Rick Caitung came back to his native Miami after a few years in Chicago to find it a changed place.
At the broad new public promenade behind his new home at Icon Brickell, the towering complex at the point where the Miami River meets Biscayne Bay, strollers and joggers pause to watch as he takes out his fishing rod to catch — and release — jack, barracuda and the occasional tarpon.
“I see a lot of people running, going on walks, taking their kids out. Tons of people with dogs,’’ Caitung said. “It’s great to see what the neighborhood has become. It’s a big improvement.’’
Much like the broader transformation of downtown Miami, however, the long-promised, continuous “greenway’’ along the Miami River on which Caitung stood one afternoon last week remains incomplete, for now little more than a disconnected series of paved, lushly landscaped and undeniably attractive segments that sometimes lead nowhere.
That’s about to change to a significant degree.
The city and Miami-Dade County, which in the past have been slow to plan and build missing greenway segments on public land, have embarked on a blitz of construction to fill in gaps under bridges and, in areas where the riverfront is inaccessible, on adjacent streets and sidewalks.
That means some already existing sections will soon be knit together, making it almost possible to walk on landscaped, clearly marked paths from Biscayne Bay to the Dolphin Expressway overpass along the river without a compass or having to bushwhack on side streets, especially along the north bank, where most gaps will be soon filled in.
Almost, but not quite.
Critical interruptions remain, including at the secure U.S. Customs building on the south bank near Brickell Avenue, undeveloped land on both sides of the Miami Avenue Bridge, and the marina at the Epic Residences & Hotel near the mouth of the river. The Epic developer is embroiled in a long-running dispute with the city over a sales center building that sits where a portion of the north bank river walk is supposed to go.
The mixed picture both pleases and frustrates long-time supporters of the greenway, which is meant to turn the picturesque but often gritty and hard-to-find riverfront into an urban attraction.
“It’s proceeding with the usual public-sector glacial progress, but it is progress,’’ said Ernest Martin, who lives on the river in the historic Spring Garden neighborhood and has pushed for completion of the greenway as a member of the Miami River Commission, which helps coordinate the project. “We’re almost to the point where we’re going to have continuous walkways.’’
Still, he added: “We’ve got so many segments working and we’re spending $15 million, but you can’t ride your bike on it. We still have so many blank spaces. Right now, you can’t get more than half a block before you get lost.’’
Conceived by a coalition of activists, nonprofit groups and public agencies more than a decade ago, the Miami River Greenway — which connects to an equally ambitious bay walk that could some day extend from the Julia Tuttle Causeway to the Rickenbacker — has progressed in fits and starts because of the way it was designed to work.