Miami-Dade County

Rising seas will drown this popular Miami park. A $55 million plan could save it.

King tide hits Matheson Hammock

People visiting Matheson Hammock Park Monday morning were taken by surprise by the King Tide that began rolling in around 10am.
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People visiting Matheson Hammock Park Monday morning were taken by surprise by the King Tide that began rolling in around 10am.

As manager of the Red Fish Grill at Matheson Hammock Park, Chris Klaic has some tricks: Never take Chilean sea bass off the menu, always remember it’s a neighborhood restaurant, and keep an eye on the tide tables to know when Biscayne Bay might flood the parking lot.

“Probably 350 days out of the year, it’s great,” he says of the low-lying restaurant just off the Matheson beach, facing Biscayne Bay. “Then you have a couple of weeks out of the year, when you have that full moon, and high tides, and wind.”

On those days, high tide rings the restaurant with a moat, swamps the parking lots and leaves the mangrove-fringed trail impassable. Loyal regulars park at the marina, which sits on slightly higher ground, and wade down to Red Fish.

As climate change brings the tides higher and higher, there are more of those kind of days in store for Matheson Hammock. A new county study showed it could cost Miami-Dade more than $55 million in the next 20 years to keep the beloved park above water.

Consultants for coastal engineering firm Cummins Cederberg suggested building boardwalks, installing floating docks and raising the flood-prone parking lots. Without that work, the report warned, the whole park would flood regularly by 2075. By 2100, with five feet of sea rise, the only dry spot during high tide would be the tallest point of the Marina parking lot, and that too would be underwater during the highest tide of the year, known as a King Tide.

The report offers a technical mix of climate gloom and engineering optimism as it lays out the gradual demise of Matheson at the hands of climate change, but also a detailed blueprint for how to save the park. The big barrier: money. The $55 million price tag isn’t particularly daunting for a county with a yearly budget approaching $8 billion — in 2016, the county commission approved a $49 million rescue package to finish construction of the Frost science museum in downtown Miami, and it plans to spend about $60 million building a new jail over the next decade.

But the Matheson fix captures the epic task ahead for Miami-Dade as it contemplates a budget to fight sea-level rise. The proposed 2019 budget set for approval in September only includes one portion of the Matheson plan. That’s $4.3 million to raise the most deteriorated of the park’s seawalls to be high enough to contain an additional two feet of water at high tide — the projection for 2070.

The Parks Department’s annual wish list of unfunded projects includes $175 million for fighting sea-level rise at coastal parks across the county. That’s likely just a starting point. A separate planning document for the agency highlights the stakes, noting that most of Miami-Dade’s most iconic parks — places like the Deering Estate, Haulover Park, and Crandon Park — sit on increasingly vulnerable coastlines.

“If resiliency efforts are not immediately implemented,” reads the 2019 Parks business plan, “the community will lose its most historic and treasured parks.”

Maria Nardi, the county’s parks director, issued a statement Friday that called sea-level rise the central challenge of the agency. But the statement stopped well short of pledging more money to implement the Matheson recommendations.

“Climate change is perhaps the most important thing facing the department,” she said. As the department reviews recommendations for fighting sea-level rise, the agency will continue “to explore funding options and timeframes.”

The low-lying park is one of Miami-Dade County’s environmental jewels — donated by the wealthy Matheson family for the enjoyment of the public. The oldest park in the county, it opened in 1930 and was built out by members of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps as part of the New Deal.

Matheson Hammock 14 EKM
The rooftop deck at the Red Fish Grill has an amazing view of the waters off Matheson Hammock Park. The popular waterfront restaurant has been closed since Hurricane Irma caused extensive damage to it last summer. Emily Michot

The man-made atoll surrounding a calm and naturally refilling pool of saltwater is a hit with families with young children, and the marina is a popular spot, with ramps and slips offering quick access to the open bay. Roughly a quarter million people visit a year, and Matheson generates about $1 million profit toward the Parks Department’s $235 million yearly budget. But what makes Matheson so appealing — its proximity to the bay — also threatens its survival.

The fight against flooding isn’t new. In 2006, Miami-Dade began a yearlong, $2.4 million project that elevated the main road that separates the low-lying areas of the park (including Red Fish) from the higher spots. Before the elevation, Klaic said the bay would cross over the road and leave Red Fish an island and the parking lot a pond.

“I was losing a lot of business because of that,” said Klaic, managing partner of Red Fish. “There were some nights when we couldn’t even open the restaurant. It was bad.”

Red Fish has been boarded up with plywood since Hurricane Irma sent about five feet of bay water through the glass doors that open up to the restaurant’s patio, ruining the stoves, freezers, furniture and almost everything else that was waist-level or lower inside. He hopes to open again in late November.

This report, released in March, lays out a road map for the county to adapt the rest of the park to a wetter future. The gist? Everything needs to go up.

The mangrove path needs to become a boardwalk several feet above the saltwater soaked ground. The parking lots should be raised a couple of feet; the atoll walkway, too. The marina docks should be swapped out for floating docks. A berm on the beach would leave some sand above water during king tides, at least until 2040. All the roads should be elevated.

Matheson Hammock 06 EKM
Red Fish Grill manager Chris Klaic removes a board to enter his shuttered restaurant on July 31, 2018, nearly one year after Hurricane Irma. The hurricane caused major damage to Klaic’s popular waterfront restaurant that sits within Matheson Hammock Park at 9610 Old Cutler Rd. in Coral Gables. The restaurant has been closed since the storm and is undergoing complete renovations. Klaic plans to be open for business by November 2018. Emily Michot

Consultants recommend half of the upgrades be completed in the next five years — a cost of up to $19 million. By 2040, the upgrade bill rises to $55 million. That doesn’t include the cost of elevating any buildings on the property, including the dockmaster building and the police office.

“If improvements are not implemented, portions or all of the Park will likely be unusable during a large portion of the year within the next 20 years,” consultants wrote. “It is anticipated guest use and Park revenue would decrease significantly.”

Sea-rise proofing community spots is a vote of confidence for residents that their government cares about maintaining their quality of life as the climate changes, said Alec Bogdanoff, president of climate readiness consultant firm Brizaga. Bogdanoff wasn’t a part of the report, but he sees it as an important step by the county toward recognizing the value of community spaces.

“To me, resilience is more than building strong buildings; it’s about building a space people want to come to and be a part of,” he said. “Public spaces are really a part of building that community.”

Fans of the park are eager for Red Fish to recover from the bay waters flood and reopen its doors. Klaic said he’s already penciled in more than a dozen weddings for the restaurant’s uninterrupted view looking south onto Biscayne Bay. “I’ve had non-stop calls” about the restaurant’s opening date, which still isn’t set, he said. “Half of my customers live around here.”

High water remains a bother, but not a crisis in Klaic’s mind. He and his partners don’t think elevating the coral-rock restaurant is feasible, and there are no plans to make major changes for the approach of higher sea levels.

“You do the best you can,” Klaic said of the high waters. “I feel like I’ve been dealing with it for so many years already. I’ve kind of gotten used to it, and we just work around it.”