Friday, April 25, 2014

The Cuban exile museum fighting for a home in downtown Miami

Posted on Wednesday, 04.23.14

The Cuban exile museum fighting for a home in downtown Miami

Miami's waterfront has a new art museum, with a science museum on the
way. Does it have room for one dedicated to Cuban exiles, too?

Advocates of what would be Miami's second museum devoted to Cuban
immigrants are pushing county leaders to turn over county land behind
the AmericanAirlines Arena to house the proposed 80-foot-tall complex,
which would cost as much as $125 million to build.

The plan is facing push-back from the Miami Heat and some elected
officials, who see disruptions from putting a large building on the
waterfront spot's compact footprint. But the group behind the museum
sees the addition as a fittingly prominent platform for highlighting a
central part of Miami's history.

"We feel the site is the perfect place to preach not to the choir only,
but to the public at large," said William Muir, a Bay of Pigs veteran
and a lead organizer of the proposed historical museum. "You have all of
the tourists from the cruise ships there. And you have all of the Latin
American tourists in downtown. What better place?"

A recent county report cataloging the challenges for the museum's site
plan has revved up focus on the matter, with various interests girding
for a larger fight.

Audrey Edmonson, the county commissioner whose district includes the
proposed site, known as Parcel B, said she's planning a resolution that
would bar construction on the land in favor of a park that nearby
residents could use. Marc Sarnoff, the Miami city commissioner
representing the area, said he's opposed to putting a new museum on the
waterfront, even on available land in the city's existing Museum Park

"Give me a break," Sarnoff said. "How about having some grass?"

The debate over the exile museum touches on enough hot topics to qualify
for its own exhibit on contemporary Miami politics.

The three acres of county land sought by the Cuban Exile History Museum
was promised as a park and soccer field when voters first approved
construction of the tax-funded AmericanAirlines Arena in 1996, but it
now serves as a truck and equipment depot when the arena hosts the
circus and major concerts.

As the Heat gingerly pushes back on the idea of a museum rising next
door, team executives are also pursuing a deal with Miami-Dade over
extending their virtually rent-free lease on the arena and a yearly
county subsidy of about $6.4 million in hotel taxes. Backers of the
exile museum aren't asking for public construction dollars, but also
haven't ruled out seeking government help if the private sector falls short.

"We are going to do everything possible to do this strictly without
Miami-Dade County involved in the financing," Muir said. "The first
thing we need is a site. We can then start attracting the donations with
the idea of doing this privately."

Miami-Dade already subsidizes a different Cuban museum in Miami about
three miles away. The Cuban Museum received $10 million in county
construction dollars for its new Coral Way home, which is slated to open
next spring.

Aside from questions over public resources, the exile museum debate is
sure to touch on some of the diciest territory in local politics. The
subject of Cuban-Americans' central role in Miami can be a sensitive one
for other ethnic groups.

In February, Javier Souto urged his fellow county commissioners to be
especially deferential to Cuban-American concerns since "Latins here pay
more taxes per capita than anybody else" and "out of the Latin people,
the prevalent community is the Cuban community." Commissioner Dennis
Moss, the county's senior African-American elected official, called
Souto's remarks "offensive" and stated: "Black folks built this
community. To simply say that, well, Latins came to this town and all of
a sudden, this town is what it is — I resent that."

That moment also helps explain why Muir and others see an exile museum
as so fitting for Miami, given the central role Cuban immigrants play in
the local political leadership. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez was born
in Cuba, as were Rebeca Sosa, the chairwoman of the Miami-Dade County
Commission, and Tomás Regalado, the mayor of Miami.

Museum organizers say they plan to highlight the success stories of
Cuban exiles, the umbrella term for immigrants who left Cuba after Fidel
Castro seized power in 1959. They also want the museum to attract
tourists interested in the tumultuous events that helped spawn the exile
community, including some that were milestones in U.S. history.

Among the exhibits cited as possibilities: the Cuban Missile Crisis of
1962, the 1980 Mariel boatlift, the Miami-based rafter-search operation
Brothers to the Rescue, and the 2000 custody drama over young Elián
Gonzalez. The museum also plans to study the impact of Cuban exiles in
the United States, including a exhibit that Muir credits to Gimenez and
describes as comparing Miami's prosperity with Havana's decay.

"You can't really tell the Miami story without involving the
contribution of the exile community," said Cuban-American county
Commissioner Esteban "Steve" Bovo, whose district includes Hialeah, and
whose father is a Bay of Pigs veteran. "We won't shy away from a healthy

Organizers of the exile museum initially proposed building a Bay of Pigs
museum, with the focus solely on the failed U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba
in 1961. The plan was to create a far larger version of the modest Bay
of Pigs museum created out of a house in Little Havana. After their
initial try to put the museum on Parcel B stalled in 2008, organizers
broadened the concept.

By emphasizing history, the museum's backers hope to distinguish their
concept from the existing Cuban Museum, which focuses on the cultural
contributions of the exile community. That museum, which currently
operates out of donated office space in a bank, expects to move into a
refurbished 15,000-square-foot building that once housed the Grand
Opera's Arturo di Filippi Center at 1200 Coral Way.

"We will have works of artists who were in the Mariel boat lift. We will
do an exhibit on the Mariel reality," said Ileana Fuentes, a consultant
working on launching the upgraded Cuban Museum. "The approach here is
art, culture and literature."

The exile museum is pursuing a space nearly 10 times as large as the
Coral Way museum, with about 110,000 square feet of exhibit and
programming space in a five-story structure that would include a large
ground-level parking complex. Robert Chisolm, the museum architect, said
there would be space for almost 400 vehicles and ceilings high enough to
accommodate the Heat's special events — whether tractor trailers for a
Shakira concert or giraffes for the circus. Plans also call for an
open-air plaza, restaurant and visitor center at the ground level,
Chisolm said.

"What we are providing is an open urban plaza free for the public," he said.

An April 16 memo from Gimenez to commissioners said county planning
staff concluded Parcel B could accommodate the museum's footprint. While
the memo described the Heat Group as expressing "overall support" for
the exile museum, it also laid out a series of "concerns" from the team.

The Heat, according to the memo, said the option of temporarily renting
Parcel B from the county during major events "is an essential component
for their continued operational viability." The team also noted the
museum would block waterfront views of its Bongos restaurant.

The Heat declined to be interviewed for this story beyond a brief
statement referring to "our response as reflected in the [Gimenez] report."

Parcel B has been a flashpoint for more than a decade. Campaign
materials for the 1996 referendum showed the area as a park with
residents playing soccer, though the Heat's development deal gave
permission to build a retail complex there, too. The Heat at one point
partnered with developer Armando Codina to build a high-rise apartment
building there, but in 2003 the team gave up its right to the county land.

Backers of the exile museum have identified two downtown sites as
possibilities. While Muir describes Parcel B as their top choice,
they've also identified land owned by Miami a few blocks north in the
area called Museum Park. Already home to the Perez Art Museum Miami and
the under-construction Frost science museum, the area has land once
designated for a restaurant and visitor center that could accommodate
the exile museum, Chisolm said.

"Speaking as an architect," Chisolm said, "either one would work just
fine in my opinion."

The site debate might come to a head soon, as Edmonson prepares to
introduce a motion essentially forcing the museum to stay off Parcel B.
The commissioner said she initially planned to recommend a traditional
park there, but instead will request the land be designated as "open
space" to allow nearby residents to convene planning sessions and
formulate a proposed plan.

"They're talking about doggie parks and tot lots," she said. "This is
the people's land."

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