Bruce Matheson: crank or model for anti-development activism in 2017?

It’s noon in Tamiami Park, and a shirtless Mario Labadie – 62, fit, and tan – is power-walking around the track under the punishing South Florida sun. 

“I’ve been coming to this place for 20 years, I live a couple of blocks away,” he says.

But Labadie may not get to enjoy Tamiami Park for much longer. Florida International University, whose campus lies just across 17th St, has been fighting to purchase the park and relocate the Miami-Dade Youth Fair to clear the way for the university’s expansion into the fairgrounds. The county has agreed to the sale, but the deal is snarled in a legal battle.

Miami-Dade County has a track record of using public treasure for controversial projects. The city of Miami forked over the iconic Orange Bowl Stadium and the county gave millions of tax dollars to Jeffrey Loria for a ballpark that had less than 2,000 people show up to a game a few weeks ago. And they spent years fighting the Matheson family in court to expand the Miami Open’s tennis facilities in Crandon Park.

*Editors note: This post was updated after publication to correct the owner of the former Orange Bowl Stadium.

This is a battle where new development usually wins.

Enter Bruce Matheson, the terse, lanky, aging scion of one of South Florida’s founding families, who has fought against new development in park lands for decades, and sometimes even won. 

Last year, Matheson successfully checked a $50 million expansion of the Miami Open’s facilities in Crandon Park in a legal contest that made it all the way to the Third District Court of Appeal. Now the tournament’s lease expires in seven years and more than one city is trying to woo it away. They could very likely succeed because the tournament organizers feel they’ve outgrown the Crandon Park facilities.

Matheson has also embroiled himself in the FIU expansion battle by filing a lawsuit  invalidating the county referendum in 2014 in which voters approved relocating the Youth Fair to Tamiami Park.  The county charter requires a referendum in order to use public park land.

In his own cranky, idiosyncratic way, the story of Matheson and his defense of public land presents a powerful example for Miami-Dade County’s new generation of activists. Whether you’re angry about the county’s decision to sell David Beckham communal land for his stadium, or dumbfounded that the commissioners would explore selling parts of the main branch library to developers,  Matheson’s tactics could serve as a blueprint. 

‘A spot of sylvan tranquility’

Crandon Park’s 800 or so acres comprise the northern two miles of Key Biscayne. The park, like the rest of the island, was a coconut plantation and winter home for Matheson family at the turn of the century.

County Commissioner Charles Crandon approached the clan in 1940 with an offer: if they donated that land to the county as a public park, the municipality would build a causeway over Biscayne Bay to connect the island to the mainland.

Bruce, as he insists on being called, loved the old Crandon Park. He grew up enjoying its amenities. He has fond memories of the merry-go-round, and of going to the zoo and seeing all the animals.

“Before it left in the 1980s, it was one of the 25 best zoos in the country,” he says.

Back then; the park functioned as a sort of all-in-one day trip for Miami families.

“You could spend all day here. You’d go to beach, have a picnic lunch and then go to the zoo,” he remembers.

You could even get there on public transportation. A bus would take you from downtown over the Rickenbacker Causeway, which opened in 1947.

On a sunny weekday morning in May 2017, the park is quiet. Palm trees sway in the wind. The Atlantic laps softly on the shore of a beach regularly heralded as one of the best in America. Bird watchers stalk rare birds with telephoto lenses in patches of tropical hardwood forest. As the Third District Court of Appeals Judge David M. Gersten described it in the court ruling that killed the tennis center expansion, “it’s a spot of sylvan tranquility.”

The only thing that might interrupt is the buzz of a county owned, gas-operated lawn mower, or the hum of a giant earthmover as it scrapes sand from one end of the beach to another.

“Hey, that’s Sam!” says Mr. Matheson, before waving down a colossal orange machine.

Samuel Wims, who has worked for the county for 48 years, has also known Mr. Matheson for about that long. He’s been showing up the park every weekday at 6:30 a.m. to help clean it.

“I think in my lifetime I’ve done worn out about 6 of these machines ” He says.

“He’s one of the more dedicated county employees you’ll ever meet.” Says Bruce of Sam, who carries a headless golf club sharpened to a point in the cab of the earthmover for picking up trash.

Bruce knows almost everyone who works at Crandon Park. He too stoops down to pick up any litter he comes across on his walk. It’s evident that he loves this place, and is proud of his family’s gift of it to the county.

But that hasn’t kept people from sharply criticizing his stewardship of the park.

“Matheson is trying to preserve a 1950s Park Museum,” Gene Stearns, the lawyer for the tennis tournament, said recently in the Miami New Times. “The Mathesons weren’t conservationists,” he goes on. “Look at what it took to plow Crandon Boulevard right through the park.”

At the center of the dispute is the park’s master plan, which was ironed out between the Matheson family and the county in 1993. When the county attempted to build the original 13,800 seat tennis center, the Matheson clan fought back.

“We felt that a privately dedicated public park was not the place for a professional franchise sports facility, so we sued the county,” Bruce explains.

A settlement agreement between the two parties basically gave Bruce Matheson veto power over future development, which he’s used it to keep the Miami Open from growing, even though more than 70 percent of Miami-Dade County voters approved a referendum on new stadiums for the tournament. Some members of his family are trying to loosen his grip on the park.

The tournament claims it generates over $380 million dollars a year for the county.

“The deal was one stadium. Period,” Matheson told the Herald back in 2013.

Once more, but with feeling

And now Florida International University wants to expand into Tamiami Park. It only makes sense, since the institution’s enrollment has surged dramatically in the past decade. It now has the fourth largest university student population in the country.

FIU, which declined to comment on the matter when we reached out, wants to build a $150 million dollar engineering center on park land adjacent to its Modesto Maidique campus in western Miami-Dade. Just like the owners of the Miami Open, FIU also got a ballot initiative passed in which it asked voters to approve its growth.

But there’s a problem: The Miami-Dade County Youth Fair has an 85-year lease on the site. Their lease stipulates that the county is responsible for the costs of relocating the fair – an estimated $230 million, plus the cost of land, according to Robert Hohenstein, president of Youth Fair.

Bruce thinks the wording of the referendum made it seem like there would be no cost to the county. So he filed a lawsuit to get the referendum annulled.

“Mr. Matheson believes that the public has a right to know what the county is doing with public land, and when they’re trying to structure a deal about public land, they need to alert the public,” says Justin Wales, an attorney with the law firm of Carlton Fields who is representing him in the case.

If his suit succeeds, it’s unclear whether FIU can continue with the expansion plans.

Which is just fine with Bruce. “They (FIU) can pick another piece of land that isn’t parkland that belongs to everybody. MDC has eight campuses, FIU can have eight campuses.”

Unlike the Crandon Park battle with the Miami Open, in which he represented the interests of his family, Bruce is taking this legal battle on purely as a private citizen.

“Anybody could have filed this lawsuit,” explains his attorney, Mr. Wales.

But he does have one leg up on most citizens when it comes to suing the county: prior success.

Here are his tips for activists looking to start well-intentioned trouble:

  • Figure out the status quo by reading any contracts about the issue
  • Try and gather as much historical information as you can
  • File a lawsuit if you can, because that’s the one of the best ways to get government and private documents made public

Protection of public land runs deep in the family. Back in the 1920s, they donated Matheson Hammock, which became the county’s first park.

“The family has felt that open space is an integral part of a good community,” he says.

By Mario Ariza
Mario Alejandro Ariza is a Dominican immigrant who grew up in Miami. A Michener Fellow in poetry at the University of Miami’s Master in Fine Arts program, he is currently working on a nonfiction book about South Florida and Sea Level Rise. On a day with a good swell and northeasterly breezes, you’ll find him surfing on South Beach (yes, there’s actually surfing Miami.)