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.
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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.
The strategy reflects the fact that most of the land along both sides of the 5-mile length of the river is privately owned, with only relatively small sections in public hands.
On private land, city law requires developers to install public walkways when they build. The real estate boom led to a string of successes, including the city-subsidized, art-filled walkway, built by developer the Related Group, that wraps around the north bank of the river’s mouth and connects to a portion of existing bay walk that extends to Bayside Marketplace.
After years of delay, the state also finally built and inaugurated a new park at the Miami Circle, the prehistoric site of a Tequesta Indian ceremonial structure whose circular foundation gave the places its name. The site, at the south side of the river’s mouth, has a river walk that connects at the east with the Icon Brickell bay walk and terminates at the west at the Brickell Bridge.
As developers filled in their river walk pieces, they typically also added restaurant space open to the public promenade. That has lured numerous restaurants to the river, beginning to fulfill another principal goal of the plan: to establish new businesses and attract tourists and locals alike to the city’s waterfront. The river commission now counts 18 operating restaurants on or just off the river, including familiar veterans like Garcia’s Seafood and one of the city’s hottest celebrity magnets, Zuma, at Epic.
One of the newest, Capriccio on the River, just four months old, opens to a terrace and promenade on the water behind the Brickell on the River condo tower. It’s the second restaurant owned by an Italian-Venezuelan family that established a following with a Doral restaurant of the same name. They picked the location because of its potential — even though the building’s river walk for now is cut off on both ends.
“If you connect it, that would be awesome, as well as good for business,’’ said Capriccio operator and family member Mauro Valentini, who has big plans for docking permits so that patrons can arrive by boat for Sunday brunch.
There are several reasons for the persisting gaps.
The financial crash that followed the condo boom left a series of holes as projects stalled.
Older developments — such as the squat office building housing the Capital Grille on Brickell Avenue — often don’t have space for the walkways and turn their backs to the water.
And because most new development has occurred downtown or just west of it, the river greenway, which is meant to some day extend along both banks all the way to Miami International Airport, doesn’t exist west of the Justice complex by the State Road 836 overpass, where the river turns increasingly industrial in nature.
Some developers have not fully lived up to their promises, Martin and others say.
The developers of Epic, planned as a two-tower project, installed an attractive river walk when its hotel went up. Its Zuma restaurant, which has an open terrace along the promenade, has been so successful that its operators want to extend its outdoor seating to the underside of the Brickell Bridge, which they hope to transform into a cutting-edge dining space flanking a revamped river walk section.
But the developer, Ugo Colombo, has not complied with a city order to vacate and demolish a temporary sales building located on adjacent land where the second, unbuilt tower was to go. Martin and other critics complain the sales center, which appears to be used as a facility for Epic’s marina, is obstructing a critical greenway connection, forcing pedestrians to detour on a narrow sidewalk along Biscayne Boulevard Way.
Colombo, who is not obligated to construct the river walk portion at the spot until he finishes the second tower, has instead provided a walkway from the sidewalk to the existing portion of Epic’s river walk.
At a recent Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce presentation on the river project, backers blamed the long delays in completing the greenway on the fact that no one agency or group is in charge, and that government jurisdictions along the waterway often overlap, making it hard to get decisions or permitting approved.
“There is no one agency that can jam this through,’’ said lawyer Spencer Crowley, a commissioner on the Florida Inland Navigation District, a state agency that has provided substantial grants for river and bay walk construction. “There is no easy way to get this done. It’s going to take the business community to demand it.’’
Backers say the development revival now underway will take care of some missing pieces. The Flagler on the River residential tower now under construction, for instance, will add a riverfront restaurant and walkway on the site of the late and much lamented East Coast Fisheries restaurant.
Until recently, though, few had a clear idea of what segments of river and bay greenways were completed, where gaps existed, and where problem areas — such as buildings backing directly onto the shoreline — obstructed construction.
But the University of Miami’s architecture school put all its students and faculty to work on projects analyzing the city’s waterfront, producing a book that precisely maps each segment of river and bay walk, documents gaps and proposes solutions — such as floating or cantilevered walkways — to get around obstacles.
Like others at the chamber meeting, UM architecture Dean Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk said the river walk in particular has the potential to become a symbol of Miami, much like the river in San Antonio, Tex., has become a familiar emblem of that town.
“There are not many places in Miami-Dade County where you can access the waterfront without going to the beach or engaging in boating or kayaking. This is the only place many people have,’’ she said. “It’s a great resource, and the quicker we can do it, the better.’’