Alice Bonvicini used to visit the community garden at the south corner of Aventura’s Founders Park “virtually every day.”
The 12-acre park, which sits on the Dumfoundling Bay waterfront in suburban north Miami, boasts a walking trail, a playground, an athletic field, and several tennis courts. A big draw for many residents, however, was the Aventura Community Green Garden, which sat in the center of a circular walkway and whose rented planter bed sections were at one point home to 36 different plants.
“It kept me sane,” Bonvicini, who leased a garden bed from February 2021 to May 2023, told The Daily Beast. “I had at one point a monoculture of chicory. I was born and raised in Rome, and the one veggie I could never get my hands on in the past 20 years in the U.S. was chicory. I basically turned my garden bed into a gigantic madeleine de Proust.”
But earlier this year, the 44-year-old stay-at-home mom’s oasis was bulldozed to make way for the city’s divisive plan to replace the community garden with pickleball courts.
The pickleball takeover immediately sparked an outcry from Bonvicini and dozens of her neighbors. And over the last year, the group has been actively fighting the plan, which they say has negative environmental, legal, and noise implications for their beloved local park and the apartment complexes next door.
“I don’t have anything against pickleball,” Bonvicini said. “We’re all just having a hard time understanding how city officials thought this would be a good location. Beyond the moral implications of bulldozing a community garden, paving green hills, and cutting trees, who thought that pickleball courts next to residential communities and right across the street from the local school would work?”
Despite the controversy, the city’s plan to incorporate pickleball into the popular park is not completely unpredictable, given the national craze around the sport.
Developed in 1965 by three Washington fathers looking to amuse their bored children, pickleball is essentially a mash-up between tennis, ping-pong, and badminton. Played on a smaller tennis court, the objective is to put a plastic wiffle-like ball over the net with large ping-pong rackets.
Aventura residents, however, told The Daily Beast they were still surprised when the city unveiled its intentions several months ago to reconstruct Founders Park South to include pickleball courts. In the June 28 announcement, the city explained that the project would create three new tennis courts and five new courts for pickleball, which they call the “fastest growing sport in the country.”
The project also shifted the community garden space to a plot overlooking the intracoastal waterway and expanded it from “48 to 52 planters.” Residents say the plan also includes the installation of overhead lighting on the courts to ensure enthusiasts of the racket sport can play at night.
“The city is working with a landscape architect and has consulted a horticulturist to help us select vegetation that will attract butterflies,” the city said in the announcement. “The plans for our newly renovated park include an increased tree canopy, providing additional shade by utilizing nature.”
In April, the city commissioners voted unanimously to award the $1.3 million project contract to one of the highest-ranked bidders, and construction began last month with the demolition of the community garden. A March open letter seeking to “protect” the community garden detailed the cornucopia of fruits and vegetables growing in the space, including fennel, passion fruit, bok choy, dragon fruit, hot peppers, sweet potatoes, and even blueberries. The letter, which was signed by over 30 residents, also said the garden was home to butterfields, bees, and several different birds.
For Ariel Penzer, who lives in the apartment complex next to Founders Park, the problem with the city’s plan is more than just relocating a community garden.
She stressed that the project neglected to mention that it will remove almost three dozen 30-year-old trees to make way for courts. Not to mention the loud popping sound from pickleball that threatens to disrupt residents inside the nearby apartments.
“Anyone with any brains can tell you that trees take decades to mature—and these trees have been maturing for 30 years. There are impacts to replacing green space with pavement,” Penzer told The Daily Beast. “I am not a gardener, but nobody wants to garden near the sounds of pickleball. Double the normal decibel levels.”
“The sound is horrible. It’s like living in a gun range.”
So since last March, residents like Penzer have filed litigation, written open letters, staged protests, signed online petitions, spoken out in city hall meetings, and even launched an online campaign against the project.
On Thursday morning, over 20 protesters stood outside the Aventura Government Center with posters demanding city officials “keep their hands off” their park. It was the second protest the group, dubbed “Aventura Park Protectors,” has staged in the fight to save their green space.
“Save our park! Save our park!” one protester said through a small blue megaphone outside the government building before a commission hearing.
The city of Aventura did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on the plans or the complaints from community members. But Evan Ross, the city’s communications director, explained the rationale behind the plan to the Miami New Times last month.
“The demand for pickleball obviously is no secret. Lots of the condos in Aventura have been converting some of their tennis courts to pickleball courts,” Ross said. (In another interview, Ross admitted to the outlet that “there isn’t a perfect place to put everything” and that the city’s commission “made the decision that they believed was best for the entire community.”)
While Aventura Mayor Howard Weinberg declined to comment on the construction project, citing pending litigation, he did take the time to dispel “misleading information” about the plan, which he says was approved before he was elected in 2022.
“The gardens will be in the SAME park they have always been,” Weinberg said in messages to The Daily Beast. “They will actually be located in the nicest spot in the same park—along the waterfront!”
He stressed that he has long been an advocate for community gardens and has never heard of another elected official advocating to eliminate the program. Dispelling allegations that the city was not transparent in its plans, Weinberg noted the project has been discussed at “every Commission meeting since early 2022, and residents have expressed their opinion on the record at every meeting.”
“These decisions were made very publicly by the prior Commission. I sat in the audience and watched (as anyone could have done) as at the time I was neither the Mayor nor a Commissioner,” the mayor added. “The process was very transparent, as everything in Aventura is.”
The Aventura Marina Owners Association, however, does not seem to agree with the Mayor’s analysis of the project’s transparency and insists that the plan violates a decades-long deal.
After sending the city cease-and-desist letters in connection with the Founders Park project, the local property association escalated its litigation earlier this month when it filed a complaint and a motion for injunction with the Miami-Dade Circuit Court. The July 14 complaint alleges that construction violates a 1998 covenant that requires Aventura to ask for permission from surrounding properties, whose predecessors gave land to the city for the public park, before altering the use of the land beyond what was previously agreed.
“The fact that they are materially changing the land is troublesome,” JP Valdes, an AMO board spokesperson and Aventura resident, told The Daily Beast. “They didn’t ask for permission. They are moving into a space that is quiet and will not be any longer.”
“I haven’t seen any residents in favor of supporting the plan,” he added.
The potential loss of tranquility is also detailed in the complaint, which states that “the striking of a pickleball with a pickleball paddle produces a sound that uniquely impacts and disturbs human beings.” Penzer herself has also filed an injunction request to halt the construction of pickleball courts.
Valdes explained that, like his fellow neighbors, he is not against pickleball and tennis, or the concept of free courts for the community to enjoy. He is just worried about the “peace and quiet” and green spaces that are being altered for the sake of the sport.
“What we cannot afford is to have it next to our property and affect our living conditions. I work from home. The sound is really annoying,” he added.
Mayor Weinberg declined to comment on the pending litigation against the city of Aventura, but insisted that the decision for the courts was spurred by an “exploding demand” for pickleball and more tennis courts for youth tennis programs before his term. He added that he was not an elected official during conception, discussions, or approvals on the location of the court and its funding.
“The plan has always been to share the park, as it belongs to all of our residents,” the mayor said. “We are a city of only 3.28 square miles, and we need to meet the needs of everyone, not a select few.”
He noted the plan is also set to “have more trees, not less” in the park. (The city’s plan is set to add new trees to Founder’s Park, though they will not be mature like the removed trees, which included Florida-native Gumbo Limbo.)
And while the outcries continue against Weinberg and the city’s commissioners, the Mayor admitted that he may not even need the new courts after all.
“My condominium has wonderful tennis and pickleball courts on the third floor of our building. I personally have no need for public tennis or pickleball courts,” he said, adding that he also enjoys gardening. “I can play anytime I want, just an elevator ride away.”
None of the six Aventura City Commissioners responded to The Daily Beast’s request for comment, and it is not immediately clear who proposed the plan in the first place. The Daily Beast also could not find any residents who were in favor of the plan, though at least one praised the idea online.
“Looks great. Kudos to our commissioners… and our great city manager and staff,” one resident said on Facebook. “After attending the meeting, speaking in favor of the courts, I was shocked to find out the garden is a padlocked area for a few select residents VS. the tennis and pickleball for ALL residents. This is a joke. How do I get some private public land !?!?”
Meanwhile, for Tova Itzhak, the city’s choice to make her once-bountiful community park a demolition site is personal. After being diagnosed with cancer in 2017, the 73-year-old found solace in Founder’s Park—a place where she brought her grandchildren to grow tomatoes, carrots, and mint.
So while officials insist that the relocation of her garden is an upgrade, she is not convinced.
“They tell us from the city we will still have garden boxes and a path to do our walk, but who wants to have their peaceful walk or tend to their garden box when there is the constant loud noise from the pickleballs hitting the concrete ground,” Itzhak told The Daily Beast. “For me, this park was part of my healing, and I fear the future—where will I go if I have to start treatment again? Where do I go to breathe in fresh air and enjoy the green, quiet nature?”
And while Itzhak and several other residents are nervous about the future of Founders Park, others remain hopeful that they can save their park. A third protest is scheduled for September 5, and Penzer says they expect hundreds of community members to attend as their cause gains traction online.
“We plan to continue,” Penzer said. “[The Mayor] hears the end of us. The only way he will hear the end of us is if he becomes the hero and changes course. If he puts the community garden back to its original place and keeps the trees. He could be the real hero here.”