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Miami spent $350,000 on new park lights. The park closes at sundown

Alice Wainwright Park after dark. The park is empty except for a single vehicle with its lights on.
Daniel Rivero
/
WLRN
A total of 53 new solar powered lights were placed at Alice Wainwright Park, paid for by money that was earmarked for resiliency projects. The park closes at sunset.

The money was earmarked for resiliency projects. Does solar lighting at a closed park count as resiliency?

A totally revamped park on the shores of Biscayne Bay recently reopened to the public. The new amenities include a rebuilt sea wall, a path along the waterfront and dozens of native trees to replace the 69 invasive Australian pines that were chopped down.

But from the view of the Rickenbacker Causeway, the most notable new feature is the 53 new solar-powered light poles that fully illuminate the park after dark.

There’s just one problem: The park still closes at sunset. The public cannot benefit from the new lights.

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According to bid documents and cost estimates obtained by WLRN, more than $350,000 was invested in the new “safety lighting” at the public park.

“It’s so that the homeless don’t use it,” suggested Albert Gomez, the co-founder of the Miami Climate Alliance, a group focused on climate change policy. “Police officers like to patrol and not get out of the car and not have to go through the park in the dark with flashlights. They would prefer to have lights and be able to spot the homeless people and go and get them out.”

He cited a well-known “hostile architecture” approach that uses strategic lighting to prevent loitering or gatherings of residents experiencing homelessness.

A total of $2.6 million for the park project was paid for by the $400 Miami Forever Bond passed by city of Miami voters in 2017. The rest of the money for the $4.9 million project came from a grant from the Florida Inland Navigation District, according to city records. The grant money went towards rebuilding the sea wall.

Much of the money from the bond was meant to be earmarked for resilience projects and to beef up infrastructure to combat the creeping realities of sea level rise. The park project, officially called the “Alice Wainwright Park Seawall and Resiliency” project, is one of the first batch of bond projects to be partially completed.

“Taking homeless people’s ability to sleep in a park, how is that adding to resiliency?” asked Gomez.

As a former member of Miami’s Sea Level Rise Committee, Gomez played a major role in getting the resiliency bond onto the ballot, which was passed by Miami voters in 2017. Yet even at the time, Gomez said he worried the money would be used for projects that had little if anything to do with resiliency or battling the creeping impacts of sea level rise and climate change.

He pushed the city to create specific “selection criteria” that would apply a range of factors to make sure that the money was spent on tackling resiliency. In the end the city came up with a simple checklist that would determine how money is spent.

“The way they qualified it is because they are solar lights. Therefore by deploying solar lights, in air quotes, you meet the checkbox in their checklist for meeting the resiliency criteria,” said Gomez. “It’s a perfect example of how when you don’t have a selection criteria, things can get ‘ridered’ onto existing renovation projects that aren't really truly resilient.”

He fears that if things go on unchanged, millions of dollars meant to combat the impacts of climate change and sea level rise will be used to fund projects that would be better considered maintenance or non-resilient capital improvement projects. That money should come from the general budget, not from the Miami Forever Bond, he argued.

Gomez points to other ongoing projects funded by the bond that go towards renovating boat ramps, roofing repairs and road projects as examples.

The City of Miami did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

Alice Wainwright Park sign
Daniel Rivero
/
WLRN
The new solar lights have extended the open hours of the park.

The Miami Forever Bond has a Citizens’ Oversight Board, which is able to make recommendations and audit how money is spent. However, the board has met infrequently since it was created.

In the latest oversight board meeting, held in December, board members started to ask more pointed questions about requiring stricter resiliency criteria, according to minutes of the meeting.

The board has yet to meet so far in 2022, but a meeting is scheduled for March 30.

Some of the most frequent visitors of Alice Wainwright Park, a group of men experiencing homelessness, were skeptical of the resiliency project from the start.

The sea wall clearly needed repair, said Alberto Lopez, but once the project got started the Australian pine trees were cut down. The little shelters for people to have barbecues on the bay were destroyed, and have not yet been replaced. Gazebos should be coming in the second phase of the project, according to city plans.

“Destroy what’s there, take out all the plants and then put in some new plants. Keep the money moving,” said Lopez. “Come on, man, leave the city how it is. Don’t keep messing with it.”

When told the estimate of how much the new solar lights cost, he was incredulous.

“It’s a robbery, acere,” he said.

His friend Jose Villamonte Fundora said he has been coming to the park for decades. He remembered that Madonna once brought him and his friends pizza when she lived at a bayfront home a few doors down. “Out of the goodness of her heart,” he said.

Villamonte Fundora called the resiliency project a “swindle” that did little to improve the park for residents. He complained that a large section was previously an open field where children would play soccer and throw football in front of the bay, and has now been interplanted with trees and a web of gravel footpaths.

In the project plans, the city said the new native landscaping and new path system was meant to improve drainage and to make the park better able to withstand the impacts of sea level rise.

Albert Gomez continues to push the City of Miami to develop selection criteria for how resiliency money is spent to make sure the maximum amount goes towards its intended purpose, and not line items that are only tangentially related to resiliency goals.

The proposed criteria would require an assessment of the location of the project, how many people the project will impact, and what specific resilience goal the money is alleviating.

“What they’re doing is passing along projects that are not resilient and classifying them as resilient, and frankly most of those should be coming from the general fund, not from the bond,” said Gomez. “Will it make it harder for Capital Improvements to green light projects if they implement a selection criteria? Yeah, because it’s going to require those projects to truly be resilient.”