“We’ve broken ground on the 13-story condominium building that’s going up,” Michael Halpern says.
Construction has started on the 1400 block of Duval, but Halpern’s kidding about the condo part. The developer, lawyer and owner of the Southernmost House has gotten used to vocal critics, most recently of his pocket park project — the real reason they’re breaking ground on the south end of Duval Street. He estimates it will be open to the public in less than six months.
The city commission voted in favor of moving ahead with the project in May, with two dissenters: Sam Kaufman and Jimmy Weekley. Others, like Clayton Lopez, whose district it’s in, are glad that “it’s actually moving.”
Halpern has been meeting with people about the park for nearly 10 years—including two previous city planners, Donald Craig and Thaddeus Cohen.
“The idea was originally a city of Key West idea,” said Halpern. “For 10 years, the city has had plans to make more beautiful the last block of Duval Street, and it was always a target block for a pedestrian mall.”
Halpern has been a longtime supporter of the project. Lopez sees more sides to it.
“I know that not everyone understands or appreciates what we’re getting here. It is a trade off, yes,” Lopez said. “But, we’re working in tandem to correct an issue that has been no small one for a long time, and only getting worse.”
Lopez and Halpern both cite the current state of the street as a primary motivation for the public-private partnership to clean up the south end of Duval.
“It’s a traffic nightmare: traffic gets in and can’t get out,” said Halpern. “There is a crime and drug problem on the street on a constant basis. And it’s unattractive, and it’s dirty, smelly and it floods regularly.” The rotting seaweed problem is consistent in the summers, making the street fetid-smelling, and the street often floods. The scant parking spaces are difficult to navigate in and out of, and the big green Dumpster has held center stage in recent years.
Despite that, critics have cited losing parking and making it a private enterprise in a public space as two deterrents. Halpern’s Seaside Café and the Southernmost Beach Café, across the street, will both be able to put tables in the pocket park for their respective restaurants. They struck a deal with the city by agreeing to pay 6.5% of profits back to the city.
“This will be a first, where the city rents out property for the purpose of having an outdoor café,” said Halpern, citing many other seaside municipalities that boast rows of outdoor cafes, to great success. As the city — namely Mayor Teri Johnston — has charged ahead with downtown revitalization efforts, namely the Mall on Duval, the time was right to move ahead with the pocket park.
“We’re getting a true park by the Atlantic Ocean,” Lopez said, “and it’s not costing anywhere near what the Mall on Duval is costing. … It impacts only two businesses that want it and have done so for some time.” The businesses in question, Southernmost House Hotel and Southernmost Beach Resort, have wanted it so much that they made it a pretty sweet deal for the city. Besides the restaurant profit-sharing, all of the construction is privately funded, shared by the Southernmost properties.
The park will be single-level instead of having a sidewalk and street level. There will be “beautiful” pavers, landscaping and sculpted art. It will be closed to all traffic, 365 days a year, and Halpern has invested in fixing the drainage issue.
“It’s our hope that it’s the beginning of the future improvements of Duval Street. Once the public and the government realize what an asset it is to the community, other blocks will follow,” said Halpern.
Lopez said that regardless of “some folks” not liking his support of the park, “I hope to win them over when it’s completed. Some locals hope that more private enterprise and public entity partnerships follow, in order to clean up the street that for many years was Key West’s crown jewel. The park, along with Mall on Duval, might just be a step in the direction to return to the yesterday’s close-knit local feel.”
The name, if it goes Halpern’s way, wouldn’t hurt.
“It’s my hope that the city calls it the Ramos or Ramos-Lopez Park, after the families that lived on this block, on each side of the street.”