Miami-Dade County

It was an oasis for Miami residents. But in the thick of a heat wave, this pool is closed

Another summer of record heat is torturing Miami, and the Morningside Park pool beckons as a source of relief, day camp fun, swimming lessons and exercise. But the pool remains empty behind locked gates, closed for the fourth straight summer, each one hotter than the last.

In a city thirsting for public pools, lingering indecision over the fate of a pool that was an oasis for multiple urban neighborhoods has frustrated residents.

The Morningside Park public swimming pool has been closed for repairs for four straight summers. Linda Robertson

“The neighbors love the pool and want it reopened,” said Elvis Cruz, Morningside activist and longtime homeowner who worked as a lifeguard at the pool 40 years ago. “Kids learn an essential life-safety skill here. People swim laps or do aquarobics classes. It’s a focal point for summer camps. It has a real social value for the community as a gathering place.

“This is the best park in the city. Fixing the pool is a no-brainer.”

Cruz said the pool should reopen for the sake of kids in a city with a shortage of pools, where parents wait in line overnight to register their children for swimming classes.

And yet, even after the city spent $149,078 on various studies, all of which recommended that the 66-year-old pool be repaired, it remains closed. There is still no decision on whether to renovate, raze or relocate the pool.

The pool is the most visible symbol in a long saga of neglect and perennially deferred maintenance at Morningside Park and other city of Miami parks, residents say.

Elvis Cruz, a Morningside activist and resident, center, and his cohorts Andrew Sloan of Little Haiti, right, and David Radunsky of Liberty City, left, are frustrated that Morningside pool is closed for the fourth straight summer. Carl Juste

“Morningside Park has unbelievable natural beauty and unlimited potential but it has lost its luster,” said Morningside Civic Association president Eli Stiers. He reeled off a list of rundown features, including the softball and soccer fields, playground, walking paths, boat ramp. “We need investment from the city but the park has been ignored for decades.”

The city cites sea rise and coastline flooding as complications that have delayed any action on improvements, although a consultant commissioned by the city submitted a detailed sea rise mitigation and pool repair plan for the park six months ago. A total rehab of corroded pipes, pumps and bathrooms would cost $3.8 million; building a new pool would cost twice as much and take twice as long.

The pool is a sensitive subject, as is the 42-acre bayfront park that is a jewel for Miami, where per capita green space is low compared to most major cities. The park abuts the historic Morningside neighborhood that has grown in affluence as the entire Upper East Side has undergone a renaissance.

The pool and basketball courts are popular with black Miamians who live across Biscayne Boulevard in lower-income neighborhoods such as Little Haiti. Tension between Morningside homeowners who want to save the pool and those who want to remove what one called a “white elephant” has divided the community.

“I think some of the newcomers and nouveau riche are scared of brown people and would love to privatize Morningside as if they’re living in Bay Point,” said Mariella Lopez de Alber, a resident of nearby Bayside. “It’s a public pool in a public park and you don’t have to be in a certain income bracket or be a certain color to use it or the basketball courts. They have the audacity to say they have their own pools in their own yards and this one isn’t necessary — well, lucky for you, but the world doesn’t revolve around you. If we have a great park and a great pool, let’s share. I don’t want this area to become homogenized, white suburbia.”

Lopez de Alber refurbished a house 20 years ago when Biscayne Boulevard and its seedy motels were frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes. She raised her two kids there and they spent their summers at Morningside camp, swimming in the pool.

“I’ve been a pioneer here since it was crack city, and it was a beautiful thing to see this area thrive as a multi-colored community and these kids playing together without any thought of class or race,” she said. “Don’t push out the essence of a place. Just fix the pool, respect the history and stop using sea rise as an excuse. We’re all going to drown sooner or later.”

Stiers said he and the civic association leaders are not “anti-pool,” but they question whether it is worth the huge expense, especially if limited funding from the city would prevent other improvements from being made. Pool maintenance would also be costly.

“We want a park that serves all Miamians and to suggest that we are looking to keep certain people out is insulting and a canard to drum up opposition,” said Stiers, who serves on the city’s Parks Advisory Board. “We’ve been waiting and waiting for funding. When we get it, we need to make the best use of that money to make the best park possible for the greatest number of users.”

Closing the pool would further discourage use of a park that’s already difficult to find and intimidating to enter, Cruz argues. Morningside was fenced in to deter crime. Visitors have to drive through security gates at guardhouses located east of Biscayne Boulevard at Northeast 58th Street or Northeast 50th Terrace. But the streets and park are public and non-Morningside residents can’t be turned away.

The Morningside Park swimming pool opened to the public in 1953. City of Miami

The aging pool, opened in 1953, was closed in 2016 because of crumbling concrete in some sections and the city set about researching what to do with it. The first engineering study, conducted in spring of 2016, cost $12,973; the second, in 2017, cost $11,950. The third, by TY Lin International last summer using ground-penetrating radar to look at structural integrity, as well as an examination of the electrical system, the pump room, bathrooms and ADA compliance, cost $35,480. All concluded the existing pool complex is salvageable and “does not warrant a full reconstruction,” as TY Lin stated.

The city hired AECOM to study options for redesigning the park and mitigating sea rise. The consulting firm, which charged a fee of $88,675, produced the Morningside Park General Plan, scheduled for public review in January but never presented. The 49-page report includes a shoreline protection and resiliency plan and a plan for repairing the pool, which sits 110 feet from the edge of the bay. Option C explores building a new pool with decks 15 feet high in the southwest corner of the park, but homeowners say that would face strong objections because it would be too close to houses and would obstruct bay views.

Cruz said when he met with Mayor Francis Suarez and Assistant City Manager Nzeribe Ihekwaba on Sept. 27, 2018, he was assured the pool would be fixed in its original spot.

“This whole situation is Catch-22 crazy,” Cruz said. “The city of Miami didn’t maintain the pool properly for years, then when it failed they spent 149,000 tax dollars on engineers who said the pool is fixable and should be fixed — but the city is ignoring their highly paid consultants and nothing is happening. The General Plan addresses coastline flooding, but apparently the city is using sea rise as cover for not doing anything.

“It’s stories like this that make people angry with city government — there’s no sense of urgency from the city to do the right thing.”

The city said it is still “working to address” the “long-term survival” of the park as well as assessing amenities — including swimming pools — in other parks within a 10-minute drive of Morningside. Capital improvements director Steve Williamson said the city’s park design consultant will “put together the options for a late July/early August community meeting.”

Stiers, a swimmer and triathlete, said he uses the Athalie Range Park pool, which is 1.6 miles from his house, or — when it is not under repair as it is now — the Hadley Park pool, 2.6 miles away. Both facilities are “superior” to and have more users than Morningside pool did, he said.

Cruz said the idea of getting in a car and driving away from the neighborhood park is antithetical to the city’s goal of having a park within walking distance for all residents.

“The point of neighborhood parks is that they are convenient to the neighborhoods they serve,” he said.

Cruz has organized a Friends of Miami Parks group to advocate for improved upkeep of parks so that assets like pools, community centers, tennis courts and bathrooms don’t have to be closed in the first place. The Legion Park boat ramp has been closed for 10 years. Flooding at Morningside is caused by a drainage problem the city hasn’t fixed despite complaints, he said.

On a recent 92-degree day at Morningside Park, laughing kids attending summer camp chased each other around a tree.

The pool deck was deserted and silent. Rainwater had collected in the deep end, where the only swimmers were mosquito larvae.