Law could create ‘Central Park’ in Miami

Could Miami’s Museum Park become the next world-class green space?

Miami Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff says yes — thanks in part to a new state law he helped shape.

The legislation opens the door for Miami to create a non-profit conservancy that would operate and maintain the park, handling everything from fundraising to horticulture.

“This law gives us the ability to create [New York’s] Central Park in Miami,” Sarnoff said. “It could be something really special.”

But the conservancy idea, which would require a vote of the City Commission, is sure to draw critics.

Some watchdogs are concerned the law enables Miami to sidestep its own rules for leasing out its valuable waterfront properties. For most waterfront deals, city leaders must use the competitive bidding process and hold a public referendum. Neither would be necessary to establish a Museum Park conservancy.

“This looks like a way to obviate the requirements in the city charter to have a public vote,” said Frank Rollason, a former assistant city manager who now sits on the board of the Urban Environment League. “The people should have a say.”

The state law, which went into effect July 1, has implications beyond a possible conservancy in Miami. The legislation also allows local governments statewide to accept unsolicited proposals from the private sector for infrastructure projects. What’s more, governments can now lend money to the private entities participating in public-private partnerships.

“What this does is ask the private sector to help us address the public sector needs,” said Albert E. Dotson, a land development attorney with Bilzin Sumberg in Miami.

Some South Florida municipalities are already interested. Earlier this month, the Miami-Dade County Commission asked Mayor Carlos Gimenez to create a list of county infrastructure projects that could benefit from private partners.

In Miami, the focus is on partnerships with non-profit organizations. Sarnoff said he travelled to Tallahassee earlier this year to help draft and advocate for that part of the law.

The provision allows non-profits to contract with municipalities for certain projects, including the maintenance and improvement of parks larger than 20 acres and large public educational facilities, without having to go through the competitive bidding process. Sarnoff said the process would be “too cumbersome.”

The language applies to two Miami properties, both in Sarnoff’s district: Museum Park and Miami Marine Stadium, the iconic but dilapidated sporting and concert venue on Virginia Key.

Last week, the City Commission voted to give the non-profit Friends of Miami Marine Stadium control of the 22-acre site, contingent on the group raising $30 million for renovations. In that case, Miami leaders were able to bypass the competitive bidding rules by designating the semi-autonomous Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority as the stadium’s landlord.

Museum Park is being built where Bicentennial Park once stood, off Biscayne Boulevard just south of the MacArthur Causeway. It will share the 28-acre site with the new art and science museums.

Bicentennial Park had been run by the Bayfront Park Trust, a semi-independent agency that also manages nearby Bayfront Park. The trust set aside $800,000 in next year’s budget for the maintenance of Museum Park.

Sarnoff, however, is envisioning a non-profit akin to the Central Park Conservancy in New York. Established in 1980, the Central Park Conservancy has raised more than $300 million in private funds for New York’s famous park, according to documents provided by Sarnoff. It employs more than 150 staff members.

If there were a Museum Park conservancy, Sarnoff said, donors would be sure their contributions went directly to Museum Park, and not other municipal expenses.

“Plus, the city would no longer have to maintain and improve its parkland,” he said.

Financing the park has already been an issue.

The Miami Commission originally agreed to spend $68 million on the 20-acre green space. The initial plans, crafted by the New York firm of Cooper Robertson & Partners, famed planners of Manhattan’s Battery Park City, called for lush public gardens, rows of royal palms, glass buildings and a shallow pool.

But commissioners cut the budget to just $10 million last year and scaled back the plans. The blueprint is now mostly open space with some trees, lights and pathways to the waterfront.

Some community leaders say the conservancy is the right approach to ensure a top-notch park.

“Even with just the grass and lights, the park will be used,” said Gillian Thomas, CEO of the Miami Science Museum. “But it has the potential to become the real hub of the downtown renovation and the real meeting place for everyone in the city. It could be something of international quality that people around the world talk about.”

Critics, however, insist a referendum should take place.

Commissioner Frank Carollo, who has painted other Miami waterfront deals as giveaways, said he would be reluctant to move forward without careful deliberations and public input.

“We have a long history of not negotiating very good deals for our waterfront properties,” he said.