A huge banyan tree sits at the intersection of North Miami Avenue and N.W. 13th Street. The plot of land surrounding it was ignored for years, left full of cracked concrete and rubbish. The tree was sickly and greying.
Brad Knoefler, owner of the nearby bar 1306, wanted to bring it back to life. He hired a tree expert who sprayed the rotting banyan with a mix of chemicals.
What happened next was like something straight out of Indiana Jones’s Temple of Doom — hundreds of roaches, termites, and centipedes rushed out of the trunk. It was being eaten alive from the inside.
Less than a week later, Knoefler could already see a change. The tree started developing a light green color, an indication of new signs of life. All it took was for someone to pay attention.
That once abandoned banyan is poised to be the centerpiece of Omni Park, a new temporary park that’s being built on seven acres of empty land next to the Adrienne Arsht Center.
The four block stretch is owned by the Florida Department of Transportation and will eventually be the site of a new bridge expanding I-395. But while the land awaits development, something that could take up to two years, Knoefler and and his partner on the project, Mark Lesniak, wanted to put it to good use.
“l live and work here and hang out around here all the time so I wanted to beautify and activate the neighborhood,” said Knoefler, who used to own the now-closed Grand Central music venue.
In collaboration with the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency, a government agency whose goal it is to reduce slum and blight, and the Pérez Art Museum Miami, Knoefler hopes the park will bring life into the desolate stretch between Museum Park and North Miami Avenue.
As a former real estate developer and general contractor, Knoefler has a history of taking a hands-on approach to combating urban blight. Several years ago, he helped found the beloved music venue Grand Central at a time when the neighborhood between Overtown and Biscayne Boulevard was a ghost town.
Then he invested $80,000 of his own money and got $200,000 from the local CRA to transform an adjacent abandoned lot into a skate park. Because he lived across the street Knoefler could see the empty lot full of debris from his bedroom window every day.
“They demolished the old Miami Arena, then the owner got into litigation with the demolition company and they left [behind] a 40 foot-pile of rocks,” Knoefler remembers.
“It looked like a bomb hit it … I got obsessed with it.”
The plan was to occupy the land with something useful for the community until it was developed. And that’s exactly what happened — the skate park he made, named Grand Central Park, stayed open for roughly two years before the plot of land was bought for development by the Miami World Center.
While Grand Central Park certainly had its challenges — they went over budget, the speaker system was too heavy and expensive, and the park rarely gathered the big crowds he expected — Knoefler says he’s ready to use that experience as a blueprint for round two.
This time he’s got a $300,000 budget from the Omni CRA. And instead of planting trees and installing other permanent structures, which he says was a problem at the temporary park, he plans to make the park completely portable — so they weren’t spending money on things that would be a sunk cost.
“I call it redevelopment 101 — it’s not that hard. You’ve just gotta do it,” he said.
They’re transforming the lot in a little more than a month, using shipping containers for cafes and restaurants and installing skateboard ramps and speaker systems that can be moved to other places. Instead of planting loads of trees like they did with Grand Central Park, he’s working with the trees he’s got and installing portable chikee huts for shade.
The huts will be made out of chain-linked fences and designed by artist Michael Loveland, a project commissioned by the PAMM. Knoefler is also covering the whole seven acres with a resistant grass variety that people can walk on, as well as some walking pathways.
Knoefler gets paid 15 percent of whatever the CRA spends on construction — so for example if they spend $300,000, he gets $45,000. But there’s also plenty of incentive to save — if Knoefler manages to come under budget, he gets to keep 25 percent of the savings and the CRA gets 75 percent of that.
In 2016, CRAs around Miami-Dade were slammed for failing to use their funds in a way that actually reduced slum and blight, but Miami commissioner Ken Russell says this project passes the test.
“What you’ve got [here] is nothing but blight — there’s concrete on the ground, dead ends, broken streets, broken bottles … there’s nothing planned here for at least another year,” Russell said. “Not only are we physically transforming a blighted area into a usable, active park space we’re doing it in an area that really needs it.”
Russell’s also optimistic that FDOT will actually keep the park as a green space underneath the I-395 bridge when it’s eventually built.
“I don’t like the term pop-up park or temporary, we’re going to stay beyond that,” he said. “We’re activating the space beforehand … [so we] have a community that recognizes this as a destination for good things.”
The project was given the green light by the city commission on Dec. 14 and group broke ground on Jan. 16. They expect it to be done by mid-February, with an official opening party slated for early March.