Downtown Miami

This Miami park already has two museums. Does it really have room for two more?

An aerial view of Miami’s Museum Park, now renamed Maurice A. Ferre Park.
An aerial view of Miami’s Museum Park, now renamed Maurice A. Ferre Park. Miami Herald file photo

Miami would rip up a chunk of downtown’s new Museum Park to make room for two county-backed museums honoring black Americans and Cuban exiles under a plan that would add a pair of buildings to the green space surrounding the county’s existing art and science museums.

The plan, backed by Miami-Dade commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo and Audrey Edmonson, would dramatically remake Museum Park, a city park that opened in 2014 as the grassy, shaded backyard for two county-funded museums on the nearby waterfront: the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Frost Museum of Science.

The Museum Park proposal was designed to solve a fight already under way over the museums, which had hoped to claim a nearby waterfront public lot behind the AmericanAirlines Arena known as “Parcel B.” On Tuesday, county commissioners were set to vote on an agreement for placing a Cuban Exile History Museum on Parcel B. But with that plan facing an uphill climb, the legislation is on hold as the various sides try to reach a deal on building the nonprofit facilities on Museum Park.

“I’m trying to assure that my constituency gets what they want, and what they want is for Parcel B to be a park,” Edmonson said during a recent public meeting on the proposal. “It’s a good compromise.”

While engineered to defuse a brewing fight over putting the museums on county parkland, the plan to double the museum count at Museum Park hasn’t mollified opponents. And pulling off the Museum Park strategy requires approval from the Miami City Commission, where a key commissioner overseeing the park is already grumbling about the scope of the plan for a two-acre parcel.

“Obviously it’s going to take two acres of green space,” said Andres Althabe, president of the Biscayne Neighborhood Association, which fought the museum plan for Parcel B. “I can tell you: People are not going to be happy.”

In 1996, the Miami Heat and elected officials promised Miami-Dade voters a park with a soccer field on the publicly-owned vacant lot as part of a campaign to win approval for a new county-owned arena for the Miami Heat on public land. The park never materialized, and the Heat largely commandeers the space for truck parking during games, concerts and other events under a controversial discounted lease with the county.

museum park scene
Nickki Diefenbach and her husband, David Wallace, participate in the 2018 Herald Hunt in Museum Park in downtown Miami on Sunday, March 4, 2018. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Leaders of the Cuban exile museum plan described themselves as reluctantly giving up their push for Parcel B with the assumption that they wouldn’t face a fight in getting approval for Museum Park.

“If we’re conceding Parcel B, we don’t want to relive the same fight over again on Museum Park,” said William Muir, an organizer of the exile museum effort.

Occupying prime waterfront in downtown Miami, the former Bicentennial Park has long been the subject of attempted land grabs. Before the art and science museums were approved under the administration of Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, Major League Baseball’s Marlins had sought to build their new ballpark in Bicentennial Park. That idea was met with a groundswell of public opposition that led to the creation of Museum Park instead.

In 2014, as Museum Park was under construction, soccer star David Beckham proposed building a stadium in it. That idea, too, was met with strong public opposition and was scrapped.

By then, the city had spent at least $40 million in designing and building the new park under an ambitious blueprint designed by noted New York firm Cooper Robertson & Partners. The full design was not built because of a shortage of funding. But the city installed a bare-bones version with underground utilities that could be filled in as money became available.

Joining the two existing museums would be the new Cuban Exile History Museum and a museum honoring African-Americans’ role in the history of Miami — museums that so far exist only on paper and whose supporters are hoping for public land to begin building fundraising momentum.

The latest push to build on the property would involve a series of decisions by Miami, which owns the park, and Miami-Dade, which is sanctioning the museums. Driving the request are two fledgling efforts to raise tens of millions of dollars to create a pair of nonprofit facilities capable of sustaining themselves in Miami’s already challenging field of educational attractions. The Frost museum fell short of fundraising goals and had to rely on a bailout from Miami-Dade to complete construction on its four-acre site, and the Pérez depends on the county for about $4 million in operating funds each year.

Cuban Exile Park & Museum
A rendering of what the Cuban Exile History Museum was going to look like if built behind the AmericanAirlines Arena on a piece of county-owned waterfront land known as Parcel B. Cuban Exile History Museum

Bovo, the sponsor of the exile museum plan, inserted in his legislation a requirement that the nonprofit accept no county tax dollars. “That’s my litmus test,” he said. Commissioner Dennis Moss, sponsor of the African-American museum’s requests, has said public funds may be needed for that museum, just as public dollars support the Pérez and the Frost.

Leaders of the exile museum started the process in 2014, winning a vote by the County Commission to endorse putting the planned attraction on Parcel B. At the time, Moss, the senior African-American commissioner on the 13-member board, said he would support the idea — provided Bovo and others backed his efforts for a museum exploring the role of black and African-American people in Miami’s history.

Exile museum organizers said they needed county backing to begin raising funds to build the facility. Nicholas Gutierrez Jr., a Miami lawyer who is helping organize the exile museum effort, said the group is exploring all options — including the pursuit of for-profit investors through the federal EB-5 investment visa program, which offers green cards to foreign residents who invest in job-producing projects in the United States.

“This is a big project, with a lot of people being employed,” Gutierrez said. “We have a lot of possibilities.”

Gutierrez and architect Robert Chisholm declined to give an updated cost estimate for the exile museum, saying the plans and budget changed with the assumed move to Museum Park. Even so, Gutierrez said the museum has a business plan that shows the museum being financially viable without government funds. The previous project cost was about $90 million.

A cost estimate for the African-American museum, led by local lawyer and lobbyist Al Dotson Jr., was not available.

If the money remains a question mark, so does the actual acreage at stake in Museum Park. The previous exile museum plan called for two acres, and there was talk of combining the African-American museum into the complex as a way to have two facilities within a single footprint on Parcel B.

At a public meeting Thursday between Bovo, Edmonson and Moss, a new plan was revealed for separate buildings standing side by side. Bovo said he expected that the adjoining museums could still occupy about two acres in the 20-acre park.

Joe Carollo, the Miami city commissioner who leads the city board that oversees the park, will be crucial to approving any plans for the park. While he was cited in the county meeting as the main sponsor for the shift from Parcel B to Museum Park, county commissioners also said Carollo was working on the assumption that the two museums would need only about an acre for their footprint.

“I was asked for one acre,” he said Tuesday. “I don’t know if we have two acres there.”

This article was corrected to report what Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo said the was estimated combined footprint for the two new museums proposed at Museum Park. He said the two museums would occupy a combined two acres.

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