Proposed waterfront park project moves forward

The city’s long delayed and much anticipated plan to purchase -- with grant and state funding -- a 1.2 acre parcel of waterfront land by the Little River near NE 79th Street moved one step closer to finally happening on Thursday, Feb. 17, but several steps still need to be taken before the convoluted saga of the proposed Manatee Bay Park comes to a close.

On Fe. 17, Commissioner Marc Sarnoff’s office authorized the use of $3,400 in “quality of life bond dollars” to pay for the appraisal of the property that the city plans to use to create the park. If the city ends up not buying the land, the quality of life funds will have to be repaid. Once the appraisal is complete, the city can then begin to negotiate with the owner, Skip Van Cel.

Sarnoff’s office sent us this comment by email:

"The park that we've proposed for the Little River-Manatee Bay area is still a high priority for our office. We just have to allow the process to work and give the administration time to approve the plans.”

The city's office of communication told us via email that the appraisal should take about 30 days, and that the process of purchasing the land and opening it as a park could happen by this time next year.


Van Cel, an artist and the founder and former owner of the monthly newspaper the Biscayne Times, has said he will sell the land to the city for $635,000. A possible problem: he hasn’t heard from the city in over a year.

On Friday, he walked through the small, but lush and wooded property where he has set a gazebo, a hammock, steps leading down to the river, and even a meditation labyrinth with slabs of tile and pieces of concrete. However, his mood could not be described as zen.

“I haven’t received a call from the city since February of 2010,” he said. “That makes me ask the question: how serious are they?”

Van Cel said he’d be happy to keep the property or sell it to a private individual for a higher price, but he’d prefer that the land be used for a public park. He claims to have received an offer for part of the property, and has drawn up plans to build eight cottages on that parcel incase the city’s offer falls through -- just as it did last year.

In 2010, Miami could have bought the property without dipping into its general fund. A key reason: the city was able to convince the state to approve the use of $550,000 from the Biscayne Bay/Miami River Land Acquisition Trust Fund for the purchase of the property.

The trust fund was created in 1985 as part of an agreement in which the state allowed the city to use public park space to build the Bayside Market place. The trust fund is administered by the state, and can only be used by the city to purchase land for waterfront parks, thereby compensating for the public land that was lost when Bayside was created.

The remaining $185,000 needed for the purchase would have come from a grant provided by the Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND), a state organization that provides cities with grants to fund the creation of waterfront parks. The city applied for the grant, but then withdrew its application at the last minute, as the Biscayne Times reported in July.

The deal fell through -- but Sarnoff’s office tells us that the state funding and FIND grant should still be in place if the city makes the purchase this year

Two neighborhood organizations in the area -- the North Palm Grove Community Organization and the Palm Grove Neighborhood Association -- have voiced support for the idea of turning the area into a park.

“It would just be a damn shame if they let that pass and they didn’t jump on that,” said Bob Powers, president of the Palm Grove Neighborhood Association. “The bottom line is that at the present asking price, it’s $12 a square foot. Where are you going to find water front property at $12 a square foot? You’re just not.”

FIND Commissioner Spencer Crowley also supports the city’s plan to purchase the property. In the video embedded above, he explains his rationale and his view of the history of the site. (Warning, the video is a bit shaky but the audio is good. It comes from the UEL blog).


One of Crowley’s main points -- and one that is repeated by the Urban Environmental League --- is that the park would be an ideal location to watch manatees, as they tend to congregate by that area of the river.

This proved to be true on Friday afternoon, when in less than five minutes, three manatees eased their way around the river bend. One was by itself. The other was an adult accompanying a baby. The smaller manatee had long white scars running down its back -- signs of past injuries caused by the propeller blades of passing boats.

A brown pelican rested by a tree on the river’s edge. Mallard ducks flew by the water’s surface.

Van Cel’s eyes lit up as he took it all in.

“This isn’t a piece of land, it’s an ecosystem,” he said.

Whether or not the public gets the chance to enjoy the land, its ecosystem and the passing manatees in a park could well be decided in the next few months.