Once there were parking lots. Now it’s a huge train station.
Or it will be by next summer, when MiamiCentral station — the southern hub for the new Brightline express train service to Orlando — opens for business smack in the middle of downtown. If you’ve been downtown lately, it’s that giant erector set of T-shaped concrete columns and elevated beams rapidly going up along four full city blocks just north of the Miami-Dade County Courthouse.
To judge from the architectural renderings, the station will be a train lover’s dream, Miami’s answer to Manhattan’s Grand Central, albeit in modern garb: Glowing escalators lead up into a soaring, skylit concourse and train platforms that are elevated 50 feet above the streets.
But this is not just a shed for trains. What’s there so far only hints at the ambitious reach and massive scale of what’s soon to come. The station concourse will contain a marketplace of 20 restaurants and food stalls, a la Chelsea Market, with outposts of local purveyors that range from Little Havana ice cream shop Azucar to bacon-meisters Miami Smokers and Midtown Miami’s Chinese restaurant Blackbrick.
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Around Central Fare and below it, at street level, will be 130,000 square feet of shops, about the total size of a typical Target store. Above the station: two residential towers with 800 rental apartments and an office high-rise, all already under construction. And around the corner and across the old tracks, in Overtown, a grocery store below a parking garage topped by even more offices, including Brightline’s new HQ.
That last building, part of a deal with Miami’s Overtown Redevelopment Authority to bring new life and commerce to the historically black neighborhood’s half-desolate heart, has already topped off.
“We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress,” said Brightline president Michael Reininger as he walked the construction perimeter with a reporter and photojournalist to show that the rail project, which he said is nearly 70 percent complete but has faced skepticism from some critics, is moving quickly ahead. “This will be transformational for downtown Miami.”
In just a few months, once the station is complete, passengers will be able to connect to four rail systems at MiamiCentral — not just to Brightline, which initially will run to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, where smaller downtown stations are also under construction, but also to Metrorail, Metromover and the Tri-Rail commuter service.
Brightline is building a skybridge from the south end of the station directly into the Miami-Dade Government Center Metrorail and Metromover station, as well as tracks and a platform for Tri-Rail to bring its trains directly into downtown Miami for the first time (Tri-Rail and other local government agencies will cover the roughly $70 million cost of the station addition). The station’s north end, meanwhile, abuts the Metrorail Overtown station and a Metromover station.
“Think about it,” Reininger said. “This four-block area will serve the three biggest market hubs in the region with integrated mass transit on four rail systems. It’s amazing. There aren’t a lot of cities in that club.”
The privately funded Brightline, run by the All Aboard Florida subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries, started out with one big advantage: It will use the existing rail line, owned by its corporate parent, that runs from downtown Miami to Jacksonville. The company also plans to build a new spur that would run from Cocoa along the Beachline Expressway into a new multi-modal station that’s already being built at Orlando International Airport.
When complete, Brightline would run 16 round-trip trains a day between Miami and Orlando, with stops only in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm. The fast trains would cover the route in about three hours at a fare that Reininger said has not been set but will be “comparable” to the cost of driving.
That western extension plan, though, has prompted opposition from residents and elected officials in Martin and Indian River counties, who claim its trains pose a threat to road safety and property values. In August, a federal judge declined to dismiss a lawsuit by the counties against the federal government to block the rail service’s route through them.
But Reininger said the litigation won’t slow the $3 billion Brightline, which has secured agreements for the western right-of-way with the Central Florida Expressway Authority.
The Miami-Cocoa route — which includes MiamiCentral, rail improvements now under way, the downtown Fort Lauderdale station, the downtown station and a new maintenance facility in West Palm — is fully funded, mostly by $400 million in bonds the company sold to private investors, Reininger said.
The company had received federal approval to sell an additional $1.75 billion in bonds to private investors tax-free to finance the balance of the project — an authorization the Martin and Indian River suit seeks to reverse — but held off after capital markets tanked, Reininger said. The company is now exploring its options, but Reininger said he’s confident it will be able to secure financing and plans to extend service to Orlando in 2018.
In downtown Miami, progress is dramatic. Crews sank 1,300 pilings into the ground to a depth of 100 feet to support the station, designed by architectural giant Skidmore, Owings & Merrill with Miami’s Zyscovich Architects. Columns are in place and work has begun on the elevated platforms. The frame of the viaduct that will bring trains down to the ground already reaches street level.
The massive base walls for the apartment and office towers are now rising, though those buildings won’t be finished until well after the station opens.
Meanwhile, the first of Brightline’s sleek trains, fully manufactured in the United States, are about to be delivered to West Palm from the assembly facility in California and will soon begin test runs to MiamiCentral, Reininger said.
“We believe in this, and we’ve put our belief into motion,” Reininger said, vowing that Brightline will change how Americans regard passenger trains. “We think history will look kindly on this.”