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What Museum Park could be

Imagine a nearly 25-acre park teeming with local Miamians picnicking under shaded trees, listening to live community concerts, and strolling through lush gardens, all right in the heart of downtown. This was the city’s unrealized vision for Museum Park, the large green space along Biscayne Bay, formerly known as Bicentennial Park.

Seven years ago, City of Miami commissioners approved $46 million to build out that dream. But when the recession hit, the cash-strapped city had to scale down to $9.5 million, leaving the park with some grass, a few sidewalks, and little else.

“We knew then that the concept for our grand park wasn’t going to happen,” said Rebecca Mandelman, vice president for strategy and engagement at the The Miami Foundation. But now, both The Miami Foundation and the Knight Foundation are working to realize the city’s ambitious dream for a large urban park via a public-private partnership.

The dream park would feature “large ‎shaded areas, public art installations, free concerts, lush gardens with native flora, waterfront dining, children’s play spaces, impressive fountains and nature walks,” according to The Miami Foundation’s fact sheet.

A public-private partnership

The Miami Foundation is working with philanthropists, community organizations, and other private entities to create a conservancy, Mandelman explained. The conservancy would be a non-profit organization committed to developing and maintaining the park, which includes planning free community events and caring for the landscape. 

With support from civic leaders, The Miami Foundation and the Knight Foundation combined efforts and invested $250,000 to launch the conservancy. Now, it has garnered $7.5 million in seed funding, from private individuals, foundations, corporations and organizations. “This demonstrates a private appetite,” Mandelman notes.

The park would be funded by “a relatively even split between public and private entities,” according to Mandelman. In order for Museum Park’s original design to be actualized, this amount would need to add up to roughly $50 million in today’s dollars.

An exact amount for the current iteration, however, is still in flux, as the design, construction, and operations will continue to be modified and adjusted as conversations between the conservancy and the city continue. “In the design phase, we would be working with the [City of Miami’s] planning department, in the construction phase, we would be working with the Capital Improvements office, and in the operations phase we would be working with the Parks and Recreations department and Bayfront Park Management trust,” Mandelman added. They would also work with the Pérez Art Museum and the new Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science to develop programming and art installations within the park.

Learning from example

Of course, this isn’t the first time a public-private partnership has generated a successful urban park. The greatest example is one of the most famous parks in the world — New York City’s Central Park.

Sunbathers in New York's Central Park. (Courtesy of m01229/ flickr Creative Commons)

Sunbathers in New York’s Central Park. (Courtesy of m01229/Flickr Creative Commons)

“If you go back 35 years ago, Central Park was in terrible condition. It was the butt of all of the jokes about NYC. Bringing in the private sector, we’ve raised almost a billion dollars., Now we’re one of the greatest parks [in the world]. It shows the success of public-private partnerships,” said Douglas Blonsky President and CEO of the Central Park Conservancy.

“Visually, just look at the park — it’s turned around 180 degrees,” Blonsky added. “Before, every visitors center was abandoned and graffitied, benches were broken, there was no grass in the park, period, there was a high crime rate. But now it’s the safest place in the city. We’ve got nice visitors centers, and it’s very vibrant.”

Houston’s Discovery Green experienced a similar narrative, recalls Susanne Theis, the park’s programming director. When an office building developer was looking to sell a plot of land in downtown Houston, the city teamed up with the conservancy “to purchase the land that was not already owned by the city,” and launch the urban park, Theis said.

The next step was to get the voice of the public involved. The city and the conservancy hosted town hall meetings and learned that the people really wanted “green lawns, and especially water fountains because in Houston it’s so hot,” Theis said. Heeding public opinion, the park was designed to serve Houston’s unique population.

“Now there are restaurants, gardens, places of quiet contemplation and then big areas used to films and concerts and all kinds of events. We’ve seen double the attendance that was projected in the planning stages,” Theis said.

Another private-public success story was seen in the development of the 24.5-acre Millennium Park in Chicago. The Millennium Park Foundation “manages everything on top of the land, while the city manages everything underneath, in terms of infrastructure and so forth,” said Ed Uhlir, executive director of the Millennium Park Foundation.

The public voice

Now, as Miami works to develop Museum Park through a public-private model, representatives of Central Park, Discovery Green, and Millennium Park all had one key piece of advice — get the public involved.

“I think it’s important to make sure to be very transparent and to get the public involved. A conservancy [is successful], when it is totally participatory, so people don’t think it’s some private group taking over. You have to honor the public-private partnership. We think of the city as our boss,” Blonsky said.

Which is why The Miami Foundation’s Rebecca Mandelman hopes the public will be present at the City of Miami commission meeting today at 3 p.m. “We want to give the people the park they’ve always been promised. It’s an incredible piece of land emblematic of Miami and has the potential to be our cornerstone park and public space.” Mandelman said. “We want to activate this land.”