Miami-Dade County

A Cuban museum wants Miami waterfront that was supposed to be a park

The proposed Cuban Exile History Museum on "Parcel B," about three acres of county-owned land behind the AmericanAirlines Arena that was pitched as a future park during the 1996 referendum endorsing public land and dollars for the future home of the Miami Heat.
The proposed Cuban Exile History Museum on "Parcel B," about three acres of county-owned land behind the AmericanAirlines Arena that was pitched as a future park during the 1996 referendum endorsing public land and dollars for the future home of the Miami Heat.

A two-decade push to produce a promised waterfront park behind the AmericanAirlines Arena may get a boost as backers of a rival plan to put a Cuban museum there are calling off next week's showdown vote.

Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Esteban "Steve" Bovo, chief sponsor of a 55-year lease for a privately funded Cuban Exile History Museum on the county waterfront, said he's questioning the support for his item, which is on Tuesday's agenda. A museum representative said the vote is off, and Bovo all but confirmed the change in plans.

"I don't know if there's an appetite to move forward on this," Bovo said Friday. "I'm sensitive to the residents of that area. I'm sensitive to what their expectations were."

More than two decades ago, the Miami Heat promised to transform the county-owned land into green space during a referendum campaign to win public support for the county deal that led to construction of the team's waterfront arena. The land in question, a three-acre spot best known as "Parcel B," sits behind the arena (built on "Parcel A") and was largely used for overflow parking by the Heat before community activists succeeded in having some grass and trees added in recent years.

Miami has held a movie night and other events there, and Miami-Dade has a plan to expand the landscaping to bring the parcel closer to the vision of picnics and pick-up soccer games featured in Heat ads and political materials during the campaign to support the county's arena plan under then-mayor Alex Penelas.

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Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Esteban "Steve" Bovo, seated during an April commission meeting, is the top sponsor of legislation to bring the Cuban Exile History Museum to county-owned waterfront in downtown Miami. C.M. Guerrero

Adding a park to the pitch was central to winning public support for the 1996 ballot item, which the polls at one point showed heading for defeat. Mike Murphy, the now-famous political commentator hired by the Heat to help with the arena campaign, later wrote that the team added the park concept to win over non-Hispanic white voters.

"White voters were most excited about a new family-friendly park on Miami's waterfront, including soccer fields and a new arena, which would bring in concerts and other entertainment events," Murphy wrote in a 2004 essay for the Sports Business Journal. "Recasting the arena as a waterfront park and arena was to be key to our campaign."

After failing to produce the promised park, the Heat gave Parcel B back to the county in 2003. Community activists have pushed for the park plan, but faced competition from a citizens group trying to put a museum there that would be tied to Cuban history.

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Miami-Dade officials, including cultural chief Michael Spring, left, Parks Director Maria Nardi, second from left, and County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, third from left, take part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony last July celebrating the installation of more grass and trees on "Parcel B," a county-owned parcel on the Miami waterfront that could be home to a museum on the history of Cuban exiles. Miami Herald File Photo

County commissioners took symbolic votes endorsing the museum plan throughout the years, the most recent in 2014 instructing Mayor Carlos Gimenez to negotiate a lease for the project.

With the negotiations done and a deal ready for a commission vote, neighborhood activists, downtown groups and elected officials from the area pushed back at the idea of Miami-Dade formally scrapping plans to transform Parcel B into undeveloped green space.

"It's a terrible idea to take away a park that was promised more than 20 years ago," said Andres Althabe, president of the Biscayne Neighborhood Association. "Finally, when there is some green space and conversations to fund creating a real park, they come up with buildings there to take up all the space."

Miami's tax-funded Downtown Development Authority in February passed a resolution urging Miami-Dade not to allow "any development on Parcel B" and to "ensure that it remains park space."

Audrey Edmonson, the county commissioner whose district includes Parcel B, fought the lease deal and secured the county funding needed for the landscaping and waterfront trees that are there now. She said Miami-Dade needs to deliver on what voters were offered in exchange for supporting the arena deal.

"We all know a park was promised to the voters," said Edmonson, who was elected in 2004. "To put a structure on the last piece of green space located in our downtown area — I think it's very unfair to the residents of that area, as well as to the community as a whole."

Bovo cited Edmonson's position in explaining why he may be backing off the Parcel B plan, along with neighborhood opposition. "I think it all points to reevaluating where this museum ultimately goes," he said.

The proposed agreement would require museum organizers to hit fundraising milestones in order to remain eligible for the lease — including a requirement that it raise $3 million cash and $4 million in pledges during the first 12 months for a construction project expected to cost nearly $80 million. The provisions were designed to give the museum a short time frame to prove financial viability or else give up its ambitions for the land.

So far, the charity has little money to show for its efforts. In its most recent nonprofit tax filing, from 2015, the museum reported it had $76,000 in the bank and listed more than $300,000 on architectural drawings and plans, which organizers said were donated. Nicolas Gutierrez, a top backer of the museum, said the group hasn't brought in enough money in subsequent years to trigger filing the kind of detailed tax return that charities must provide for public inspection.

Gutierrez said the museum, which would celebrate the achievements of Cuban immigrants who fled the Castro regime, needs to show that it has a place to go before big donors sign on to the project.

"Serious large-scale, fund-raising cannot begin, unless and until we have [a museum] site secured," he said in email.

Backers pitch the museum as the best way to secure a true park for the secluded spit of land behind the arena, and say the years of inaction pointed to the need for a bolder plan.

"That property, which is prime waterfront property, has been weed choked, litter strewn, and covered with vagrants and crime for 22 years," Gutierrez said. He pointed to the museum's plan for a park surrounding its three-story campus, including a soccer field, as a way to bring an institution to the area that can maintain the kind of green space that residents want.

Still, Gutierrez said he didn't predict a vote on the lease Tuesday.

"We may be back some other day," Gutierrez said. "Sometimes you've got to pick your battles."

This post was updated to reflect the Cuban Exile History Museum's statement that drawings for the project were donated.