It’s been a big couple of weeks for Sabrina Cohen. She cut the ribbon on Miami Beach’s first adaptive playground at Allison Park which she spearheaded, then she was at City Hall as Commissioners approved an agreement for her foundation to build and operate an adaptive recreation center, an effort four years in the making. It all wrapped up with a celebration and fundraising kickoff on Wednesday attended by more than 225 people.
Cohen said the event was planned as “a celebration of the Foundation’s milestones and accomplishments including Adaptive Beach Days and the opening of the playground.” The approval of the agreement for the Adaptive Recreation Center, she said, “was beyond the cherry on the top of the cake.”
Sabrina’s Adaptive Beach Days program started last year on the beach in front of Allison Park to provide disabled adults and children the ability to access the beach and swim in the water with specialized equipment and trained volunteers. The Adaptive Recreation Center will provide a place for storage of the beach equipment, changing rooms, and other fitness activities for the disabled.
Cohen said Wednesday’s event was also a chance for her to, once again, say “thank you” for the City’s support of the Foundation. “We’re excited about this partnership,” she said. The City, in turn, honored Cohen for her contributions. Mayor Philip Levine and Commissioners Joy Malakoff and John Alemán presented her with a proclamation and a key to the City. Levine also donated $10,000 to the Foundation. While she’s still tallying the results, Cohen said she estimates nearly $60,000 was raised for the Adaptive Recreation Center.
“It was a beautiful event,” she said. “We had a lot of people and everybody is excited to get involved.”
Cohen, a native of Miami Beach, sustained a serious spinal cord injury in a car accident in 1992 when she was 14. She started the Sabrina Cohen Foundation in 2006 and since then has become a leader in providing adaptive fitness and recreational quality of life initiatives for people living with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities.
It was an emotional day at City Hall earlier in the week as the Commission prepared to vote on the agreement with the Foundation to operate the Adaptive Recreation Center. After many delays, including Hurricane Irma, the vote wound up taking place on the anniversary of Cohen’s accident. While Kent Harrison Robbins, an attorney for three neighboring condo associations, objected to what he called a rush to select the Collins Avenue and 53rd Street site, concerns over the loss of parking, and the potential for the Center to cost the City “tens of millions of dollars” over time, the remainder of the speakers gave impassioned testimony in favor of it.
Mike Llorente representing the Sabrina Cohen Foundation said, “In a world of alternative facts, a lot of what has been said is simply not true … We are not asking the city to give the Sabrina Cohen Foundation any public land or any public money. We are not asking for the City to commit tens of millions of dollars to operate any sort of facility and we’re not asking the City to limit beach access – it’s quite the opposite – or to eliminate a single inch of public parkland. Our request is very, very simple. What we are asking is that you allow us to go out there and raise $5m for the City of Miami Beach. And if we’re successful in doing that, we ask that you use that money to build a world-class first of its kind, City-owned adaptive recreational center for the disabled. We ask that you use those monies to give our city’s residents, visitors, veterans the same access to our public beaches that many of us already enjoy. And for the first nine years of operation, we ask for the responsibility to operate that facility at no cost to the city.”
Llorente extended an invitation to members of the community who still have concerns, “We say come to the table. Bring us your ideas. Help us to create a truly spectacular amenity, not just for the City and the region but for the immediate surrounding area.”
Finally, to Mayor Philip Levine and City Commissioners, he said, “When your political careers are up, whether it’s next week, a year, ten years, or twenty, you will have taken thousands and thousands of votes, but only a few of those votes will stand out as the most meaningful and the most memorable. Let today be one of those votes.”
Miami Beach resident Carolina Jones said, “Today you’ll have an opportunity to champion a long overdue project which provides equal access to our greatest natural resource, the beach. Among the hundreds of items that you have voted on in the past, this single item best represents our character, our vision, and our commitment to being a city that embraces diversity.”
“This is a moment in history,” she told the Commissioners. “We rarely have the opportunity to impact an entire community so profoundly and change lives at such a fundamental level. This today is one of those rare moments. When you make this vote, your voice will be heard around the world, your voice fighting for all of Miami Beach. Not just that parking lot, not just that street. This vote is for the 90,000 not the 90.”
“It’s been four years of negotiation,” she said. “We’ve vetted over five locations. We’ve hosted countless community meetings. We’ve debated in neighborhood committees, finance committees, commission meetings. We’ve been on TV, in blogs, in newspapers. It’s time. Today is the time to make this dream a reality. May we all find the grace, strength, and vision that Sabrina found and commit ourselves to becoming the very best version of who we can be as a city and as neighbors.”
When it was Cohen’s turn to speak she, too, reached out to the community. “We have one agenda, and the only agenda we have here is to make our City proud by welcoming and inviting everyone. I want to reiterate that we have done our due diligence. This is to increase public access, not deny it to anybody and, to the residents, I invite you all to come and see what we’re doing. Because it’s really a profound, beautiful step in a more inclusive loving world."
“If the ribbon cutting ceremony at the adaptive playground last week was just a small indication of how beautiful and inclusive a recreation environment can be, the next phase of this adaptive activation will just continue on a grander scale,” she said. She thanked the Mayor and Commissioners “from the bottom of my heart” and to City Attorney Raul Aguila she said, “All of the hard work that’s gone into this, it will pay off in ways that we can’t even imagine today.”
The agreement was approved unanimously by Commissioners, followed by a standing ovation.
Photo above: Cohen formally signing the agreement with the City while Aryan Rashed, a Foundation Board Member looks on. (Courtesy, Sabrina Cohen Foundation)
Now the fundraising begins. “I look at that as the fun part,” Cohen said. “This [getting to approval] was the hard part.”
Under the agreement, the Foundation has six months to present the city with multiple architectural renderings of the center. “They will choose which concept they like the best then they’ll go ahead and estimate what that will cost to build,” Cohen said. “When I get that number I’ll have three years from that date” to raise the funds needed. The agreement, she said, was important for her “to have the security to go get the architectural renderings to go get the funds.”
Cohen is working with architect Reinaldo Borges of Borges + Associates who met her more than eight years ago when she first discussed the idea of an Adaptive Recreation Center with him. “Once you know Sabrina’s story and get to know her personally, it is impossible not to want to be part of her foundation and her vision for this Adaptive Beach project,” Borges said. “Architects are used to designing for accessibility but this project is about the future of Miami Beach. It’s about inclusion.”
The building will have a maximum footprint of 5,000 s.f. and be a maximum of two stories for a total of approximately 10,000 s.f. Its location within the surface parking lot at 53rd and Collins will be determined by the City as part of the design development process. The project must go through the normal city processes, including obtaining Design Review Board approval and meet all code and City requirements.
“The site itself has challenges,” Borges said, “but we will work closely with City staff to make sure we situate the building on the agreed site with minimal impact and maximize the opportunities that such site offers to provide easy access to the beach for those who now have to go through great trouble and hardship to enjoy our beaches.”
He added, “We want this to be a community project, a project that is embraced by the community and … make it an amenity to those that have special needs to enjoy our beaches and live a more active healthy life.”
“This to us is a dream project,” he said. “Architects are dedicated to designing transformative projects and this has the potential of creating a prototype that other communities could replicate. It is very rewarding to design and envision projects like this that have a greater meaning to our community and our society. We need to focus on the humanistic aspect of our work as architects and this is an opportunity for us to collaborate with a gifted young lady that inspires us to be better people and have an open heart to all people in our community.”