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Countdown to Parcel B Decision PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
February 2018

This month county commissioners could vote to doom the long-promised waterfront park

TParcel_B_1_1here isn’t much on the three-acre site behind the AmericanAirlines Arena: just some trees, some grass, a paved lot, a few benches fronting a baywalk, and fantastic views of Biscayne Bay, PortMiami, the Miami Beach skyline, and neighboring Museum Park.

Park advocates would like to see this place become a passive green park named after Dan Paul, the late attorney renowned for advocating public access to the waterfront.

But members of a nonprofit organization, Cuban Exile History Museum Inc., have other ideas. They want to build a $12 million plaza called Freedom Park with stairways, pedestrian bridges, restrooms, elevators, and sports fields. Not to mention an 80,000-square-foot, $77 million museum to celebrate the history of Cuban exiles. Also: restaurants, a gift shop, parking garage, a 300-seat theater, and maybe a permanent Latin American art wing.

“The theme of the museum is very simple, ‘From Tyranny to Freedom,’” says William Muir, president of the Cuban Exile History Museum group and a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Vietnam War.

The Miami-Dade County Commission’s Parks and Cultural Affairs Committee is tentatively scheduled to vote on two measures on February 15 -- a memorandum of understanding (MOU) and a 55-year lease for the site. From there, the full county commission may vote on the MOU as early as March. Both measures are sponsored by county commission chairman Esteban Bovo, the son of a solider from Brigade 2506, a CIA-sponsored outfit of Cuban exiles that invaded Cuba in a botched operation in April 1961.

The memorandum of understanding requires that the museum raise the funds it needs to build over a four-year period. “If we meet the parameters of the MOU, then it goes to a lease,” Muir explains. “If not, then everything stops.”

The proposed memorandum has benchmarks. Twelve months after it becomes effective, the museum group must raise $3 million in actual cash and $4 million in pledges. In 24 months, an additional $8 million must be raised and $9 million more pledged. In 36 months, $18 million has to be in the bank and an added $19 million pledged. In 48 months, $38 million must be raised and $39 million more pledged.

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“The publicly funded museums like PAMM and Frost want more public money,” says Nicolas Gutierrez, secretary of the Cuban Exile History Museum’s board. “We aren’t going to have that issue because, specifically, it states [in the MOU] that there is no access to [county] funds.”

Greg Bush, vice president of the Urban Environment League, an organization that seeks to preserve public spaces in Miami, doesn’t believe Muir’s claims. “You know, once the nose gets under the tent....” Bush says. “That’s the way it goes in Miami. That’s the way it’s gone here forever. You get an agreement that says no public money and then it’s, ‘Oh wait, we’ve gone this far. We won’t fail if you give us an additional subsidy.’”

Peter Ehrlich, a UEL board member and real estate investor, points out that the land itself is a subsidy. Under the proposed lease, the museum will only have to pay $1 in rent per year, plus utilities.

“We believe the site would be valued at over $500 million,” Ehrlich asserts in an e-mail to the BT. “More important, 20 years ago the site was promised by the Miami Heat and by Miami-Dade County officials to be a world-class landscaped park, including a soccer field.”

Indeed, then-county Mayor Alex Penelas did make that vow in order to garner voter support for the construction of a new 19,600-seat sports arena for the Miami Heat on land that was long slated to become a public park. But instead, Parcel B was fenced off for years while it was used for special events and as a staging area for Miami Heat home games and other arena events.

The land was also considered as the site for a 20-story high-rise residential building until 2003. Then in 2007, the county initiated a study examining whether to build a Bay of Pigs Museum. By July 2014, the county commission voted 8-3 authorizing county Mayor Carlos Gimenez to negotiate a deal with the exile museum group to lease Parcel B, if its members can raise the funds.

Key to that vote was a promise from the commission majority, extracted by Commissioner Dennis Moss, that the county would fund the construction of an African-American history museum.

While negotiations between the county and Cuban Exile History Museum Inc. stretched on, groups like civic Emerge Miami and the UEL pushed for Parcel B to become a park. Finally, in 2015, gates surrounding Parcel B were opened wide, allowing people to enter Parcel B when the land wasn’t in use. By July of 2017, the county invested $396,000, adding new trees, grass, and benches along the baywalk.

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Still, Parcel B isn’t a park. It’s deemed “surplus land” by Miami-Dade County. Four or five times a year, the county leases Parcel B for parties, carnival staging, and other special events for between $650 and $7500 a day, states Veronica Brown, director of the county’s Internal Affairs Division. And up to 240 days a year, Parcel B is utilized by the Miami Heat for valet parking and staging at a rate of between $550 and $1100 a day, Brown adds.

It’s actually the Miami Heat Group that has delayed the museum organization’s quest for a museum, Gutierrez says. The museum was slated to be on the agenda of the Parks and Cultural Affairs Committee last month, until the Heat objected, and the item was pulled from the agenda. “They want to make sure they have enough room for parking and staging events,” Gutierrez explains.

The Miami Heat declines to comment. “We typically don’t comment in the middle of the [NBA] season,” states Lorenzo Butler, manager of the Heat Group Business Communications, in an e-mail to the BT.

To accommodate the Miami Heat’s concerns, architect Robert Chisholm, who would design the museum and plaza, visited Parcel B when it was being used as a staging area for concerts, home games, and even Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which held annual performances at the arena until 2017.

From those visits, Chisholm says he came up with a design that would enable Freedom Park to double as a staging area. “This isn’t a parcel that is exclusively for the museum,” Chisholm says. “We’re going to design something that will meet the needs of everyone over there, including the Miami Heat.”

But why build a museum on Parcel B at all? In 2007, Brigade 2506 veterans sought to use the land as the site for a new Bay of Pigs Museum. Then as now, Chisholm was tapped to design the museum. The veterans group planned to raise private funds to build it.

Although the waterfront Bay of Pigs Museum idea fizzled, proponents didn’t give up. Their group was soon joined by Pete Hernandez, former manager of the City of Miami. It was Hernandez, Gutierrez says, who insisted that Parcel B was the perfect site for a museum.

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“We looked at a bunch of other sites and he [Hernandez] said, ‘Look, why don’t you look at Parcel B? We don’t deserve to be tucked away in Hialeah, Little Havana, or Coconut Grove. We deserve to be front and center, on Biscayne Bay, not preaching to the choir in the Cuban ghetto, but preaching to the world where the tourist ships come,’” Gutierrez remembers. (Hernandez could not be reached for comment.)

A report commissioned by the Cuban Exile History Museum group in December 2016 predicted a museum on Parcel B that charged between $8 and $12 admission could attract anywhere from 166,000 to 333,000 people per year.

Should the museum and Freedom Park be built, there will be significantly more concrete on Parcel B than what exists now. That horrifies Bush, who would like to see the concrete that now exists on Parcel B replaced by grass.

“We don’t need more concrete, we really don’t,” Bush says. “There’s so little public space anywhere, and so little greenspace. I think there needs to be more focused local government attention on activating greenspaces.”

Chisholm, though, argues that parks come in all forms, including concrete ones. “The definition of a park is that it’s used for passive or active events, all kinds of activities, that promote human interaction,” he says. Still, Chisholm points out that there are planters in the scheme and he can always design it to add “more green.”

Gutierrez insists that the museum is a far better alternative than the “utopic grassy knoll with no restrooms” that now exists. “This isn’t a monolithic Soviet style structure,” he proclaims. “It’s a beautiful place that harnesses the bay breezes.”

John de Leon, an attorney and an Urban Environment League board member, says the museum idea is just another scheme to develop public land. “If they really want it to be used by the public, make it a real park,” de Leon says. “It’s one of the nicest public areas right near downtown.”

De Leon is skeptical that the Cuban Exile History Museum can even raise the money to build the project which, under previous estimates, was slated to cost around $125 million. (See “County Commission Cabal,” June 2017.) Even though the county commission reserved Parcel B for a museum three years ago, de Leon adds, the group has yet to raise any money to construct it.

“There isn’t strong support for it,” says de Leon, a Cuban American. “They have no support among the people who voted for it.” The commission vote in 2014, de Leon surmises, was “sentimental.” “They [county commissioners] really thought it through,” he says. “They said, ‘Only give it [Parcel B] to them if the museum people got the money.’”

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Rolando Damian Rodriguez, a professional fundraiser retained by the museum organization, says a resolution directing the mayor to negotiate a lease for a site isn’t enough to collect donations to build a museum. “There’s support for this project, but we just can’t ask people for money. It would be the wrong thing to do without a commitment,” says Rodriguez, a former president and CEO of the Jackson Memorial Foundation.

But once the group has a memorandum of understanding, Rodriguez will finally be able to collect donations. “This can be done,” he says. “Fundraising is always hard, but it can be done.”

And if it cannot be done, then Parcel B will remain as it is, Gutierrez promises, and “taxpayers will not be on the hook.”

Of course, the entire initiative might stop in its tracks if county commissioners reject building a museum and a concrete park on Parcel B. An aide for Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, whose district includes the downtown area, indicates that her boss will vote against the memorandum of understanding. “The commissioner said her position remains the same,” relates Edmonson spokeswoman Marta Martinez-Aleman. “Her wishes are for Parcel B to remain open space.”

 

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