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12/6/02: Miami Herald

Ambitious park plan is dividing Little Haiti

By Oscar Corral

A plan by Miami to build an enormous park in the heart of Little Haiti, long desired by many community activists, is actually drawing fire from some business owners and residents who say land acquisition for the park would wipe out hundreds of jobs in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

If it came to fruition as planned, the 60-acre park would be the biggest and perhaps most expensive taxpayer-funded park project in the city's history. It would be only eight blocks away from Morningside Park, now the largest urban park in the city.

But proponents of the Little Haiti park may have a tough task. Few of the property owners within the park boundaries are willing to sell, city officials say. And there is little support among city commissioners to use the power of eminent domain to legally require owners to sell.

''I truly see a 60-acre park there as being unrealistic,'' said Miami Commissioner Joe Sanchez, who added that he would not support the use of eminent domain.


The idea for the park in a place dotted with warehouses, trailer parks and empty lots -- some of which are blighted -- has been in the works since 1998.

This year, Miami Commissioner Arthur Teele Jr. and a group of activists drew possible boundaries for the park -- from Northeast 67th Street south to 59th Street and from Second Avenue east to the railroad tracks. The city would have to buy most of the properties within the boundaries, demolish the buildings and clean up acres of environmentally contaminated land before doing any sort of park construction.

The city commissioners agreed last year to allocate $25 million of a $255 million voter-approved bond issue to build the park. But some estimates place the cost of the park at $50 million to $80 million.

Teele said the park would not be just open green space. It would be surrounded by services such as a library, a day-care center, a Neighborhood Enhancement Team office and a community center.


Within the next two weeks, the city is expecting to receive the results of an economic impact study, and city officials hope to gain a better grasp of the potential costs. But the city has been moving forward in the meantime.

''The overwhelming feeling in Little Haiti is that they want a park and they want it now,'' said Teele, a major supporter of the park. ``I will be damned if we will let Haitians be treated like manure in the city of Miami.''

But it's the business owners in the park area who are crying foul. Many of them say they found out about the city's plans when they received a letter over the summer asking if they were willing to sell their properties.


Immediately, construction and remodeling projects planned in the area were put on hold, and at least one business relocated, owners said.

Kelly Carrabba bought a 4,000-square foot building in the area for $200,000 in May to relocate her wholesale bakery from the Florida Keys. But she says she was alarmed by the city's request to buy her building. Instead of moving in, Carrabba rented a space in North Miami. The city appraised her property at $160,000 and won't offer more, she said.

''How can they offer you less than what you paid?'' asked Carrabba, who has not been able to rent the space she bought.

Peter Ehrlich, owner of Palm Bay Studies, which owns several warehouses in the area, has been fighting the park boundaries and suggests the city redraw them to spare the 60 to 80 viable businesses in the area, a sentiment echoed by other business owners.

''I don't object to having a park,'' said Manny Wong, owner of Fullei Foods, which employs 68 people. ``I know there will be some winners and losers in this deal, but the boundaries are totally incorrect.''

Some activists have two words for business owners -- tough luck.


''What they are doing is raping and robbing and exploiting this community,'' said Hattie Willis, president of Communities United, a grass-roots organization. ``The bottom line is they can relocate. All I'm asking is to give my children the same quality of life as everyone else.''

So far, the city is not planning to force owners to sell through eminent domain, said Ronda Vangates, city administrator in charge of the project.

''Our goal is not to displace any businesses,'' Vangates said. ``We can build this park responsibly.''

Eminent domain has not been used by the city to acquire land for a park in recent years, and city leaders are wary of resorting to it. Any use of eminent domain would require prior approval from the commission.

''We want a park, but we don't want to hurt the business community,'' said Commission Chairman Tomás Regalado, who also opposes eminent domain.


So far, only one of the 119 property owners in the area has agreed to sell at the city's appraised value, said Laura Billberry, director of the city's Asset Management Department.

Teele and Vangates remain flexible on the final size of the park and explain that it's a long-term project. Property owners say the city should focus its efforts on buying two area trailer parks, Keystone and Magic City, that make up 17 acres.

An angry business community in Little Haiti could spell further political trouble for Teele. Several business owners upset with the park idea said they are planning to offer financial support to a group of activists seeking to recall Teele from the commission.

''I am planning on supporting it,'' said Sandy Akerman, who owns the Amazon Premium Price holding company.

The recall group has accused Teele of neglecting the needs of the black community and squandering millions of public dollars through the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, with little to show for it.

''If we put our heads together, we can come up with alternatives that make much more sense,'' said Fedy Vieux-Brierre, a Haitian business owner in the park boundaries and a former Neighborhood Enhancement Team administrator for the city.