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A Pool in a Park: Refreshing but Risky PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
March 2020

Morningside Park’s pool could be doomed by sea level rise

MPool_1orningside Park’s pool will remain at its current location next to Biscayne Bay -- repaired if possible, or replaced there with a new facility.

That was the unanimous decree by the Miami City Commission during its January 23 meeting, following a presentation by Elvis Cruz, who has lived in Morningside since 1977. A community activist, Cruz has long advocated for the repair of the 65-year-old pool facility, closed since 2016, at the 42-acre park.

Prior to that vote -- which came after five years of workshops and studies -- the city was moving forward with plans to demolish the old pool facility and build a new one toward the north end of the park, near the community center, tennis courts, basketball court, and playground.

That would have meant the end of the current baseball field and likely a jostling of park features. The prospect pleased some Morningside homeowners, but it filled many regular parkgoers, especially Cruz, with dread. (See “Morningside Park Will Get a New Pool,” September 2019.)

Pool_2Cruz has long argued that the pool could simply be repaired, a claim backed by three engineering studies, including a $35,480 examination by the firm T.Y. Lin in 2018. Now, thanks to the commission ruling, Cruz is hopeful that the pool will, at the very least, stay in its current location.

“The commission saw an overwhelming body of undeniable evidence, then did the right thing by voting 5-0 to keep the pool in the same place,” Cruz says in an e-mail to the BT. “Hopefully the city will do as the $35,000 engineering consultant’s report said, and fix it rather than rebuild it.”

But Steve Williamson, director of Miami’s Office of Capital Improvements, says that while the city will try to fulfill that directive, it likely won’t be feasible to merely fix the pool. This is due to its location in a severe “VE-category” flood zone.

“One of the biggest things we face is the flooding,” Williamson tells the BT. “We really cannot tackle the pool until we address the flooding now. Half the year, that area is flooded.”

And flooding at Morningside Park will worsen with time, he says. New sea level rise projections show that Biscayne Bay will be around 41 inches higher in 50 or 60 years, something that past engineers analyzing the pool neglected to factor in. “We weren’t focused on sea level rise,” Williamson adds.

Pool_3The Morningside Park Pool resolution requires city staffers to update the Miami City Commission, as Commissioner Joe Carollo directed, “before implementing any final decision.”

But getting commissioners to agree to move the pool elsewhere within the park won’t be easy, since three out of the five votes on the commission have been critical of past actions made by a city administration led by former city manager Emilio Gonzalez, who officially resigned on February 18, a month after Carollo tried to fire him.

Williamson says he won’t merely inform the commission. He intends to bring up the pool at future community meetings about Morningside Park. In past meetings, arguments have broken out among nearby homeowners from the Morningside neighborhood and park users living throughout South Florida over how much enhancement the park really needs.

The pool has been at its current spot, roughly 100 feet from the bay, since the park was dedicated in 1953. During his January appearance at the commission, Cruz said he had a petition from 2100 parkgoers to fix the pool, as well as a survey showing that 65 percent of Morningside residents want the pool fixed, and 60 percent want the pool to stay at the current location. He argued that the proposed new site for the pool floods more severely than the current site.

The flooding that takes place now would be mitigated by the berms the city plans to install along the bay, he added. Plus, FEMA regulations grandfather in renovated pools. But most of all, fixing the pool would be far cheaper than building a new pool, he said. He pointed out that T.Y. Lin’s report from two years ago estimated it would just cost $3.5 million to fix the pool. The city later claimed it would cost $4.9 million to renovate the pool, an assessment he disagrees with.

As for building a new pool, Williamson told the commission it would cost $7.2 million to build a new pool near the entrance, and $8 million at the current site.

The leaders of the Morningside Civic Association (MCA), which represents homeowners, endorsed the master plan crafted by the engineering firm AECOM and the city’s Office of Capital Improvements, which includes moving the pool to the front of the park.

Jamie Rosenberg, who served on the MCA’s parks committee, even rushed over to the January 23 commission meeting to denounce Cruz and claim that the matter before the commission wasn’t properly advertised. (City attorney Victoria Mendez insisted it was.)

The MCA didn’t give up, either. At the ensuing February 13 meeting, during public comments, three MCA members pleaded with the elected body to reconsider their decision, only to be met with silence.

“The larger community wasn’t aware that the commission would vote on that day to set in stone the location of an important feature for Morningside Park,” Rachel Furst, president of the MCA, tells the BT, adding: “I think what happened is, the dysfunction of the city commission was exploited on January 23rd in a sense. I don’t think the commission gave a lot of thought to how it will impact the master plan that was already well on its way.”

Indeed, the January 23 resolution was an opportunity for two elected officials -- Commissioners Joe Carollo and Alex Diaz de la Portilla -- to rebuke the representative of Morningside area, District 2 Commissioner Ken Russell, who is an ally of Mayor Suarez and a past supporter of city manager Gonzalez.

At the end of his presentation, Cruz stated that Russell had previously promised to keep Morningside Park’s pool near the water.

“To the other commissioners, please help Commissioner Russell keep his promise by letting common sense prevail, by placing a high value on public enjoyment of this wonderful park, on fiscal responsibility, and on the will of the people,” Cruz said. “Please, no more broken promises. At this time, could one of you please make a motion directing the city to keep Morningside Pool in its current location, whether it is fixed or rebuilt?”

Carollo did so. “I now make a motion to keep Morningside Pool at its current location,” he said, and Diaz de la Portilla seconded the motion.

In the discussion that followed, Russell agreed that the pool should be near the water -- but he added that he didn’t want to stop any effort to make the park more resilient to the effects of sea level rise, and wanted the administration to have “some flexibility” for where exactly the pool should be located.

He also stated that if “the cost isn’t so different” between repairing the pool and building a new pool, as the city claimed, he’d rather there be a new pool.

Carollo wouldn’t budge. He insisted that it stay put, adding that Cruz had made his presentation “under oath, unlike the administration.”

“Based on everything presented,” Carollo asserted, “the cheapest way to go is to repair that pool.”

Turning on Russell, he said: “I don’t know why you keep wanting to drag the pool someplace else. If you know someone that’s in the pool business, I don’t know. I mean [Cruz] is giving you a very good firm that says it could be repaired, and from the numbers that I am seeing, the repair numbers are much cheaper than putting in a new pool -- but then, you know, normally that is the case.”

“So then,” Russell asked, “your motion is for repair specifically, and it is not for location? I just want to be clear.”

“My motion stands as it was,” Carollo snapped. “You know, I’m tired of….”

“I just don’t understand,” Russell interrupted.

“Well, if you don’t understand, that’s your problem!” Carollo snarled.

“It’s our problem,” Commission Chairman Keon Russell interjected.

“Go back to the minutes!” Carollo replied. “It has been stated numerous times already. You have been wasting time and time. This is part of how you do this.”

“I believe this is all a waste of time,” Russell said.

Carollo was having none of it. “You see that you don’t have the votes, and you want to tire people out, and you keep talking and talking and talking, and you are good at talking. You sold millions of yo-yos by talking,” he said, a reference to the Russell family’s decades-old global business.

“But, remember, you sold them [yo-yos] to little kids. You’ve got grown-ups here, and they are a different ball game,” Carollo said. “So I’m asking you, if you don’t like it, then don’t vote for the resolution.”

Russell insisted again that he didn’t understand the wording of Carollo’s motion.

“I’ve explained it to you numerous times, commissioner. How many times do I need to explain it?”

“Just once,” Russell replied.

“I call the question,” Diaz de la Portilla said.

“What’s the question?” Russell asked.

“The question is that [Carollo] wants the pool at that location, whether it is repaired…or a new pool, at that new location. Not two feet to the left or two feet to the right. That’s the motion,” Diaz de la Portilla clarified.

“Thank you,” Russell said.

The motion was approved unanimously.

Bringing that resolution to reality, however, will be challenging, Williamson tells the BT. He is sure a new facility will have to be built that’s elevated from the ground by a platform that will allow surges caused by high tide or storms to flow beneath it. Restroom facilities, utilities, and water pumps will similarly have to be placed several feet above the ground.

“We are doing this at Dinner Key Marina,” Williamson explains. “The electrical panels and the pumping station will need to be replaced as we renovate the marina and be placed 16 feet higher.”

The repair or replacement of the pool isn’t even budgeted, Williamson says. Out of the $30 million it will cost to improve the park’s features and make it more resilient, Williamson says, just $1.2 million has been allocated. Those funds will be primarily used to replace and upgrade the playground and add crosswalks at the park’s entrances.

“We’re doing what we can now,” Williamson says. Fixing or replacing the pool, he adds, wasn’t even the top priority for most Morningside residents or parkgoers. “One of the biggest things was for a new playground,” he tells the BT.

Williamson says he hopes that a pending partnership with the Nature Conservancy will help fund the natural berms along the shoreline to mitigate flooding. He is also optimistic that the future berms along Morningside Park’s shoreline will serve as a “designing baseline” for other City of Miami parks. “That,” Williamson declares, “is very exciting.”

 

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