Citys Centerpiece Of Beauty And History Gone With The Wind
Written by Michael Lewis on October 11, 2007
By Michael Lewis
Looking across Biscayne Boulevard, the 73-foot-diameter SkyLife Balloon today dominates Miami’s Bayfront Park in the very spot where the city’s own Mildred and Claude Pepper Fountain briefly was the metropolitan area’s splashy centerpiece.
The fountain, or what’s left of it, is now the base for what’s to become an advertising-festooned carnival ride floating 500 feet into the air, connected by a steel cable to what was once a complex mechanism whose 36 powerful jets of water and five computerized spray configurations shot skyward to mirror the moods of the sea.
And so Miami goes from the sublime to the ridiculous once again.
The balloon may become a great hit. Nothing wrong with that — except the location.
Selling the city’s front door to a carnival ride so that the Bayfront Park Management Trust can collect $270,000 a year rent plus a share of ticket and advertising revenues to support the park’s operations reinforces Miami’s pennywise, pound-foolish history.
This is the city, after all, that saved a few million on the Miami Arena just as the fountain was being built nearby. But those savings meant skimping on the luxury suites that tenant Miami Heat wanted, so the community wound up a decade later building a new arena and then selling the unpaid-for 1987 model for half its remaining debt.
The city didn’t skimp on 32-acre Bayfront Park’s fountain, which opened two years late in 1990 at a cost of $3.25 million, three quarters of a million over budget. Designed by world-famous sculptor and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi, the turbulent eye-catcher offered a fantastic computerized show of water plumes — until the city discovered that while it could afford to build the fountain, it hadn’t figured on the cost to operate it, a failure repeated at the nearby Carnival Center for the Performing Arts 15 years later.
Months after opening, Miami Commissioner J.L. Plummer told the park trust "the fountain’s electricity and operation is going to be very expensive." He suggested running the fountain sparingly. So the trust decided to let water flow only for weekday lunch hours and 90 minutes at night "until a full cost-analysis can be determined."
Next, the trust passed the hat, asking corporations to donate to keep the fountain flowing. FPL donated $70,000 in electricity. To supplement that, the plan was that companies would each sponsor an hour a day of spray.
But donations were a trickle, so for the trust’s 1992-93 budgeting, it produced an inch-thick packet of scenarios for the fountain, stating to board members, "The fountain currently poses the greatest challenge to the organization, from both a public perception and operational standpoint." The trust never met the challenge.
To keep water flowing day and night, the trust was told, would cost $544,000 a year, $350,000 more than the total of park revenue from rentals and the paltry $50,000 the chintzy city itself was willing to provide. Even to run the fountain just four hours a day, the trust was told, would cost $61,000 more than the trust could amass.
And so the fountain began to go, bit by bit. Only enough water flowed to keep the pipes from rusting up. Then the trust ripped out the computerized plumbing and retrofitted a civic centerpiece into a trickle of shame. In the end the bone-dry, 170-foot-diameter splash basin looked like an inverted flying saucer as the centerpiece of a seldom-visited, sun-baked plaza.
There’s a lesson, if anyone in the city is paying attention, about disrespect for both history and beauty, municipal penny-pinching, and failure to plan for operations before construction.
To save $61,000 a year, the city destroyed the memorial to Claude Pepper, a giant who served Miami for more than 40 years in Congress. It ruined the $20 million Bayfront Park plan by design genius Isamu Noguchi to create a waterfront focal point.
Now the hulk is being commercialized and carnivalized.
But not to worry. Mr. Noguchi died in 1988 and Mr. Pepper in 1989, so neither saw the desecration.
And look at the rent the park’s going to get from that balloon — until that idea too floats away.