Miami’s downtown has many wonderful features. The most notable is a spectacular bay that can be observed from parks that have been long dormant and in some cases, nearly abandoned.
In many ways, Miami mirrors Chicago. Its eastern flank is a body of water that borders the city all the way down from its northern edge to its southernmost point. Yet the visual and practical effect of that waterfront is starkly different in the two cases.
Chicago’s waterfront is both visible and highly usable; Miami’s is hard to see and even harder to use. Unlike Chicago’s main waterfront artery (Lakeside Drive), Biscayne Boulevard is not sufficiently raised to allow much view of the bay. And its eight lanes of traffic are an effective impediment to anyone living or working west of the boulevard to use the public spaces on the waterfront.
By contrast, Chicago has pedestrian tunnels that connect the western section of downtown to the waterfront, creating a viable crossing for those wishing to take advantage of its lakefront parks.
Now, there is a confluence of factors that beg for a solution along the lines depicted in a sketch accompanying this article at miamiherald.com/opinion.
The key parameters are:
• It buries Biscayne Boulevard for approximately half a mile, from the southern tip of Bicentennial Park to the northern tip of the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center (PAC).
• The proposed configuration connects three cultural facilities: the PAC, the Museum of Science and the Miami Arts Museum. These three facilities have cost more than $1 billion in public and private funds.
• The proposed configuration reclaims for public use, at surface level, an additional six acres of land. To that reclamation are added the two D.O.T. parcels under the I-395 connector, plus the unoccupied expanse of Bicentennial Park, creating an aggregate public space of well over 40 acres. This downtown public space mirrors, but greatly exceeds, Chicago’s Millennium Park, in terms of open space.
• The proposal is timely because it dovetails into one private-sector development and one public-sector roadway improvement. The private project is the one proposed by the Genting Group for the property now occupied by the Miami Herald, as well as contiguous lots that connect the bay to Biscayne Boulevard. It would be logical for that investor, with current plans to create a $3 billion mixed-use development, to contribute to make the proposal economically feasible. It also dovetails with a Florida DOT project to raise the I-395 connector, as it traverses above Biscayne Boulevard.
As illustrated in the sketch online, the opportunity of connecting the three cultural facilities and raising the highway offers an aesthetically pleasing solution to what is now an ugly reminder of our dependence on the automobile. The rendering envisions the raised highway as a “signature bridge” akin to the one that connects Bradenton to St. Petersburg. That motif is carried over to other architectural features that include observation towers at the FEC inlet on the Southern tip of Bicentennial and similar suspension terraces on what could be the bay-front hotel to be built by Genting on a lot which The Herald now occupies.
For those who think this concept is too costly and visionary, the idea of sinking the 100-foot boulevard for 750 meters is roughly equivalent to digging and building 15 Olympic-size pools in a row then adding a roadway on top. It is about the same length, and only three times deeper, than the pool proposed by architect Bernardo Fort-Brescia for the Genting project, which would extend from Biscayne Boulevard to the bay.
The Genting principals have indicated that they want their hotels to be casinos. They have also said that they will build their project regardless of whether gaming is approved. I say we hold them to their word, and offer them the alternative of being connected to the world’s most enticing urban public space, with cultural, recreational and artistic facilities congregated into one contiguous venue.
Let’s keep in mind that there will be hordes of lobbyists trying to convince us that we absolutely need casinos to fund and maintain infrastructure projects in the Omni-downtown area of Miami. But the truth is we don’t need them, and the further truth is we have funded a total of well over $1 billion in three cultural facilities in that area ($600 million for the Adrienne Arsht Center and over $500 million combined for the Miami Arts Museum and the Miami Science Museum). And that doesn’t even count the CRA monies expected to be plowed into Bicentennial/Museum Park.
With just three private sector projects currently on the drawing boards (Genting, Swire’s City Center in Brickell and the Jose Cuervo project in Coral Gables), we have close to $5 billion of privately funded projects ready to be built. As planned and announced, they will add a total of over $100 million a year in county, city and school board taxes. (Any budding economist can calculate the present value of such a stream of revenues, at today’s discount rates, to be well over $2 billion.) Miami will be the most exciting global city because of its natural, cultural and human assets — not because we have casinos in every hotel.Xavier Suarez represents District 7 on the Miami-Dade Commission. See sketch at miamiherald.com/opinion.