After several University of Miami students have been killed or seriously injured trying to cross busy U. S. 1 to get to popular retail spots on the other side, Miami-Dade County has finally approved building a Mediterranean-styled pedestrian bridge across the highway.
But the project has come to a standstill after the owner of the mall, University Centre, has refused to cooperate.
The county has offered the owner $1.85 million to compensate for the loss of five parking spaces needed to anchor the bridge across the street from the Metrorail station and the nearby UM. In addition, the county has offered the strip center owner 10 parking spaces at the Metrorail station across South Dixie Highway.
The mall owner has not budged.
Toby Brigham, an attorney representing the owner, said the placement of the overpass at that corner would block the mall’s visibility and its signage, hurting business.
“That’s a critical point where the driveways curve,” Brigham said. “Things like that in today’s economy, in competition with other shopping centers who are not similarly blighted, can make a huge difference.”
The mall’s stance has angered UM President Donna Shalala, who has taken her fight to the Coral Gables city commission and to the public.
“The county has made a fair offer in our judgment, the owner has basically rejected it and, as you can imagine, has hired a lawyer,’’ she said. “We have had students killed, seriously injured. Ponce de Leon [Middle School] uses that Metro stop and needs that bridge. . .. I’m now at the point this is unconscionable. We’ve got to get this done.”
Since 1989, eight UM students have been struck by vehicles while attempting to cross U.S. 1 around Mariposa Court, the intersection of the shopping center.
Three of the students died. They were: Eric Adams in 1990, Aaron Baber in 1998 and Ashley Kelly in April 2005. Kelly was hit by an SUV while walking to T.G.I. Friday’s with a friend to meet potential roommates.
The most recent incident involving a UM student was in April 2012 when Eliza Gresh was struck by a hit-and-run driver in South Miami and injured while attempting to cross U.S. 1 at Southwest 57th Avenue.
After nearly eight years, the county has approved the project. About $6 million in funding at the state and federal level has been allocated, and a Mediterranean-style overpass has been designed.
“This has been a long-term project and it’s absolutely imperative, not because it adds an aesthetic value, but because it adds a component of safety to the residents of Coral Gables, a large number of whom are UM students,” said Nawara Alawa, student government president. “This is not just a project benefiting the university.”
But Miami-Dade County can’t begin construction because it hasn’t acquired the five parking spaces in the northeast corner of the University Centre parking lot needed to place the eastern pedestal of the bridge. The center is on the eastern side of the highway.
Shalala expressed her frustration over the hold-up to the Coral Gables commission at the December State of the City/University of Miami meeting.
“We, of course, believe that the University Centre would not be there without our students and staff using all of those shops heavily,’’ Shalala said.
Last month, the property owner rejected the county’s final offer of $1.85 million for that corner of the lot.
Brigham, the attorney for the shopping center owner, said the county could put a sidewalk along the western side of U.S. 1, extending it to a point directly across from Gables One Tower, a UM-owned building just south of the mall. A bridge could be constructed from the end of the sidewalk, across the highway, to the Gables One Tower, Brigham suggested.
Albert Hernandez, assistant director of engineering, planning and development for Miami-Dade Transit, said placing the bridge at Gables One Tower would require a circuitous walk to get there.
“It’s a possibility as an alternative, but not as convenient or as effective as the one there at the intersection,” Hernandez said. The Mariposa intersection is “the natural crossing,’’ he said.
Hernandez said the county is working with UM to consider other options, including moving the bridge farther south, upgrading the pavement marking and adjusting the lights to allow more time to cross the road.
Another option would be for the county to acquire the property under eminent domain, the process by which a municipality can take over private property for a public good, for a price.
“The county has a statutory procedure for the acquisition of private property for public purpose if they believe they are correct. They know how to do it. The rapid transit system was acquired through eminent domain,” Brigham said.
Hernandez said the county does not want to go that route.
“We prefer not to exercise it because of the potential for business damages and we don’t know what that would entail. Right now our budget is our budget and we wouldn’t have additional monies to pay for business damages if we took it for eminent domain.”
The window of opportunity has an expiration date. The $1 million state grant from the Florida Department of Transportation, which is partially funding the project, expires June 30.
“To get an extension they would need to see something in play from us as an alternative. Right now we’re moving forward on looking for options unless the owner has a change of mind in the next couple weeks,” Hernandez said.
Pat Whitely, vice president for student affairs at the University of Miami, said the project has taken way too long.
“The eighth anniversary of Ashley’s death will be in April. Eight years is a long time for this project,” she said. “We have made a commitment to Mrs. Kelly that the bridge would be named after Ashley. Since that time, we’ve had a serious injury in the same location in August 2010. My perspective? I’ve had to be the staff member responding to parents at the hospital dealing with a student’s death. Awful work. That’s my perspective.”