North Miami / NMB

North Miami

North Miami business owners fear West Dixie Highway closure

Business owners are worried that the Florida Department of Transportation’s plan to close another part of West Dixie Highway could lead to fewer customers and force some shops to close, not unlike what happened when FDOT closed the connection to southbound Dixie Highway 12 years ago.

The project includes adding new curbing and a new grassy area to close the southbound lane of West Dixie at Northeast 126th Street — which connects Dixie Highway with Sixth Avenue — and reopening the southbound connection to the highway at 125th Street. All of this would be done while keeping the northbound lane closed.

Closing West Dixie will force drivers going south to head back north on Sixth Avenue. Drivers would have two options to reach 125th Street: Either drive west on 127th Street then turn south on Fifth Avenue; or drive east on 127th Street and turn south on Seventh Avenue.

The state also wants to change traffic patterns in the heart of the city — along 125th Street from Fifth Avenue to Seventh Avenue — to make those sections safer for both vehicles and pedestrians and to reduce delays.

“The economic loss due to travel delays and property damage due to crashes at these locations will be improved with the proposed project,” wrote FDOT spokesman Brian Rick in an emailed response to the Miami Herald.

No date has been set for construction for the $2.5 million project, but residents and business owners might still be able to make their voice heard.

Dixie Highway’s status as a state road keeps the city council’s hands somewhat tied, North Miami spokeswoman Pam Solomon said.

“The council can certainly render an opinion, but in the end there’s not much we can do as a municipality if they proceed with the plan,” Solomon said.

But Rick wrote that the agency would seek a resolution from the city council before proceeding with the current design and then start construction, as they did before the closing of West Dixie and 125th Street in 2000.

Solomon said that FDOT has not yet requested to be on the council agenda.

Residents, business owners, city staff members and elected officials suggested alternatives during three public meetings held since 2010, and according to Rick, the current design is the result of all the ideas brought forth.

“The changes were analyzed, and the recommended alternative presented at the most recent public meeting is the culmination of these multiple analyses,” Rick wrote, adding that there will be no further public meetings.

Business owners are not on board with the plan, according to Councilwoman Carol Keys, who represents the area where the traffic changes will take effect.

“From what I saw, business owners were all very much against it,” Keys said, referring to the public meeting on Oct. 10.

No one was in favor the agency’s plan at any of the meetings, according to Abdul Hameed, owner of the Chevron at the cross-section of West Dixie, Sixth Avenue and 125th Street.

“They had several meetings, but at every meeting there was 100 percent objection,” Hameed said. “They had their minds sort of made up.”

The state has labeled the targeted sections, one block short of city hall on the east, as “high-priority” crash locations and said they affect the economic vitality of the area.

According to the agency’s study, there were more than 300 crashes from 2009 to 2011 for 125th Street from Fifth Avenue to Seventh Avenue, though some believe those numbers are inflated.

“Several people have mentioned they are not accurately reflecting crashes in that area,” Keys said.

According to North Miami Police records, the total number of accidents for the same area during 2009-2011 was 183.

The idea of closing southbound West Dixie brings back memories of when the agency closed the thoroughfare’s northbound lane at 125th Street. After that happened, up to seven businesses closed down, according to Ron Welsandt, executive director of the North Miami Chamber of Commerce

“Businesses are the backbone of communities, and any changes that make it not beneficial to businesses, we will always be opposed to that,” said Welsandt, who has lived in North Miami and been a member of the chamber since 1988.

Hameed, who has owned his gas station for 32 years, said he believes closing West Dixie would be the worst thing to happen to his business.

“I’ve seen ups and downs, but this would hurt me the most,” Hameed said, adding that he estimated a “conservative” loss of $1 million per year.

Allan Benes, leasing agent for the Colonial Shopping Center, has been trying to sell 10,000 square feet of vacant space on the West Dixie side of the center since January, with no luck.

“I show spaces on that side to people three to four times a week but haven’t been able to get any movement,” Benes said. “People are just going to stay away from the whole corridor to avoid the headache. … That’ll kill business for that whole rectangular plot of land.”

While former North Miami Mayor John Stembridge’s business at 545 NE 125th St. wouldn’t be directly affected, he said the sight of a vacant business does not bode well for the long-term prosperity of the area.

“That means mom and pop cannot make enough to pay their own bills, let alone hire half a dozen people to feed their families and pay their bills,” Stembridge said. “If we let them close southbound West Dixie, it will kill property values and business. And tax revenue into the city, county and state will be lowered.”

He said FDOT could reduce speed on West Dixie to 25 miles per hour to make it safer, and likened closing the highway — a move that would damage any ideas the city has of creating a central business district — to a surgeon clogging an artery.

“People lost business because of the clogged artery, so be a surgeon and open that artery up,” Stembridge said. “We need the lifeblood, and you’ll revitalize that area.”

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