Government, News, Village Life

Major Project Gone Awry

The Virrick Park Pool

The Virrick Park pool construction site on June 8, 2023. Weeks later, workers began pouring concrete for what community members consider a woefully inadequate replacement of the original pool.

Elizabeth Virrick Park in the West Grove symbolizes a triumph of civil rights activism. The park is named for Elizabeth Virrick, a diminutive white woman from Kentucky who was a formidable advocate for better housing for Miami’s Black community.

For several decades, Virrick park and its swimming pool were a hub of life for the Grove’s Black families and children. Many West Grove residents remember today that they first learned to swim in the pool—and then taught their own children to swim there.

As the decades passed, the Virrick pool fell into disrepair because of deferred maintenance. After the summer of 2019, the City closed it and launched plans for a completely new pool.

Today, the City of Miami and the residents of Little Bahamas are locked in a bitter dispute over the design—and depth—of that new pool. The impasse became a major issue in the November 2023 election and may have cost former Miami Commissioner Sabino Covo her job.

The new District 2 Commissioner, Damian Pardo, says the issue is about much more than a neighborhood pool. Pardo says the city should halt construction of the new pool and embrace a new design that gives residents what they want, a pool that is deep enough to host competitive swimming events and water polo competitions, despite the additional cost, which is likely to run into the millions of dollars.

This is an account of how the project, despite the city’s best intentions, went off track.

Some West Grove residents recall discussions about a new pool as long ago as the term of District 2 Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who served between 2006 and 2015. Ruth Ewing, chair of the Virrick Park Committee, a volunteer organization, possesses renderings of a new pool dated October 2017. “They were sent to me and were presented to the community as the final pool design renderings,” says Ewing. The renderings showed the exterior of the pool and buildings but did not contain specific details.

As City administrations and elected officials came and went, the concept of a new Virrick Park pool remained on a back burner in what is now called the Office of Capital Improvements (OCI).

At the beginning of 2023, City staff brought the Virrick Park pool project back to the community. The obvious intent at the beginning was to give the community a pool it would enjoy and be proud of. There would be a completely new structure to house the pool and its amenities. The pool would have a “zero entry” shallow level for young children. It would be safe, easy, and fun for everyone. That was the City’s plan, and City officials believed they were meeting the needs of the community.

They were wrong.

The community wanted a pool for competitive swimming and athletics, a pool not unlike the one being replaced, which had a maximum depth of nine feet. The pool OCI presented to the community early in 2023 — the pool now being built— is 5’3” at its deepest. Pools for competitive swimming and athletics have to be a minimum of 6’7” deep.

The earliest mention of the misunderstanding about the pool obtained by the Spotlight is an email dated Feb. 16, 2023, from Kimberly Davis, co-leader of the Coconut Grove Optimist Club, to Chris Evans, then the interim director of the City’s Parks and Recreation Department. “I am reaching out because as the work has started on the pool it has become clear that the depth of the pool is not adequate to support competitive swimming,” she wrote.

The City’s immediate reaction to Davis’s email was to defend its plan. Daniel Lopez, Superintendent of Aquatics & Ocean Rescue for the Parks and Recreation Department, wrote in an email to Davis, “The new pool depth are 4’ on one end and 5’3” on the other end (starting blocks side). Based on the information below and on current pool design the pool has the adequate water depth that meets swimmers safety standards.”

On March 28, 2023, Davis requested a meeting to discuss the Virrick pool with City staff. In that same email, she copied Ruth Ewing and Clarice Cooper, president of the Coconut Grove Village West Homeowners and Tenants Association (HOATA). The meeting was scheduled on Zoom for the afternoon of April 12, 2023.

“The problem came up first thing in the Zoom meeting,” says Ewing. “The first question was how deep would the pool have to be in order for water polo to happen there. The answer was six and a half feet.”

Many meetings ensued during the following months. OCI presented a plan with five different options for the pool that included building a new pool at a completely different location. Redoing the plan in any form, according to OCI’s estimates, would cost millions and delay the project for several years. “The community asked for a pool that would give us the ability to teach water polo,” says Kimberly Davis. “They presented the costs of the different options. We said ‘Don’t tell us what it will cost. If you had given us what we wanted from the beginning, we wouldn’t be talking about the cost.’”

One particularly crucial meeting took place on July 5 in the office of City Manager Art Noriega. Davis, Ewing, Cooper, and several others were there. So were representatives of the City Manager’s office, OCI, and the Department of Parks and Recreation.

“At that meeting Art Noriega said, ‘You all make a good point,’” recalls Ewing. “He said, ‘My son did water polo. I can see the benefits. Let me talk with my people. We’ll have an internal meeting, and we’ll get back to you with regards to what next steps could happen.’” Nothing of importance to the Virrick pool plan changed after that meeting. 

A critical junction for the project came in September. After all the meetings, emails, Zooms, and discussions, the contractors for the Virrick pool began pouring concrete for the bottom. Nowhere was it deeper than five feet three inches.

Sabina Covo had won a special election in February to fill the commission seat vacated by Ken Russell, only to hold it for eight months. In the November municipal election, Covo lost to the current commissioner, Damian Pardo. Many in the West Grove believe Covo lost because she hadn’t been able to do enough for the Virrick Park pool.

Fast forward to March 2024. On the evening of March 5, Damian Pardo, his staff, and the usual City representatives met once again with the West Grove community to present a new plan. Gone were the previous five options, which included building a new pool at an entirely different location. The new proposal included three options, all within the borders of Virrick Park.

This time the West Grove was represented by many leaders. They included Apostle John Chambers, the head of the Ministerial Alliance; J.S. Rashid, a community development and housing expert; and Carolyn Donaldson, a key figure in the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, the oldest Black church in Miami.

“It was not a productive meeting,” says Andy Parrish, a long-time West Grove builder of homes for low-income owners. “People vented, but it didn’t resolve anything. My impression was they were offended by City staff comments that a five-foot deep pool would be safer with less need for supervision.  Most of the Black members of the audience were distrustful of the City and what they considered promises made to them over decades on many things besides just the Virrick Park pool.”

How does this story end?

Today, April 5, Damian Pardo, his staff, and City officials are meeting to review the situation and determine next steps. Pardo gave the Spotlight a clue to where those steps might lead in a statement issued on April 3: “In the end,” he said, “our mission is to take the existing design and construction elements and transform them as close as possible to the original pool at Virrick Park in the most cost-effective way.” When asked what he meant by “original,” he replied, “What was there before.”

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