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Aug 22nd
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Written by Stuart Sheldon, BT Contributor   
August 2017

Miami District 2’s Ken Russell wants to put Baywalk on a fast track

KPix_FamilyMatters_8-17en Russell makes ukuleles. And fashions precious objects from local hardwoods felled by tropical storms. I’m keen to dine with the magnificent set of handmade Dade County pine chopsticks he brought when he arrived at my Little River art studio to discuss his vision as the city commissioner representing most Biscayne Times Miami readers.

“I love art,” he says. “I love making things, spending quiet time in the wood shop away from politics and everything, just trying to make a straight line or a perfect curve. It’s such an important part of the community, to encourage creativity. And try to find that balance.”

Russell’s political career began among the tropical trees, pulling weeds in his father’s garden. “Dad was crazy for plants,” he recalls. “He’d create a jungle wherever we lived. Not messy, but wild.” Russell can name each palm in his yard. And his deep-seated love for Miami’s lush nature made him fight against parkland contamination, igniting his political journey.

“Other cities cherish, respect, and encourage green space far more than we do, especially downtown,” says Russell as his daughters Eva, age three, and Julia, four, vie for space on his lap.

Aside from their physical beauty, parks encourage people to be more friendly citizens, to wave hello to strangers, to engage and interact. They also entice us out of our cars -- and in a city whose Achilles heel is traffic, this alone is reason enough to take a hard look at Russell’s game plan.

“When you start creating connectivity and spaces,” he explains, “people want to be outside, and it suddenly activates an area.”

One of the things he’s learned is that even though there’s a certain organic activation that happens, once you build a park space, you need to add stuff to make it irresistible: places to eat and climb and be entertained. Consider Museum Park outside of PAMM: It has beautiful sculpture, but not much more, and is underutilized.

Russell feels the problem solves itself once the city gets the ball rolling. “Once you show people examples, they’ll start coming up with their own ideas,” he says.

Omni Park was a blighted, fenced-off area beside the Arsht Center until Russell collaborated with a group of creative visionaries devoted to activating urban spaces. This brand-new slice of downtown green really hints at things to come, with fun for everyone: skate park, pop-up library, food trucks, a bar, picnic areas.

“You pop in some grass, put in some trees, and suddenly people are there, pets are there,” he says. “Dancing starts happening. Running and playing. And then it filters. Local businesses in the area see activity; people want to invest. It’s a catalyst.”

Russell’s concept includes not only creating more green space but also finding ways to link these green spaces together so more people want to head outside to jog, bike, and walk from park to park -- which leads us to Russell’s holy grail -- the Baywalk. The notion of an accessible pathway along our waterfront from the Miami River through downtown and Edgewater has been discussed for years, to no avail. My money says Russell gets it done within five years.

By law, developers must provide 25 feet of bay access to the public, but not until they build their properties. There are now nine “pinch points” along the Baywalk route, sites where there is no access and no imminent near-term development.

Russell proposes that the city issue $25 million worth of general obligation bonds to get the Baywalk built immediately. Developers would then be mandated to reimburse the city for its construction costs when they actively begin building. Please vote yes on this no-brainer on the November ballot so we can at last all amble with our families by the water’s edge for miles and miles.

“This is an investment in the future,” says Russell, “and instead of waiting 20 years, we can do it in four.”

The Baywalk instantly transforms our magical waterfront into an international destination; I’m thinking New York’s Highline meets Barcelona’s Ramblas -- full of art installations, cafés, food kiosks, buskers, and all kinds of entertainment.

“I think you can make a friendlier city that way,” says Russell. The artist in him envisions the Baywalk with a common aesthetic thread that includes “anything from tile to lighting to the color of the cement.”

At the end of our interview, Russell regales me with a spirited version of “You Are My Sunshine” on one of his ukuleles, while his girls snuggle in a lounge chair. I imagine one day he’ll get caps full of coins crooning on the Baywalk to happy passers-by.

 

Stuart Sheldon is an artist, author, and Miami native. Find his Meet Your Makers series in “Art Loft” on PBS. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram at @stuart_sheldon, and subscribe to his Fancy Nasty blog at stuartsheldon.com.

 

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