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Picnic at Parcel B PDF Print E-mail
Written by Adam Schachner, BT Contributor   
July 2015

Finally, the chance to enjoy our park!

FPix_AdamSchachner_7-15_1ive weeks of planning, a coalition of activists, and a heavy dose of grassroots creativity: We took a paved parking lot and turned it into paradise.

On June 13, collaborating local advocacy groups Emerge Miami (of which I’m a member) and the Urban Environment League, alongside the local online media outlet New Tropic, threw a picnic at Parcel B behind the American Airlines Arena. More than 300 people attended, including county commissioners Xavier Suarez and Audrey Edmonson, whose district includes Parcel B.

Visitors enjoyed games, art, bicycle rides, yoga, and a dedication to local public-spaces hero Dan Paul. The pop-up “Dan Paul Park” proved that despite Miami’s reputation for lackluster civic participation, locals are attentive to political happenings, and our elected leaders should expect an engaged public.

Parcel B, the five-acre plot of nothing behind downtown’s AAA, is a waterfront gem muted by underutilization and forgotten promises. Twenty years of obscurity represent a frustrating letdown of public-private partnerships: a convenient arrangement pitched to voters and then brushed aside by other priorities.

Initially, proposals to build the AAA met tepid responses. Among the detractors was the future mayor of Miami-Dade County, Alex Penelas, whose 1996 campaign included opposition to the arena. Prominent First Amendment lawyer Dan Paul led a petition drive for a ballot measure against the arena. Despite this effort, an epic last-minute publicity campaign on behalf of the arena shifted a 60 percent disapproval polling into voter gold.

This publicity magic was devised by Michael Murphy, a strategic media consultant for political and sports campaigns through his firm Navigators. In a 2004 guest column aptly titled “Successful Strategies for Pitching an Arena Project to Voters” in the Sports Business Journal, Murphy explained how to manipulate popular opinion, starting with polling and ending with the pitch.

“It is important to convince voters that the winners in a new stadium are not the big team owners, but the entire community,” Murphy wrote. “We had to make the campaign about civic pride. ...Recasting the arena as a waterfront park and arena was to be key to our campaign.”

A media blitz featuring television ads starring Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, phone banking, and direct-mail flyers soon outmatched Paul’s petition, and the ballot swung in favor of an arena with public portions allotted. With the people sated, and even Mayor Penelas subtly letting go of his platform, the public space inclusion in the AAA’s development was filed away as a future ambition.

Those promises are today’s Parcel B.

Currently, Parcel B provides valet parking and equipment storage during arena events. The Heat pay rent for the parking, although unreasonably low rates have recently piqued the county’s attention.

There’s a morbid irony to the history of Parcel B. We dedicated our park to Paul, whose undeterred advocacy inspired the county charter’s Dan Paul Amendment, requiring that commercial use of public space to be put to the people for a vote. This worked against Paul’s ambitions in 1996, when Murphy’s media wizardry buried arena opposition. Miami got its vote and chose an arena with a park.

Dan Paul Park was a celebration of a people’s champion, illuminating the degree to which political commitments are quickly befuddled. The week leading up to the event included bureaucratic absurdities and lapses in accountability.

For instance, we received an e-mail from the county’s Internal Services Department Real Estate Development Division, stating that “a Permit is required for this type of event.” We were told to pay $7500, with a $5000 deposit and $200 application fee.

Luckily, one of our organizers is a First Amendment lawyer as well. Justin Wales, a constitutional litigator with Carlton Fields Jorden Burt, crafted a personal response to the county’s request that was well-versed in the rights for folks trying to enjoy a picnic. The county retracted its request.

“The most upsetting thing,” Wales explains to the BT, “was to require us to purchase a permit without first reaching out and asking about the event’s character. Had this happened to another group, members may not have a law degree or known their rights. They might get that initial e-mail and not know what to do from that point, and maybe let go of their plan.”

In a strange twist, the permit issue made it into Channel 10 coverage by Glenna Milberg, which led to a follow-up, uncovering the fact that fencing and padlocks preventing access to the site were unpermitted. The locks came off, but accountability for that infraction remains elusive, and it is uncertain how long it obstructed public access.

Dan Paul Park was great fun. Still, the future of Parcel B is uncertain. The county commission has run a loop de loop around the issue, the latest drama being a push to build a Cuban exile museum on the site.

This debate provides a migraine of back-and-forth among county entities. While county commissioners heatedly convened on the issue in July 2014, Edmonson offered her support for the theme of such a museum, but stated: “I support this museum, just not on Parcel B.”

A year later, interviewed for Milberg’s coverage of Dan Paul Park, Edmonson’s position had shifted. “It’s time they do something until the museum can be built,” she said.

Miami is culturally diverse and understandably should feel entitled to its various themes. Still, Parcel B is across Biscayne Boulevard from Freedom Tower, hosting the Cuban-American Museum. This is just a few miles from the Cuban Museum on Coral Way, which is just one block from Cuban Memorial Boulevard, a promenade linking to Calle Ocho. Despite the profound significance of the Cuban experience, would the same debate occur over a museum for Venezuelan exiles or Haitian refugees?

As we wait to see if proponents can raise enough money to build and operate their museum, organizations such as the Urban Environment League are pooling their efforts for future events at Parcel B and are drafting a county resolution to ensure that the people get their park.

Gregory Bush, vice president of the UEL and author of the resolution, puts it plainly: “Regularity and showing that people aren’t going away is really important, because after an event like this, politicians may have gotten a headline, but they won’t be around tomorrow.”

Political obfuscation can lead to debacles like a five-acre commitment converted into tarmac with a fence around it. That must be countered with public participation and outcry over this broken promise -- and any number of other pitches sold to us for our votes.

I can’t help but appreciate both Milberg’s and Commissioner Edmonson’s choice of words in their interview: “Hold their feet to the fire.”

Time to get some matches.

 

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