A Passion for Parks

The city’s parks system is undergoing a historic expansion and upgrade, thanks in large part to outgoing Vice Mayor Michael Mena — along with a little help from his friends. 

Sitting at the newly erected Maggiore Park, Vice Mayor Mena reflects on his time in local government through the lens of a parent. He recalls what pushed him to run for city commission back in 2017: the fact that his neighborhood park, William H. Kerdyk, Jr. and Family Park, had no playground.

“It had three stone animals that my kids would bust their lips on because they weren’t meant for climbing,” Mena says. “I tried going through the system but the feedback I got from the city at the time was, ‘Well, the neighborhood didn’t want a playground.’ I thought that was so absurd.”

Mena was amazed at how easily a few opinionated neighbors could derail an issue as big as a park, which led him to seek an alternative route — public office. A key campaigning point for his 2017 election and 2019 reelection was enhancing the city’s parks and promoting green spaces. When he came into office, he viewed the parks system as earning “a solid B+.” He wanted to elevate it to an A+ system that other cities could look to as the standard.

Growing up in South Florida, playing sports outside was a major part of Mena’s childhood. To him, parks are the perfect opportunity for community engagement. “Everybody nowadays is connected to technology, even more so after the pandemic,” he says. “Parks get people outside; you get to meet your neighbors.”

The pandemic also highlighted the need for more open spaces, with some parks becoming overrun with residents looking for an escape from lockdown.

Mena was not alone in his desire to upgrade the parks system, though the funding mechanisms in place to raise additional dollars for parks — namely park impact fees from developers, and a small surcharge on permitting fees — went largely towards purchasing new parcels. The goal of both the Community Recreation Department (formerly Parks & Rec) and Mayor Vince Lago was to have a neighborhood park within a half-mile or ten-minute walk of all residents.

The result has been nine new parks over the last five years — a prime example being The Betsy Adams and City of Coral Gables Garden Club Park, built in 2018 after the city purchased two adjacent, empty residential lots. Indeed, the city is committed to spending at least $5.5 million on the purchase of land for community recreation projects as part of its current 2023-2027 five-year capital improvement plan.

The Betsy Adams Park, created from two empty residential lots.

But what Mena wanted was, in addition to new space, an emphasis on upgrading the current parks. “My thing was highly focused on activating the parks, in particular for the kids; having families come out and have a place to go,” says Mena. So, in 2018, the vice mayor sponsored a resolution that would allocate 35 percent of park impact fees towards improvements for existing parks and open spaces, with the remaining 65 percent going towards acquiring new ones.

“This was an amendment to legislation that [now mayor] Vince Lago had passed, to acquire land for parks,” Mena says. “My amendment was to improve existing parks. When I first ran [for commissioner] there were a few passive spaces and our core parks were not up to snuff, so I was trying to not just have the fees go to buying new parks, but for improving what we already had.”

Pierce Park, renovated and reopened in February 2023.

Fred Couceyro, the city’s community recreation director, sees the last few years as the most “prolific and productive” in the evolution of the parks system throughout his 27 years of working for the city. Prioritizing funding to not only create new parks, but to maintain and enhance existing parks, was the driving factor, he says.

“If you only allocate enough money to create a decent park, but you don’t allocate enough money for an outstanding park, you’re going to get what you pay for,” adds Mena.

Creating high-quality recreational areas in different parks — from better landscaping in pocket parks to installing new playgrounds in larger parks — is something the city is projected to spend $14 million on in the next five years, replacing and renovating “capital assets,” including playground equipment, structural components, dog parks, and so forth. This will provide renovations exemplified by Salvadore Park, which continues to receive praise from residents and visitors almost two years after its upgrade.

Couceyro says the park’s renovation is one of his career highlights, with a point of pride being the focus on accessibility and inclusivity. The renovation removed sidewalk barriers and added playground equipment and turf that allows for easy transfer from a wheelchair. Added sensory apparatuses within the playground cater specifically to kids with learning disabilities. All of this — along with more shade and an exhilarating, accessible zipline — keeps the park bustling with families.

Luis Debayle, a lifelong resident, frequents Salvadore with his three-year- old son. He considers it “the best park in Miami-Dade County” due to its enhanced safety and variety of activities for all ages. The location and popularity of the park also means Debayle frequently runs into family friends and his son’s preschool classmates.

Compared to his time as a kid playing at Salvadore in the ’90s, Debayle says the upgrades have made a huge difference. “Back then, it was just a sandbox with a slide and a couple of swings … Now, the entertainment for my kid is extensive.”

Debayle says his son is the biggest advocate of Salvadore. “He’s three years old, can barely speak, but he’ll say, ‘I want parky with papas,’” he says. “Even he recognizes a place where he feels safe and wants to play and have fun with his dad.”

Salvadore Park has become a local resident favorite after being renovated two years ago.

Not everything has gone smoothly in the city’s efforts to upgrade parks. After his election in 2020, City Commissioner Kirk Menendez led a campaign to comprehensively upgrade the entire parks system, including creating an indoor swimming pool and track at the War Memorial Youth Center where he coached soccer for many years. That $160 million plan was rejected last year by his fellow commissioners, as was a scaled down $60 million version, both of which would have required a public referendum to increase taxes to pay for it.

“With the uncertainty of the economy and inflation, the commission felt it was in the best interests of the city to hold off,” says Menendez, whose goal remains to have “the best parks system in the State of Florida.” What did survive in Menendez’s master plan was a dramatic upgrade to Phillips Park, the largest open space in the North Gables.

Out of a total of more than $49 million dollars projected to be allocated to the Community Recreation Department over the next five years, $9.5 million will be spent on a long-overdue renovation of Phillips Park. The funding will, among other things, expand the playground area with new equipment, swings, artificial turf, and shades; expand and renovate the bathroom building to include an activity room, a small office, and storage; remove the dugout, backstop structure, and chain link fence and replace it with new perimeter fencing; renovate the basketball and tennis courts; and add the city’s first splash pad water playground.

“Phillips Park is what came out of [the master plan] because a large percentage of the money was already available, not through a bond issue or referendum, but through other funding sources,” says Menendez, referencing money from the city’s capital improvements fund. “We found a solution to be able to go forward.”

Another hurdle in upgrading and expanding the parks system comes from the “not in my backyard” mindset some residents have against building an activated park across the street from their homes. Mena says that improving communication through neighborhood meetings and passing commission mandates saying, “We’re doing it, we’d like your input,” has allowed new parks to come to fruition. Another approach is simply going door to door, as Commissioner Rhonda Anderson famously did to garner neighborhood support for a dog run at Salvadore Park.

“To me, they’re easy wins,” says Mena. “When you create a park in a neighborhood, it’s amazing the positive feedback [you get] from people you’ve never heard from, saying, ‘Thank you so much, this is great. I take my kid every day.’ And that’s what it’s all about.”

Young families tend to support having more parks but might not be engaged in local government to make it happen. “With real estate prices being where they are right now, [families are] paying a lot of money for a modest-size home that might not have a huge yard, but they really want to live in the city,” Mena says. “Having a park in their neighborhood gives them an extended backyard where they can take their kids.”

The William H. Kerdyk, Jr., and Family Park, with new exercise gear.

Couceyro says the changes to Phillips Park will turn it into a satellite for the Youth Center, allowing residents to get the most out of the play areas and open field. Two upcoming projects he’s looking forward to are the renovations to Cooper Park and Nellie Moore Park, where possible additions include playgrounds and fitness equipment. Neighborhood meetings will be set up soon to gain insight from nearby residents.

Couceyro commends the commissioners and the mayor, saying the city is in a “sweet spot where all of our elected officials really know the value” in making sure Coral Gables has quality parks. One arm of that strategy has been negotiations by Mayor Lago with developers, granting minor height variances for new projects in exchange for creating neighborhood parks.

A prime example is a deal he cut with developer Armando Codina. In exchange for 14 additional feet to Codina’s new downtown Regency apartment building on Salzedo (between Valencia and Almeria), the developer will donate a 10,000-square-foot park across the street on land valued at millions of dollars. “The fact that [the development] is creating green space is hugely important,” said Lago at the time.

Vice Mayor Michael Mena in front of the playground at Maggiore Park.

“We’re going to continue to see that kind of overhaul and that kind of commitment, financially, from the city … to continue seeing our parks system grow to be the best in Miami-Dade County,” says Mena, who is retiring from office this month.

As his time in office ends, the vice mayor looks back on his tenure proudly. As we talked, we watched a toddler roam around the jungle gym at Maggiore Park, which not long ago was simply a plot of land that still doesn’t even appear on Google Maps. Passing by Kerdyk Park, the beginning of the vice mayor’s “passion project,” we see children running around, enjoying the shaded playground while their parents sit and chat. This was always the goal: creating activated green spaces that add to the city’s small-town feel.

New and Renovated Parks in the Last Five Years