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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
February 2017

An idea floats for passive greenspace

WManatee_1hile adults are making speeches beneath a blue tent, four kids standing on a seawall spot a large manatee gently drifting, submerged in the brackish waterway known as Little River. As the kids point and snap pictures, another manatee appears. And then another. And another.

Such was the scene on a somewhat rainy Saturday, January 14, during the official dedication of recent improvements at Manatee Bend Park, located at 457 NE 77th Street Rd. within the City of Miami’s Upper Eastside neighborhood of North Palm Grove. Those improvements include a restored seawall and a brand-new kayak/canoe launch. Future improvements for Manatee Bend may include security lighting and a new sidewalk.

“Manatee Bend has been a real positive thing for our neighborhood,” says Eileen Bottari, a member of the City of Miami’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and a North Palm Grove homeowner. “It’s just benches and wildlife and trees, and no locked gates or fences.”

City officials and activists at the dedication reminisced about how Manatee Bend went from a 1.2-acre stretch of waterfront land slated for development to a passive park where adults relax, children play, and manatees and birds (especially ducks) congregate.

Among those present at the event was Spencer Crowley, an attorney who serves as Miami-Dade County’s representative on the commission of the Florida Inland Navigation District, or FIND, a state board funded by property taxes and tasked with enhancing waterways for recreation along Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Manatee_2It was thanks to Crowley that FIND allocated $442,000 for the City of Miami to help the municipality buy the land, rebuild the seawall, and create the new paddlers’ launch.

But Crowley sees Manatee Bend as just the beginning. He hopes that additional recreational spots will be created along the winding Little River waterway in the Upper Eastside area and the evolving Little River neighborhood.

“There’s a concept floating around among some people to create a linear park along the Little River,” Crowley says. “Some of the property is not going to be able to be acquired, but some of it is available for redevelopment.”

Most of the property east of the Florida East Coast railroad tracks along Little River’s west bank is privately owned. One parcel of 4.6 acres runs from NE 79th Street to NE 83rd Court (see map). Crowley contends that this long and narrow strip of land could be purchased by means of a grant from FIND and revenue from a city trust fund dedicated to obtaining public land along the waterfront.

Daniel Alfonso, Miami’s city manager, thinks that’s a possibility. “This is the rail corridor; it’s not buildable,” Alfonso tells the BT. “There’s a certain amount of mangroves, too. It’s not developable. But we can build a boardwalk. There are things that can be done [to make it a park], but we have to acquire the land.”

Manatee_3

The current owner of that land is Global Fund Investments, a company specialized in redeveloping and managing shopping centers.

Global Fund Investments obtained that waterfront property as part of a larger land transaction. In March 2013, Global bought the Biscayne Plaza Shopping Center at 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, as well as adjoining property, from Edward Easton and Allen Greenwald, for $12 million. In all, 18 acres of land changed hands.

Doron Valero, managing partner of Global, says his company invested another $5 million transforming Biscayne Plaza into the Shops of Midpoint Miami, a commercial plaza catering primarily to the lower-income neighborhoods west of the railroad tracks, but also to the gentrifying middle-class areas east of Biscayne Boulevard.

Global also placed fencing around a vacant parking lot just west of the shopping center and an adjacent pedestrian bridge arching over the river. “It’s been fenced off for the past four years,” Valero says. “There were a lot of homeless people on the bridge. We needed to lock it up. Nothing is happening on that part. Not yet.”

Except for some vehicle barricades, most of Global’s land on the west bank of the river, abutting the railroad tracks, is essentially open.

Manatee_4

Back in 2013, Valero told the BT he was talking to the Trust for Public Land about turning the riverfront land Global controls into a park. (See “Biscayne Plaza, Meet Your New Boss,” May 2013.)

Valero now tells the BT that he was also talking with Florida East Coast Railroad and the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority “a few years ago.”

“There was a lot of talk about a train station in that same location,” Valero says. “We’re kind of on hold until we know what the train plans are.”

The South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, the agency that oversees Tri-Rail, does aspire to create passenger train stations along the FEC railroad tracks up and down the Biscayne Corridor. However, before plans for a “Tri-Rail Coastal Link” can progress, the connection to the existing Tri-Rail system in western Miami-Dade must be established at the FEC’s massive MiamiCentral project in downtown Miami. “Until we get into MiamiCentral station, everything is pretty much on hold,” says Bonnie Arnold, spokeswoman for the Regional Transportation Authority.

Valero is still open to the idea of a park forged from his land. “I think at the end of the day that land would fit a park,” he says. “The question is, how do you do it? With the city, the county, or the state? Or do you do it private? There are a lot of ways to skin a cat.”

Manatee_5

Back in March 2012, the City of Miami approved a resolution to buy the riverfront land from the shopping center’s previous owners, Easton and Greenwald, for no more than $730,000 so that it could be turned into a park. That effort ultimately fizzled.

The land that would become Manatee Bend almost didn’t become a park either.

In 2004, Robert Gray, a former Washington, D.C., public relations executive, bought the land along Little River for $2 million. Gray demolished the houses that once stood there and submitted plans to build a low-rise condominium.

Then the real estate market crashed. In December 2009, Gray sold the property to Skip Van Cel for $285,000 in cash. Van Cel, the former publisher of Biscayne Times, dubbed the land “Manatee Bend” because of the manatees that congregated in the adjacent water, and offered to sell the land to the city for $635,000 so it could be made into a park.

After months of haggling, Miami bought Manatee Bend from Van Cel for $590,000 in April 2011. To make the purchase, the city utilized $117,000 from FIND and $473,000 from the city’s Biscayne Bay/Miami River Land Acquisition Fund.

By the time the park opened in August 2013, the city still hadn’t used an additional $325,000 from FIND to rebuild the seawall and add a kayak launch. Bottari claims that the delay was caused by the city forgetting to budget $42,000 in administrative costs for the seawall. “So the city just kept back-burning the project,” she explains. “When I found out why they had put it on the back burner, I talked to Marc.”

Marc Sarnoff, the area’s city commissioner at the time, pushed Miami officials to start the seawall project, Bottari says.

Manatee_6

Former commissioner Sarnoff arrived at the seawall and kayak dedication on a motorcycle with Pieter Bockweg, former director of the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency. At the event, Sarnoff was credited with supporting the quest to create Manatee Bend Park. Sarnoff, though, insisted the park wouldn’t have happened without Van Cel and Sarnoff’s chief of staff, Ron Nelson, putting the matter on his radar. (Neither Van Cel nor Nelson attended the January 14 dedication.)

Now Crowley, a downtown Miami resident, aims to put the idea of creating a larger Little River Park on everyone’s radar. Such a park, Crowley argues, would be an enhancement for the lives of human, manatees, and other native lifeforms.

“This is a natural tributary to Biscayne Bay,” Crowley says. “If you go back and look at the old pictures of Little River, you see that it was completely dense groves on both sides. I mean, this was a productive habitat.

“Of course, that habitat has now been taken away, for the most part,” Crowley continues. “So the idea is to help bring back some of the life to the Little River through living-life-type shoreline projects that create additional mangrove habitats on the shores and bring in additional fish, bring in additional recreational opportunities, and clean it up a little bit for the manatees. Because even though the manatees are using it, it could be a lot better and a lot more productive.”

 

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