Editor's Note: As 2017 winds down, The Islander News is remembering those Key Biscayne stories that inspired us over the past year. Here, we're remembering a visit to the park at 401 Hampton with Steve Simon and children Brett and Arielle - the trio who worked pro bono to design and help build the facility.
A serpentine path takes visitors into the lush botanical beauty of the new park at 401 Hampton Lane, where they can explore a rainbow of native plants, play a game of bocce ball, or lounge on limestone benches, the slope of a play mound or under a shaded pergola.
A visit to the park is a chance to embrace nature and unstructured recreation, and on a recent morning The Islander News enjoyed a tour that showcased not only the physical aspects of the venue that make it special, but the behind-the-scenes effort that makes it truly unique.
Arielle, Brett and Steve Simon highlighted the flora and design of the park, and in doing so also provided a peek at an only-in-Key Biscayne story of how one local family, with the support of Village leaders, helped transform a vacant residential lot into a beautiful neighborhood park.
Dad Steve recalled attending park planning workshops, then returning home to have dinner with daughter Arielle, whose professional experience includes a position with renowned Fairchild Tropical Garden, and son Brett, who has a master’s in architecture.
“I looked at the two of you, and said, ‘Everything that is needed is sitting right here at this dinner table,’” he said. “It’s been fun.”
While Arielle joked, “Now you know how we got roped in,” her passion for the project and the diverse tropical flora is evident as she walks the path that snakes along the edge of the park.
Arielle focused on bringing native and near-native plants to the park, so it is bursting with the colorful, vibrant flora of the tropics. “There are so many different flowering plants,” she said. “It gives us these great pops of color, and it’s also great for the wildlife.”
The park includes plants like senna, white powder puff, marlberry tree and tea bush that attract butterflies, hummingbirds and bees. On the tour, Arielle draws two butterflies, one an elegant monarch, to land on her hand; and points to a bumblebee buzzing contentedly among the leaves.
She notes milkweed, for example, pulls in the monarch, which is non-migratory: “The climate here suits them just fine, so they don’t have to go elsewhere,” Arielle explained.
Her welcome mat is only pulled away for an invasive creature that many locals consider a nuisance: “We’ve really covered all the bases in terms of nature – except the iguanas,” she said, noting she made a pointed decision not to plant hibiscus and bougainvillea, which iguanas eat.
She did make one exception in the vibrant fireball hibiscus: “The flowers are just so incredible,” she said. “It’s just so neat. I had to.”
In any case, the natural anti-iguana steps seem to be working, though Steve points to another, perhaps more aspirational, possibility: a hand-drawn sign the family posted that puts the critters on notice about destroying plants: “Iguanas: Please use path, keep off plants, no eating in park.”
Fortunately, the same stern warnings don’t apply to residents, who are encouraged to interact with what 401 Hampton offers.
To that end, the Simons had small signs made to identify each type of plant featured in the park. “I wanted it to be educational,” Arielle said; she hopes kids will visit the park on field trips, or adults will see something they want to plant in their own yard and jot down the name on the sign.
There’s plenty to become fascinated by, as Arielle shared some of the stories behind the plants.
Allspice and Bay Rum lend not only physical beauty but their rich scents. “Scratch the leaf, and they smell beautiful,” Arielle said; the same goes for a ylang-ylang tree – she noted the fragrant flowers are used to give the legendary Chanel No. 5 perfume its scent.
Palms are also key to the vibe of 401 Hampton. Bottle palms, Florida silver palms, Keys and Puerto Rican thatch palms, and hurricane palms – named because they can withstand a storm – make an appearance, as does the unique grandfather or old man palm, named for the fibers on its trunk: “It looks like it has an old man’s beard,” Arielle said of the tree, which is native to Cuba.
There’s also a large palm that is native to Vanuatu – and critically endangered. “It’s really cool to have one here because there’s a good chance it won’t exist there for long,” Arielle noted.
Other plants come with equally interesting stories.
The border of the park includes a mix of “stoppers” native to Miami and the Caribbean. Not to be too graphic, but the name comes from the fact that early Miami settlers used the plants when they were suffering from certain digestive problems. Bridal veil trees, meanwhile, are named for their beautiful peeling bark; at 401 Hampton, they line either side of the bocce court. Visitors will also see two species of the coreopsis, the official state wildflower of Florida.
As Arielle describes the silk floss tree, which produces a pod with a silky, cottony fiber that is used to make life jackets and pillows, Jesus Rodriguez, owner of Gorgeous Lawns, the longtime Village landscaping contractor who is helping with the park construction, drives up and shares his recollection of the tree as a boy in Cuba.
“In Cuba those trees grow huge, maybe 50 feet tall, so it’s too hard to climb up to pick [the pods]. We would wait for it to blow down by itself, and then they’d send me out as a little kid to pick them up to make pillows,” he said.
When asked how many of the fruits it would take to make a pillow, Rodriguez replied, “A lot!”
The list of plants is impressive (it’s available on www.islandernews.com) and includes a milky way tree, lignum vitae or “tree of life,” bitterbush, ground orchids, wild coffee plants, saw palmetto, sweet almond bush known for its light fragrance, and muhly grass, which Arielle said boasts a lovely purple plume: “When they’re all in full bloom, it’s flush with beautiful color.”
Color, scent, ability to attract pollinators and more were all part of the selection process, in which Arielle worked with Rodriguez and his staff at Gorgeous Lawns. “The idea was people wanted natives, and something showy and botanical,” she said.
And they also wanted casual activities and room to just be, Brett noted, both of which were key to the design he developed for the park. “We wanted to give a sense of a sheltered space once you’re in the park, but also have it appear inviting and open,” he said.
Brett pointed to the heart of 401 Hampton, an open grassy area. “The main thought when this was designed is we wanted it to be useful, particularly to children,” he said, “so we left a central open space for children to play in.”
Already, he said, he’s seen kids kicking soccer balls and just sitting in circles chatting.
There’s also the sloping mound where kids can play or adults can lounge and watch the activity; its backside doubles as a natural planting berm that blends with the landscape.
A 12-by-18 pergola has yet to be installed, but Brett said the idea will be for vines to grow on the structure, providing a source of shade. The serpentine path will open to the pergola, and there will be picnic tables for residents to use for casual gatherings.
Also yet-to-be-completed is a bocce/petanque court at the back corner of the park. Brett said the goal is to draw residents in for interaction with friends new and old around the popular game.
Steve credited his son, who designed both the pergola and court, with spending countless hours in front of the computer fine-tuning the structures.
Brett also designed unique benches for the project, based on the idea that Key Biscayne lies atop a coral rock subsurface. The benches were made by local artisan Josh Billig of Rockers Stone based on Brett’s drawings, and each one has a slightly different curve or angle that reflects the natural limestone used by the Coconut Grove-based builder.
There are lime rock entrances off Hampton Lane and Heather Drive, and the winding path is also lined by coral rock.
As Brett noted, “The path and benches throughout the park reflect the local geography.”
The path also serves another purpose, Arielle said: “The idea was balance and symmetry, and that it would draw your eye to the back corner of the park, making the whole lot seem bigger.”
Steve, Brett and Arielle continue working on the park each day, and eventually, once the bocce court and pergola are done, the Village will hold a grand opening celebration.
But the family behind the park hopes their neighbors won’t wait until then to check it out.
All three Simons said their main goal for the park is that it would be a place where neighbors can arrive by foot or bike – Brett pointed to two sets of bike racks he incorporated in the design – and just enjoy being in the great outdoors.
“We pushed to open the park because we wanted the public to be able to enjoy it, particularly this time of year,” Steve said.
The Simon family wishes to thank the following individuals, who supported the volunteer process by contributing their time and vast horticultural knowledge: The late Bob Brennan, former chief arborist at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden; Lenny Goldstein, President, South Florida Palm Society and Board Member, TREEmendous Miami; Peter Kouchalakos, past president of the Bromeliad Society of South Florida; Henry Mayer, M.S., Commercial Urban Horticulture Agent UF/Miami-Dade County Extension and Miami-Dade Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department; Chad Husby, Ph.D., botanical horticulturalist at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden; J. Bryan Unruh, Ph.D. Professor and Associate Center Director West Florida Research and Education Center University of Florida; and Ian Wogan, arborist.