For Cuban exile museum, a prime waterfront location yanked back by Miami-Dade

In 2014, Miami-Dade commissioners endorsed plans for a Cuban exile museum on county-owned waterfront behind the AmericanAirlines Arena, infuriating park advocates who demanded the property be made into the green space promised voters during a referendum approving construction of the Heat’s new home.

This week, commissioners began the process of scuttling those museum plans and barring construction on the property known as “Parcel B.”

A resolution approved by a powerful commission committee Wednesday rescinds the 2014 endorsement and declares the three-acre parcel to be open space and protected from permanent structures. It would be named Dan Paul Plaza, after the late architect of the county charter amendment protecting parks from development.

“When we talk about not keeping promises, the original promise was for this to remain as open space,” said sponsor Audrey Edmonson, who represents the part of downtown Miami that includes Parcel B and recently took over as chairwoman of the County Commission.

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Miami-Dade officials, including cultural chief Michael Spring, left, Parks Director Maria Nardi, second from left, and County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, third from left, take part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony last July celebrating the installation of more grass and trees on “Parcel B,” a county-owned parcel on the Miami waterfront that had been slated for a museum honoring Cuban exiles.

Miami Herald File Photo

When campaigning for a 1996 referendum needed to build the arena, the Heat promoted Parcel B as a park with soccer fields as a way to secure support from reluctant voters.

The park never arrived, and the Heat relies on the land for truck parking and staging for large events held at the arena. Edmonson’s resolution would not add the land to the county park system, and would allow the Heat to continue paying the county to use it for large events.

Miami and Miami-Dade have added landscaping and benches to the property, creating a public plaza along the waterfront. Neighborhood activists opposed the idea of a new museum going there.

“Thank you … for creating public spaces downtown,” said Andres Althabe, president of the Biscayne Neighbors Association. “You are delivering a long-standing promise to the residents of Miami.”

Nicholas Gutierrez Jr., secretary of the museum board, told commissioners he was perplexed that Miami-Dade wanted to undo a 2014 resolution that had no real effect without a formal deal in place. “We have nothing against Dan Paul Plaza,” he said. “In fact, we would love to incorporate it into our complex.”

While still subject to a final commission vote, the resolution is poised to formally end an extended bid by museum organizers to secure one of the county’s last parcels of waterfront and create a showcase to Miami’s Cuban-American community.

Organizers had not raised money toward a construction project once valued at $125 million, insisting they need a firm deal for a location before securing dollars for a venture they vowed would need no public money.

At the commission’s 2014 direction, the administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez negotiated an agreement with the museum group to take over the property as certain fundraising goals were met. But commissioners never approved the deal, citing opposition to the overall plan. The museum’s main advocate, Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, gave up the chair’s gavel at the end of his two-year term earlier this year.

“It’s frustrating where this has landed,” Bovo said Wednesday during the meeting of the Chairwoman’s Policy Council, a committee of Edmonson’s committee chairs with enough votes to carry a majority on the full, 13-member board. “I’d like the agreement not to be rescinded, but [be modified] to find another landing place for them.”

Edmonson declined Bovo’s request, and her proposed resolution rescinds the commission’s 2014 endorsement of the museum building on Parcel B. But she said she supports Miami-Dade finding county land elsewhere for the museum. Bovo, Edmonson’s transportation chair, voted for her resolution.

“I guess we’re still alive,” Gutierrez said after the meeting to Michael Spring, the county administrator who negotiated the draft deal for Parcel B. “I’m here for you guys,” Spring replied.

The move to take Parcel B off the table for the museum comes as Miami-Dade is grappling with financial woes at another museum celebrating Cuban contributions, this one built and subsidized with county funds. Miami-Dade recently halted public support for the American Museum of Cuban Diaspora, citing a lack of compliance at the nonprofit that opened on Miami’s Coral Way in 2017.