South Miami Community Center in South Miami, Fla.
By Jenny E. Beeh
What used to be a lone ball field in an economically depressed area of South Miami, Fla., is now the home of the new two-story, 23,000-square-foot South Miami Community Center.
"This has been a 40-year dream," says Ana Garcia, former director of parks and recreation for the city of South Miami. "It's a space where everyone can come together."
Designed by Miami's MCHarry Associates, Inc., the $3 million building features a regulation gymnasium, fitness center, arts-and-craft space, and a multipurpose room for small assemblies, dance classes and "little-theater." There are also classrooms, a computer lab and childcare facilities. About 300 residents use the building on a daily basis.
Without a doubt, the new center, opened last fall, fills a huge void in the neighborhood.
"The community is using it even more than we thought they would," says Alan Ricke, the city's current director of parks and recreation. "As big as the facility is, it's already too small—but we see that as a good problem. As far as the staff and city is concerned, we're ecstatic about the building."
It's already a bustling hub of activity: The fitness center is open 16 hours each day, and the basketball court is constantly packed as is the programming for the multipurpose room, which now handles dance and karate classes and even fencing. Just as important is the after-school care and tutoring program and continuing education opportunities available to residents.
"Part of what the city is attempting to achieve is to offer a variety of services to assist that community to pull themselves up and out," says Tom Carlson, principal with MCHarry Associates. "Offer not only recreation activities, but once you pull [patrons] in, have them take advantage of some of the educational opportunities, which is a trend with youth/community centers."
Keeping kids off the street and providing them with constructive—not destructive—activities was a major goal of the project.
"An idle child is one that is waiting to get into trouble," Garcia says. "We understood [the importance] of recreation in terms of self-esteem."
While members of the neighborhood participated in community workshops during the planning and construction phases, full support from city officials also proved crucial, from the mayor to police chief to the park and rec department.
"It was a real team effort," Garcia says. "The city manager, Charles Scurr, stepped to the plate and took us to the promised land. It was really refreshing to find a city manager who understood that recreation in certain neighborhoods is a necessity not a luxury."
Because even necessities require money in the budget, staff worked painstakingly on securing funds to break ground.
"Every single penny of it came from grants," Garcia says of the $3 million price tag. "We really pleaded our case. It became a mission."
Key project funding sources were the Florida Recreation Development Assistance Grant and Miami-Dade County Office of Community and Economic Development Grant. Meanwhile, the University of Miami donated $100,000 of fitness equipment.
Despite all the "aggressive" grant-application writing, funds were still tight.
"From a planning point of view, their budget did not match their programming," Carlson says of having to eliminate about 8,000 square feet from the original plan. "But we got it down and made it affordable."
Of course, the key components of the building remained intact—as did the concept for the design.
"As far as the architecture, it's obviously recreation oriented, but because of the educational component of the programming, we felt the architecture should have a certain civic presence to it," Carlson says. "We did some soul-searching and architectural research and looked into a neo-classical style—historical but contemporary, blurring the line."
That blurring-the-line idea also fits well with multipurpose objective of the building.
"We wanted the building to be multiuse; everything's multiuse, from the storage to the safety features," Garcia says. "We wanted to make it pretty, but with a lower level of maintenance and a high level of durability. And we used a lot of interior light—to help cut electric bills, especially with all the Florida sunshine—we wanted to maximize that."
The community center is part of a multi-phased master plan aimed at revitalizing the neighborhood. Plans for the next phase of the project include an outdoor competition swimming pool.
All in all, a strong commitment to the project has preserved its momentum.
"If you have a vision, and the people where you work share that vision, when you put the right team together that vision becomes a mission," Garcia says. "And you don't stop until it's done."
For more information
City of South Miami: www.cityofsouthmiami.net
MCHarry Associates, Inc.: www.mcharry.com