Douglas Park, which was closed for three and a half years due to contaminated soil, reopened on Thursday following a high-tech clean-up by the City of Miami that is part of a $5 million renovation of the 11-acre site near Coral Gables.
Construction on a 6,000-square-foot community center and shaded playground and exercise areas is expected to begin later this year. In the meantime, the park green spaces are open, as are the walking/jogging paths, basketball and tennis courts.
Douglas Park, 2795 SW 37th Ave., which served as a dump in the 1930s, was one of seven parks that was partially or fully shut down by the city of Miami since September 2013 after the discovery of elevated levels of toxins in the soil. Among the traces of metals found were antimony, arsenic, barium, copper, iron and lead.
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Some of the chemicals found in area parks were linked to ash from an old West Grove incinerator, dubbed Old Smokey, that expelled thick clouds of dark smoke for a half-century before it closed in 1970.
One by one the tainted parks have been remediated. Three Coconut Grove parks have reopened — Blanche Park, Billie Rolle Domino Park and Merrie Christmas Park — as did Southside Park and Bayfront Park downtown.
The only one still being worked on is Curtis Park, a sprawling sports complex north of the Miami River at 1901 NW 24th Ave. The playground and track are open for public use. The basketball courts will reopen in the next 30 days, according to Jeovanny Rodriguez, Miami’s capital improvements director.
By mid-October, the areas around the community center and track and field should be completed and open. And the baseball field is scheduled to re-open by the end of January 2018.
Concerns about toxins in the soil first came about in 2011, when the city discovered contaminated soil at a firefighter training facility in the Grove. The county ordered the city to find out what exactly was polluting the soil, but it took two years to issue a report, which showed high levels of arsenic and other heavy metals in the soil.
A graduate student at the University of Miami learned about the report. After intense scrutiny from the university, environmental groups and nearby residents, and after contaminents were found in the soil at Blanche Park and Merrie Christmas Park, the county ordered the city to test all of its parks, leading to the discovery of five other contaminiated sites.
Among the dignitaries at the Douglas Park re-opening Thursday was City Commissioner Ken Russell, who lives across the street from Merrie Christmas Park and whose activism to clean up the parks led to his running for political office.
The first-term commissioner, a Democrat representing downtown and Coconut Grove, is now forming an exploratory committee to gauge whether he should run for the Congressional seat being vacated by Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
“The kids have been missing their park, and it’s been our responsibility as a city to bring it back; but most importantly, to bring it back right,” said Russell, a father of three. “I’m very proud to say the city has improved the remediation process and method on every single park as it’s gone along.”
Much of the soil at Douglas Park was excavated and relocated, but all of the contaminants deep in the ground could not be removed, so an impervious liner was installed along with one to two feet of clean fill to create a seal that will keep the soil and groundwater clean. They also installed a new drainage system so water will not come into contact with contaminated materials.
“No kid will ever notice or care about how it was done, but we do,” Russell said.
One city resident who cares deeply about the Douglas Park cleanup is Ralph Rosado, who in December 2015 mobilized neighbors to push for remediation, when his two young sons asked why they couldn’t go play at the park anymore.
“I felt angry and powerless when they asked me that question, because I wasn’t able to give them a good answer,” Rosado said. “I was determined to fix that… Because we mobilized, in less than an hour, the graffiti at the park was painted over. Because we mobilized, in less than a day the grass was mowed and the lights were fixed. Because we mobilized, a new and improved Douglas Park was on its way to being born. This is a very good day in the City of Miami.”