Miami Dade County Community Forum

Thursday, September 17, 2009

An Open Letter to the City of Miami. By Greg Bush

August 28, 2009
To: Mr. Larry Spring
Chief Financial Officer, City of Miami

It has come to my attention from multiple sources that you and other city administrators have visited individual members of the Board Trustees of the Virginia Key Park Trust and suggested that they propose the development of “overnight accommodation” or hotel facilities on or near the historically black beach. A meeting between several stakeholders with the City Manager on August 24 confirmed that such an arrangement is being given serious consideration, using the pretext that there were cabins there before – that have long since vanished. 

What an abuse of the notion of historic preservation! Using the Sunshine Law to thwart a public process, even if the board agreed to such an arrangement, is a problem when the intent is clearly to subvert the public purposes of the park.  It appears to me that the City Administration is quietly threatening the Trust that County Bond money could not be accessed to help build their Civil Rights Museum unless revenue from a hotel is factored into the equation. Further, it promotes the notion that this proposal should appear to come from members of the Trust rather than from the administration. I would ask you to cease and desist your role in altering the public purpose of the beach that has long been fought for by many members of the community – black and white. 

Miami has a long and sad history of ignoring deed restrictions in the public interest and of using a variety of tactics to denigrate or erode public land and transfer it to private interests.  In 2009, in the era of Barack Obama, instead of creating an open public process and finding creative solutions within an overall Master Plan to promote public use of public land, this City Administration is using sleight of hand and backroom pressure tactics to do the bidding of private developers. The city has also long sought to use African-American spokesmen to deliver the message that development was necessary, indeed inevitable for this beach. You should be aware that your actions are thus part of a longstanding cynical pattern to erode the purpose and use of public land in the city of Miami.

Some historical background is instructive:

-In 1945, Lawson Thomas and others instituted the first significant civil rights demonstration in postwar America, protesting the fact that African-Americans had no place to legally swim in Biscayne Bay. Their actions stimulated the County Commission to create Virginia Key Beach, a segregated space that became the major gathering place, a place of great pride and powerful memories for African-Americans for years – until desegregation opened up all beaches in the 1960s.

-As you may know, there are very specific deed restrictions that were created for the park. In 1982, when the County transferred the park to the City of Miami, language in the deed was created that said that the park should be used “for public park purposes only” or it was supposed to revert back to the County.

-Sadly, the park was promptly shut down after the transfer and neither the city nor the county followed up to provide any oversight of their own clearly stated deed restrictions- FOR SEVENTEEN YEARS.(Other deed restrictions related to the Marine Stadium have also been ignored and set that structure up for failure since Hurricane Andrew.) Again, there is a pattern to the erosion of public space that has become quite obvious to many of us who have studied these issues over the years.

-In January 1999, development interests allegedly connected to the Seaquarium tried to railroad the city’s Ad Hoc Task Force on Virginia Key to allow them to proceed with building an upscale Eco-Resort in the abandoned park, an action that would effectively snuff out the public from using the park. That proposed development and the lack of any alternatives considered - was the basic impetus goading many of us into creating the idea of the Civil Rights Museum in the first place, an effort led by many leading citizens including M. Athalie Range, Enid Pinkney, Eugenia Thomas, Dinizulu Gene Tinnie and others.  

-In May, 1999, Commissioner Arthur Teele met with Ms. Range, Mr. Tinnie, me and several others in assessing the future course of the growing movement to define the future use of that park.  I well recall that he specifically warned us that hotel interests were lined up to try to take over parts of Virginia Key for extensive commercial development. Every developer knows its cheaper to get public land for their hotels - you only need to secure three votes from the commission. He decried that condition. The late Commissioner Teele as well as Trust Chair Ms. Range would have been appalled at the altered public purpose of the commercial development of Virginia Key Park.

As you may know, the Beach has been a historically designated and sacred place in the modern history of the African-American community. Religious ceremonies and baptisms have taken place there. Martin Luther King frequently visited the park during his visits to Miami in the 1960s. Miami has a weak enough sense of history and place identity without this beach and the structures in it being overshadowed by inappropriate commercial development. 

 Miami’s pattern of bowing to developers rather than respecting and enhancing the value of its historic public spaces is also part of a national pattern: similar incidents are taking place around the nation as civil war battlefields and other locations are being threatened by shopping malls and other forms of commercial development, permanently altering the character of historically significant locations. The public has been aroused against such unwarranted development time and again and will do so in relation to Virginia Key Park if further attempt to promote such development take place. 

It is clear that the fiscal crisis of the city is being used as an excuse and battering ram to change the purpose of Virginia Key Beach Park by initiating a rush to development behind closed doors. Why should public parkland be the victim for the poor financial management of the city administration? Miami has a long tradition of allowing one limited commercial interest to gets its nose under the tent of public land and then turning around to find the entire character of the place permanently altered. Look at Watson Island.  Look at Miami’s downtown waterfront. There is barely any parkland left. The state Internal Improvement Fund and the County have conveyed public land to the city on numerous occasions over the years with the clear intent that it be used only for public purposes. The city has consistently undermined such precise language about the public interest while oversight of the State and County has been inadequate over the years. That condition should cease.

Our civil rights to public space are clearly under attack in contemporary Miami, a city repeatedly shown to have among the least amount of public park space of any major city in the nation. The city’s disregard for an open public planning process (witness the fervent opposition to the current EDSA Plan) and the relentless actions on behalf of development interests should give you great pause. Solar panels placed on a large array of foolish parking garages envisioned for the island that has no plan for mass transit connections make a mockery of the green visions of city leaders.

There needs to be a broader public planning effort in the coming months to finalize the vision for this island. Towards that end the Urban Environment League, the Friends of Miami Marine Stadium, and many other organizations are planning to have a public design workshop on Saturday September 26 at the Rusty Pelican. We want to help the city with this final phase of planning after the questionable efforts of the ERSA plan that was pushed forward at an unreasonable rate in May and June of this year.

I trust you will reconsider the parameters of your meetings with Trust members and think deeply about your role in the larger picture of the public’s interest.


            Gregory Bush,            
Vice President, Urban Environment League

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