Downtown Miami

Is it a UFO? A bunker? It can’t be a fountain if there’s no water, can it?

The Pepper fountain in downtown Miami’s Bayfront Park sits dry and idle in its waterfront plaza. When it functioned in 1990 it was the centerpiece of Isamu Noguchi’s redesign of the park.
The Pepper fountain in downtown Miami’s Bayfront Park sits dry and idle in its waterfront plaza. When it functioned in 1990 it was the centerpiece of Isamu Noguchi’s redesign of the park.

What is the hulking structure near the water’s edge in Bayfront Park that looks like a UFO, an inverted birthday cake or an Inca temple?

“A helicopter landing pad?” speculated Michael Korzeniewski, a tourist from Warsaw.

“A bunker?” mused his friend Patrycja Beinkowska.

“Could be a skateboard park,” guessed a visitor from Boston.

“A historic military monument,” said Paula Molina of Colombia.

“No tengo la menor idea,” said her husband, shrugging. “I haven’t the slightest idea.”

It could be any of those things because it is no longer what it was built to be: A spectacular fountain designed by renowned sculptor Isamu Noguchi as the centerpiece of downtown Miami’s front yard.

The Mildred and Claude Pepper Fountain, named after the late U.S. congressman and his wife, is bone dry. Not a trickle, not a drop of water emerges from the pipes. No torrents sluice down the sides and into the 170-foot wide basin. Nothing spouts from the 36 jets that could be set to spray in different patterns.

A dry fountain seems as sad as a mute songbird.

Ridiculous, too, that the city of Miami abandoned what was a beautiful landmark evocative of our subtropical waterworld. When the fountain opened in 1990, the $3 million crown jewel of the dilapidated park’s $20 million renovation, people would stand around it joyfully, listen to the soothing flow, and let the cooling mist float onto their skin.

Today, while walking across the searing hot plaza, staring at the empty bowl, all you feel is thirst, and a rivulet of sweat dribbling down your back.

“Has not worked in – I don’t remember when,” said Dylan Calzadilla, who sells ice cream from his pink and green truck on the south side of the fountain. “It used to be so nice, and the birds loved it.

Paul Jones, who lives across Biscayne Boulevard in the 50 Biscayne building, recalls the fountain only running intermittently when he first moved here eight years ago.

“It definitely added to the character of the park,” said Jones, who was walking along the promenade with his dog Tobago. “It’s a shame that the tourists come by and see no water in it.”

In 1999, the Pepper fountain in Bayfront Park in downtown Miami was running at half of its power to save money. Randy Bazemore

Another downtown resident said she walks her child and her dog in the park daily and she’s never observed the fountain in operation.

The city began reducing the fountain’s hours within months after it was unveiled when a budget report said it would cost $544,000 per year to keep it flowing. Unaffordable, the city said. Then the fountain’s power and the height of its spray was reduced. Eventually the fountain was shut down. In 2007, in keeping with the practice of renting out parks to make money, the fountain was used as the base of a concessionaire’s hot air balloon ride.

Since then, as the park has become the venue for multiple disruptive outdoor events such as the Ultra music festival (which necessitates closing most of the park for three months), the fountain has been idle, a symbol of Miami’s tendency to ruin or waste its special waterfront spaces (remember when there was serious consideration of ripping up Museum Park to build David Beckham’s soccer stadium, next to the already abhorrently situated AmericanAirlines Arena?).

James Stewart (not the star of “It’s a Wonderful Life”) spends many of his days sitting in the shade and reading Wild West novels. His theory is that the park’s redevelopment was financed by cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar’s laundered drug money.

“They’ve still got plenty of that money for this park, and all these concerts are bringing in more money,” he said. “They didn’t need to kill the fountain.”

So, what could the Pepper fountain be if it’s not a fountain? The city could put a cover on it and convert it to a stage. Or fill it with water and make it a kiddie pool. A giant fire pit. A giant paella pan.

But Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo has other plans. He cast a critical vote in favor of Bayfront Park’s redesign in the 1980s, and Noguchi persuaded him to approve tearing down the old public library so there could be unobstructed views of the fountain and waterfront.

“Why did we build that fountain if we’re not going to run it?” said Carollo, who is chair of the Bayfront Park Management Trust. “As one of the fathers of the new Bayfront Park, I want to restore Noguchi’s vision and bring the park back to its past glory.”

To do so will be expensive. The pipes and pumps are rusted by salt water intrusion. The hot air balloon company installed two dozen concrete blocks and cylinders in the basin and didn’t remove them.

“Just like everybody else in Miami, these people left and nobody made them clean up the mess they made,” Carollo said. “The whole system may have to be gutted and raised to a higher level.”

Carollo wants to clean up the park’s mucky pond and add a garden and waterfall.

“I’d love to put koi in the pond but maybe people would steal them,” he said.

Noguchi’s laser tower, which used to dazzle downtown with nighttime displays, has also fallen into disrepair. A mega-yacht advertising banner hangs on one side. A large sign warns restroom users that they have five minutes to do their business and then they’ll hear a “courtesy knock” before the attendant shoos them out.

Carollo is getting a cost estimate for improvements to Miami’s lovely park, which needs more attention than ever now that downtown’s residential population is booming. He said the trust is in good financial shape with a $12 million budget — that doesn’t yet include the $2 million per year the trust hopes to be paid by Ultra organizers if a new five-year contract gets hammered out. He recently authorized the transfer of $3 million from the trust to the city’s general fund.

Stewart won’t hold his breath but he’d be thrilled if the fountain flowed again. People used to congregate by it – which was one of Noguchi’s goals – as they do by the fountains in Chicago’s Millennium Park or New York’s Central Park.

“It makes no sense to have it sit there, silent and dry,” he said. “It needs to be alive.”