Miami Beach

Neighbors oppose proposed accessible wellness center in Miami Beach oceanfront park

Sabrina Cohen, who was paralyzed after a car accident more than 20 years ago, heads a foundation that wants to build a three-story wellness center in an oceanfront park in Miami Beach. Neighbors have spoken out against the proposal.
Sabrina Cohen, who was paralyzed after a car accident more than 20 years ago, heads a foundation that wants to build a three-story wellness center in an oceanfront park in Miami Beach. Neighbors have spoken out against the proposal. Miami Herald Staff

Nestled in one of a few open seaside spots along Collins Avenue, Allison Park lies low on three acres surrounded by towering condos.

The beachfront green space just south of 65th Street is the center of a new controversy over a unique project for Miami Beach. A local nonprofit that supports people with physical disabilities wants to lease land from the city to build a three-story accessible wellness center. The building would house an aquatherapy program, accessible gym and equipment such as beach wheelchairs, and it would dovetail with the city’s plans to build an adaptive playground and beach access designed for the disabled.

But some residents in neighboring condos don’t want it in their backyard.

City officials have publicly discussed the concept at City Hall for more than a year with Sabrina Cohen, whose namesake foundation is spearheading the effort. Cohen, a quadriplegic since suffering a spinal-cord injury in a 1992 car accident, sees the project as an opportunity to create a comfortable space where those with disabilities like hers can gain strength and feel empowered — the same way she has benefited from physical therapy.

“This is an opportunity for equal access,” she said. “Miami Beach has an opportunity now to be premier in leading the front on adaptive fitness and beach access.”

Proposal: 99-year lease for 5,100 square feet for foundation to build privately-funded center. Rent to city: $18 annually

Only in the past month have neighbors learned of the plan. Many have organized a petition against the project because they want to keep Allison Park just as it is. They insist they don’t oppose a facility to help the disabled enjoy the beach.

Just put it somewhere else.

“It’s not the right place for it,” said Beach resident Joseph Vles, 76. “There’s other empty land.”

Supporters have also mobilized to keep the project on track to go to a public referendum in March. A majority of voters would have to approve the lease of public land.

Where two months ago it looked like the city commission would easily send this to the voters with unanimous support, the recent brouhaha might delay the project.

During an initial vote in September, commissioners unanimously approved sending the question to voters in March. On Wednesday, they will consider final approval. Or they can postpone the vote.

ADAPTIVE FITNESS CENTER

Allison Park is a quiet retreat near the southern edge of North Beach with parking and direct access to the sand. In the course of a recent afternoon, fewer than a dozen people could be seen strolling through the park. Nearly as many cats ambled about.

In the center of the park is a round patch of grass peppered with trees and three sea turtle sculptures. This patch is where Cohen wants to build a three-story center with a footprint of 5,100 square feet. It would be 50 feet tall, and the plan includes adding more parking, as well as rebuilding public restrooms.

Cohen first approached the city three years ago with an idea to build a wellness center by the ocean that would house therapy programs and equipment to allow the disabled to comfortably enjoy the beach. City officials saw an opportunity to move forward with an adaptive playground in Allison Park.

Other sites were considered. According to the Beach’s park director, John Rebar, Allison Park was chosen “because of the proposed synergy between the playground and the wellness center.”

Allison Park, detractors of the project argue, is too small to house the building. Some neighbors feel it will overtake the park.

According to commercial real estate appraiser Tom Blazejack, the proposed structure is “fairly insubstantial” for a three-acre piece of land.

He added that, if deemed an amenity by real estate brokers, the therapy center could increase property values and be a boon to the neighborhood.

Opposition also claims that Allison Park is an endangered area. They say it’s a nesting area for turtles and one of the few green spaces left in Miami Beach. Lease terms would require the Sabrina Cohen Foundation to obtain and adhere to building permits, which would include an environmental impact assessment.

Nannette Rodriguez, director of communications for Miami Beach, said multiple city agencies coordinate for oversight.

As for green space, the design plan being considered would preserve a majority of the park’s tree canopy, according to a July commission item summary. Cohen said she will work with the city to relocate the sea turtle sculptures.

It’s a small park. I understand there’s a lot more people other than myself that need this park

Julia Diaz, 63, a neighbor who is disabled due to a spinal cord injury

Another part of the issue, argues Marcus Alonso, one of the 12 neighbors who make up a group called Save Allison Park Advisory Committee, is that public land should not be used by private entities.

“We are deeply disturbed and outraged that the city commission think they can just give [public land] away to a private institution and we wouldn’t notice or care,” he said.

According to the lease under consideration, the city would lease the land to the foundation for $18 a year for 99 years.

Many neighbors were angry that they didn’t learn about the proposal earlier. For more than a year, Cohen has spoken before the city commission in public meetings about the concept, and Cohen held an event on the beach at Allison Park in September 2014 to celebrate progress in fundraising for the project.

DIVISION AMONG RESIDENTS

The contentious issue has divided neighbors and other residents in Miami Beach and beyond.

Alonso began a petition titled “Save Allison Park” on MoveOn.Org, which he intends to deliver to the Miami Beach City Commission on Wednesday, when the second vote of the proposed lease will take place. As of Monday afternoon, the petition has garnered 1,254 signatures, some of which are of supporters from far-flung locations like Argentina and Chile.

Cohen started her own petition on Change.org, where since last week she’s gotten 1,220 supporters. Again, signers include people from throughout South Florida and some from other states and countries.

We could become a travel destination for those seeking medical rehab in a tropical setting, a tourist-type setting

David Doebler, 43, who lives in the Venetian Islands

People have been taking the divisive issue to their elected officials, as well.

Commissioner Michael Grieco said he has received about 100 emails on the issue, and the opinion is pretty much split down the middle. The debate has grown so contentious, he said, that he feels it should not go on the March ballot because of another big question going to voters — a public land lease for the development of a headquarter hotel for the soon-to-be renovated Miami Beach Convention Center.

“Everybody should be focused when it comes to the March ballot,” he told the Miami Herald. “The convention center hotel is too important.”

He said the issue has grown unnecessarily bitter, particularly after hearing that Cohen was brought to tears by angry neighbors at a recent meeting with a condo association.

“I’m not going to communicate with you unless you remove emotion from the question,” he said. “I implore people to remove emotion from the equation. Then we could talk about it like an adult. If it’s going to be about emotion and disrespect, I can’t hear you.”

Mayor Philip Levine said he wants to hear both sides out before deciding where he stands, but he supports the project and feels it would make Miami Beach a destination for the disabled.

“We need to listen to the concerns of the neighbors,” he said. “But at the same time we know that we want to support Sabrina and this incredibly worthwhile concept.”

For his part, Levine said he wasn’t concerned about the question possibly affecting the outcome of the hotel question, which requires 60 percent approval.

“One has nothing to do with the other,” he said. “I think that the residents of Miami Beach are very smart. They know what they want and what they don’t want.”

Support for Cohen has come in from doctors at local health agencies, including the Miami Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Jackson Memorial Hospital and the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation has partnered with Cohen to get the center built. CEO Peter Wildetrotter said in an interview that he fully stands behind Cohen’s foundation and feels the opposition’s reaction is rooted in fear of change.

“There is initial reaction, that this is going to change the flavor, the feel of the way this looks,” he said. “And the truth is it does, but in a very beautiful, elegant way.”

When asked if there is a fear of overdevelopment among neighbors, Alonso said there was.

“Of course,” he said. “People are extremely angry about it.”

Even though he doesn’t want to see it go to a public vote in March, Grieco insisted the project will eventually become reality.

“This project will happen,” he said. “It’s just a matter of will it happen here or will it happen elsewhere.”

This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their insights with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.

Preliminary plan for center

Although the project is not designed and only in initial planning stages, preliminary plans for the wellness center show this floor plan for the three-story center.

▪ Ground floor: Welcome center, public bathrooms and storage of equipment (beach wheelchairs, etc.)

▪ Main (second) floor: Open floor gym, locker rooms, physical therapy, art therapy, massage, yoga classes

▪ Third floor: Conference room/auditorium, Sabrina Cohen Foundation offices, aqua tubs

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