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Written by Eleazar David Meléndez, BT Contributor   
July 2017

Where will all the children play?

IPix_EleazarMelendez_7-17t’s an ambitious plan befitting the ultra-prime location in downtown Miami that it’s destined to occupy. A $2 million playground being championed by the chairman of the trust that manages downtown’s Museum Park -- at least as seen in renderings -- has the back-to-the-future vibe that fits right in with the surrounding multimillion-dollar condos.

The cutting-edge design -- and one would expect no less for dropping so much cash on playground equipment -- is being pitched as something like a down payment on the tens of millions that once upon a time city leaders envisioned spending on what could be Miami’s signature park.

Back before the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, the frill-laden plan for the park was estimated to cost $68 million. That would have included fountains and playful water features, multiple ornate gardens, pavilions, a grand promenade connecting the park to the two museums on the north, and even several manmade islands and water platforms to provide for recreational activities inside the boat slip at the southern end of the park.

The lavish plan got scrapped to make way for the much more modest park that opened its doors in 2014, so let’s say this $2 million is a drop in the bucket.

But it’s still a good bit of money that, with the priorities of downtown Miami having changed significantly over the past decade, is quickly becoming a bone of contention.

On one side of the debate, the park trust is pushing to be repaid, through an agreement with the local anti-poverty agency, the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency, once the playground is built. The claim: that the money to do this project, and many more to gussy up Museum Park, was promised years ago. A deal, that side of the argument goes, is a deal.

On the other side, the leadership of the Omni CRA, which covers only a very small part of downtown Miami and mostly extends to blighted lots north and west into Overtown, is saying the money is already earmarked for a much more ambitious scheme: bringing affordable housing to Miami’s urban core.

It’s not the first time that the CRA money has been eyed by civic leaders with other plans: a significant portion of the organization’s annual revenue is already set aside for funding things like paying off the financing on the tunnel built a few years ago to connect PortMiami and downtown. Part of the mortgages taken out to build the performing arts center downtown and Marlins Park a decade ago is also being paid by the CRA.

More recently, both the boosters of the idea behind creating a park conservancy for Museum Park and those looking to help shore up the finances of the Frost Museum of Science have also come hat in hand to ask the CRA for money. Both those groups have left emptyhanded for now, poised instead to wait in the wings for the political winds to shift.

The push to finance the playground, however, appears to have more urgency. And debate on that grew hot late last month, when at a meeting of the board of the CRA, city commissioners publicly tussled over that entity’s responsibility to fund the previous agreement and start sending cash to Museum Park.

In a way, it’s no surprise that a budgetary flashpoint is popping up around a park meant to benefit children downtown. Besides the fact that no one wants to been seen as taking stuff away from kids, the focus on children and their place in downtown Miami has seemed increasingly pressing as demographics have changed. The number of families in the neighborhood kept increasing through the current real estate boom.

Data from the Downtown Development Authority, the economic booster agency for downtown and Brickell, estimates that the population of children under 14 in those Miami neighborhoods has increased by 14 percent since 2010, to just under 11,000. Meanwhile, the percentage of residents living in family households is holding up better than the citywide average, where non-family households are increasing as a percentage of the total population. And that’s of course amid a huge influx into new residential units.

What all that means: A lot more children are growing up in downtown Miami and Brickell, and topics -- including playgrounds -- that weren’t the focus of city planners as the area grew are now taking center stage.

That dynamic, with its attendant political drama, has already played out in a long-simmering debate over what education options are available for parents of elementary and middle-school children in Brickell and downtown.

First organized through the umbrella of the PTA for Southside Elementary School, then championed by the local school board member and a major political donor backing her, proposals for establishing charter schools to serve the residents of downtown and Brickell have become more than just chatter, with the wishes from some parents slamming into the buzz saw of racial politics.

Brickellites and downtowners claim they need a new school, but backers of Overtown’s Booker T. Washington High School have said that refocusing attention on a new institution downtown will take away resources from students in the current inner-city campus.

The playground issue doesn’t have the sticky racial component, but just the same, it brings up the problem of prioritizing policy goals.

Families in downtown are certainly looking for amenities to benefit their kids. But families there and throughout the city are being overwhelmed by housing costs that are among the least affordable in the nation.

It’s to the point that the pain is being expressed not just by the families that have doubled up or endured unbearable commutes for decades in order to afford living here. Even their employers, who tend to carry more weight with city leaders, are paying attention.

A recent CEO survey by the Miami Herald on the topic had leaders of such large employers as Royal Caribbean and Miami Jewish Health Systems weighing in on the topic.

“This is a serious problem that will only get worse,” Jeffrey Freimark, president and CEO of the latter company, told the Herald.

Which comes back to the playground in Museum Park.

With so much of the new construction in the city’s center skewing toward ultra-luxury housing that is seemingly only within reach of foreign investors, it will test some boundaries to take money away from affordable housing and put it toward making a nice park even better.

Or maybe not. Certainly decisions get made every day that prioritize other issues before addressing the housing affordability crisis in front of us. What’s a few million dollars between friends, anyway?

 

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