them, battled crime and city neglect and banded together to have most of the neighborhood designated as Miami’s first historic district in 1984 — a measure that many today credit not only with saving the neighborhood, but also with fostering the ongoing revival of the city’s entire Upper East Side.

But the neighborhood’s increasing gentrification and the controversial gated fence, installed to monitor visitors and deter crime, have given Morningside a feel that some primarily minority neighbors regard as exclusionary. Even today, occasional flare-ups of home burglaries or petty crime raise the specter of race. A neighborhood Google discussion group sees not infrequent postings from residents about “suspicious” black individuals walking in the neighborhood, often drawing rebukes from other Morningsiders.

During Hurricane Irma last month, someone in the neighborhood put an unauthorized lock on a pedestrian gate between the neighborhood and Biscayne Boulevard, and some residents on the Google group defended the illegal move as a necessary measure to prevent “looting” after the storm.

Preservation board member Najeeb Campbell, an architect who lives in nearby Buena Vista, gently chided proponents of park changes during last week’s hearing even as he expressed sympathy with their desire to take out the loop road.

“There’s a social and cultural element to Morningside that’s giving a cold shoulder to the rest of the city,” Campbell said. “Those are some of the concerns that are coming up in the discussion of this designation. That’s where some of the tension is really coming from.

“There’s a feeling that the people of Morningside want it to be a park for Morningside only.”

But to suggest that race has played a role in the effort to improve the park is unfair and untrue, proponents say.

Marc Billings, a former president of the Morningside Civic Association and a leading voice for extensive changes, say their wish is to improve on an antiquated park design, improve safety by limiting car access, and replace deteriorated buildings and facilities to better accommodate all users.

Taking out the loop road, or replacing it with a pedestrian path if necessary to preserve the original landscape plan, would not mean eliminating parking or access for autos, both of which can be moved to the park’s perimeter, he said. But it would improve safety and increase needed green space.

“People with two legs of all races can walk more than 10 feet to the barbecue pit,” Billings said.

At this point, he said, no one has asked the parks department to remove the basketball court. In fact, Billings noted, one change he and others back is installation of a formal soccer field in the park’s north end, which has lights, maybe by replacing a softball field. That would primarily benefit Haitian-American soccer players, among the park’s most dedicated users, who must now play in an unlit open field at the park’s south end, he said.

“Nothing that we’re doing has any concept of closing the park off,” Billings said. “The questions being asked right now are, how can we increase the utilization of the park?”

Backers also complain that neither Cruz nor George consulted with residents or the neighborhood association before launching the designation effort.

“The question I have is, what component of the park is historic?” said Morningside resident Brad Colmer, a developer and real estate investor backing park changes. “To me, there is very little. The park is generally in decrepit state. The fear about designation on the part of many residents is that you end up protecting the wrong thing, like an asphalt driveway through the middle of the park.”

What the dispute over the park has exposed, Colmer contends, is a generational split in Morningside between younger newcomers like himself and longtime residents like Cruz who have zealously guarded the neighborhood’s leafy ambience and historic, eclectic architecture and scale.

“Fundamentally, it comes down to older residents who are afraid of change and don’t want to see the park dramatically altered or reimagined,” Colmer said. “Younger residents want to see active investment, especially when things are poorly maintained.”

Billings blames Cruz, a retired city firefighter who is now president of the neighborhood association, for stoking the fears of people inside and outside the neighborhood and spreading what he termed “misinformation” about the intentions of residents pushing for park changes.

Cruz said he wants to stay above the fray, but stressed he believes all the park needs is repairs and assiduous maintenance. He said the park’s merits are obvious and merit preservation.

“Morningside park was beautifully designed. It’s a perfect balance of an athletic area and a passive recreational area. People have loved it for 64 years,” Cruz said in an interview. “It can definitely use better maintenance.”

George said he’s been surprised by the fervent opposition to designation, which he thought would be a “slam dunk” for the neighborhood.

He said Cruz had hired him to do a survey of homes in the neighborhood’s end with an eye to possible expansion of the historic district. But when the effort stalled, George said, he found himself fascinated by the park, which abuts the historic district but is not included in it. He decided to conduct a formal study independently and without charge, especially after growing concerned that some residents were calling for the razing of the swimming pool and other park facilities.

He concluded that the park, which opened in 1953 to great fanfare, clearly meets the legal criteria for historic designation, as likely do four of its seven buildings. That’s because its creation involved prominent Miamians like then-Mayor Perrine Palmer and Coral Gables founder George Merrick, and because of its design, by then-city parks director P. Raymond Plumer, which he said ably distributes groups of trees to create a lush scene.

It also reflects priorities of the time, such as automobile access, George said.

“After World War II, for the first time, many people had a car and a home. The parks reflects the importance of the car at that time,” George said. “In some ways, it reflects Miami. The car is still important. A lot of minorities drive their car to the park. It’s interesting how the park has taken on these sociological and demographic overtones.”

Miami parks director Kevin Kirwin stressed that, other than repairing the tennis courts, no decisions have been made about what, if anything, to do at the park. The department has asked city consultant AECOM to take a look at the park and consult with community members, but the process is at an early stage, he said.

But Kirwin added that something must be done to protect the park from a rising water table and inundation from sea-level rise, and that amenities that would not have been considered by Plumer could be added. Another question to be answered is whether the existing pool, which has structural issues, can feasibly be repaired. Even then, it might continue to experience maintenance problems because it sits so close to the saltwater bay.

“It may be that most of that original Plumer design works,” Kirwin said. “But is a pool at that place near the water going to work? Taking a real look at the park makes good planning sense. It’s incredibly valuable land. Anything you do to it has lasting repercussions.”

The park took a blow from Hurricane Irma last month, Kirwin noted, driving home the need to ensure it can serve Miamians for another 60 years.

“This is driven by the need to take a hard look at that park through the lens of resiliency. The bottom line is, the water’s coming.”

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