Downtown Miami

Downtown residents want a calmer Bayfront Park. They face some stormy Miami politics.

Preparations for the annual Ultra Music Festival take a lot of time and can limit the public's access to Bayfront Park days before the festival opens.
Preparations for the annual Ultra Music Festival take a lot of time and can limit the public's access to Bayfront Park days before the festival opens. Miami Herald file photo / 2015

Some would call the political fracas between Miami commissioners Ken Russell and Joe Carollo the rumble in Bayfront Park.

In one corner, Russell stands as the district representative for most of Miami's waterfront, a third-year commissioner who doesn't have a say in how Bayfront Park is managed and wants to see the park's governing body abolished.

The chairman of that body is the other contender, Carollo, who was elected in another district but has his own beef with Russell's power. He wants to limit the number of quasi-governmental boards a commissioner can lead — a shot at Russell's position as chairman of three powerful boards in his district.

Surrounding the ring are a mix of spectators with skin in the fight.

Downtown residents would rather there be no spectacle at all in Bayfront Park. They want peace, quiet, a place to walk their dogs and jog. Whether the city takes control of the park or it remains in the hands of a semi-autonomous nine-person board, they just want their voices heard. They're finding that to be heard, they have to trudge through Miami's politics.

Also watching: Organizers of big-ticket productions such as Ultra Music Festival and Rolling Loud Festival, three-day music events that have been staged in Bayfront Park. Ultra, in particular, is in the midst of a negotiation with Carollo and his board, the Bayfront Park Management Trust, over a new contract to continue producing the festival in the park. The festival is a big money-maker for the Trust, which has to sustain its own budget and does not receive money from the city coffers.

A crucial round of this bout is set for Thursday's commission meeting, where Russell and Carollo will be pushing ordinances that aim to strip each other of power. But both men insist they are not going after each other. They say they're simply pushing good government and a better "balance" of power.

Russell is asking the commission to abolish the Trust and return control of Bayfront Park to the city parks department. He says it's a possible solution for residents who want to hold leaders accountable for what happens in the park.

"I don't think it's about commissioner versus commissioner," Russell said. "Currently, Bayfront Park is not accountable to these residents."

Russell said the residents want a better balance between holding revenue-generating events in the park and letting it be a passive green space. And, he says, he needs to get involved.

Carollo, who's been chair of the trust for about five months, said he doesn't believe eliminating the trust would help because it would only shift the focus of "influence peddlers and lobbyists" from the nine-person Trust to the five-member City Commission. He emphasized that any multi-year contracts for events in the park, such as Ultra's five-year deal that just expired, would require commission approval anyway.

His proposal has nothing to do with Bayfront Park — but it would affect Russell. Carollo wants to prevent commissioners from being chairman of more than one board unless each commissioner has had the opportunity to be chairman at least once. While two commissioners do not lead any boards, Russell is chairman of three: the Coconut Grove Business Improvement District, the Downtown Development Authority and the OMNI Community Redevelopment Agency.

But Carollo maintains he just wants to fairly spread outside leadership positions across the City Commission.

"There should be some balance there," he said.

Meanwhile, what residents want the most is not some bureaucratic structural makeover. They want a clear direction for whoever is in charge of the park to address the number of events that close off the public's access and generate noise and traffic.

Among a group of active downtown dwellers is Rev. Pedro Martinez, who two weeks ago told commissioners that big events are "making people's lives a living hell."

At a community meeting June 7, Martinez peered down from the balcony of the 50 Biscayne condo tower to point out a large chunk of grass missing.

“For a month it’s been this way,” Martinez said. “After Ultra, they replaced the lawn on the right side. They removed the lawn in the middle with the intention of replacing it, but I guess they didn’t. Look at it now, it’s a dirt field.”

About 40 members of the downtown community, most of them residents, met to discuss the use of the park. They expressed their frustration about the many events — from Ultra to Rolling Loud to a taping of American Ninja Warriors — that have had an increasingly large presence in the park.

They pointed to the number of days the park is closed off, which has more than tripled from 35 in 2011 to 115 in 2017.

“"The amount of events that’s happening in the park and the scope and scale of the events is no longer appropriate for a residential neighborhood,” said Itai Benosh, downtown resident and treasurer of 50 Biscayne. “The events are just getting bigger and bigger and at the same time there is a larger and larger residential community here that need their park.”

Residents discussed Russell’s proposal to abolish the Trust but didn’t come to a conclusion about whether to ditch their old system and give the city complete control over the park.

“We don’t have a simple answer,” Benosh said. “We know the evil we have. We don’t know the evil we don’t have.”

For the group, the problem was not that events are taking place in the park — many expressed support for events on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve that draw large crowds. But these events don’t close the park to the public — and they are not ear-splittingly loud.

A key complaint among residents at 50 Biscayne, which sits across the street from Bayfront Park, is the din of music that blares out from festivals such as Ultra. They even commissioned a noise study to measure Ultra's impacts. The results “consistently show[ed] high levels of noise intrusion to the nearby residents.”

Residents expressed dismay that the number of events seems to be increasing even as residents complain.

“Ultra is still trying to negotiate their way in. NFL probably is already in,” said Ken Schwartz, resident of 50 Biscayne. “Could I ask this question: What else do commissioners want to throw at us in downtown?”

Throughout the meeting the group expressed some appreciation for Carollo, who visited several nearby residences during the Ultra festival. The group, however, did not express much optimism that the condition of the park will improve in future years. They felt event organizers and the lobbyists they employ will still have too much sway over any board that makes decisions.

Despite the apparent jockeying between the two, Russell and Carollo both said residents like to feel they have a say in Bayfront Park's use.

"We have a situation downtown that's coming to a head," Russell said.

On Wednesday, he described his proposal for park management as a possible solution, but he's keeping an open mind. As for Carollo's proposed ordinance, Russell said it was irrelevant to the Bayfront Park question, but he defended his ability to effectively juggle the responsibilities of being a commissioner and leading three boards.

Carollo defended the Trust's ability to protect residents' interests, but said either way, the residents need to be the priority.

"What they want to see is that the park is used as a park, and that they can have their peace and quiet," he said. "Whether that comes from the City Commission or the Trust, I don't care."

City of Miami police chief Jorge Colina and Miami commissioner Ken Russell talk about new security measures in place for the Ultra Music Festival on March 21, 2018.