It might be the biggest thing to happen in downtown Miami since Henry Flagler brought his railroad south and created downtown Miami.
And it’s happening sooner than you might think, on the same long-vacant acreage where Flagler built his little Miami train depot more than a century ago.
No longer just a concept, All Aboard Florida, the new privately financed passenger-rail service to Orlando, is moving full steam ahead with plans for a mammoth new downtown train-station complex that supporters say will constitute nothing less than a quantum leap in Miami’s quest for a place among the world’s great urban centers.
MiamiCentral, the name chosen for the complex by All Aboard Florida, represents an ambitious and unusual all-at-once marriage of heavy infrastructure with urban revitalization that would turn a drab stretch of downtown into a bustling fulcrum of transportation and human activity — including a food market, shops, restaurants, offices and two residential towers with that increasingly rare commodity, 800 rental apartments affordable to people who work in the neighborhood.
All Aboard, a subsidiary of the rail company Flagler founded, is moving fast. Conceptual plans for the station have been approved, and detailed site plans are now under review by Miami-Dade County and City of Miami planners. The parking lots on the four blocks the complex will occupy are already gone, closed off by an opaque construction fence. Suffolk Construction has been hired to build the complex.
All Aboard executives hope to start construction work by the end of the year, a timetable that county officials say appears feasible.
“We’re going to dramatically change what downtown Miami looks like 24 to 36 months from now, and in an unprecedented way,” said All Aboard president Michael Reininger.
The station architecture, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, designers of the new One World Trade Center tower and the Time Warner Center in Manhattan, in collaboration with Zyscovich Architects of Miami, is still being refined. But the architects want to suspend the three towers on columns over the train platform. All Aboard is also in talks with developers of a planned hotel and exposition center next door on the site of the old Miami Arena to hook the two up with some kind of elevated walkway. That would allow conventioneers to take Metrorail from Miami International Airport, or All Aboard from Orlando, West Palm Beach or Fort Lauderdale, and dispense with a car, Reininger said.
Also possible: a terminal at MiamiCentral for Tri-Rail, the South Florida regional commuter service that now operates on CSX tracks west of Interstate 95. Tri-Rail hopes to start running trains along the Florida East Coast tracks that All Aboard Florida will use.
Tri-Rail would cover the partial cost of extending the MiamiCentral platform and installing tracks to handle its trains, but must decide “soon” whether it can commit to doing so, Reininger said. All Aboard and Tri-Rail officials say that arrangement would be substantially less expensive for the publicly subsidized commuter service than building its own terminal.
Because it’s Miami, where most people will still rely on cars to get around, MiamiCentral also accommodates substantial parking. Garages for the residential towers will be integrated into the station structure. The main station parking, with 1,800 spots, will be a block away at 700 MiamiCentral, which All Aboard is developing under a deal with the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency for Overtown.
The train platform would be elevated 50 feet above street level, in part to allow Northwest Fifth and Sixth Streets, major east-west connectors, to remain open beneath the station. But those through-ways would not be dark tunnels. Natural light will pour down through openings in the platform, Reininger said.
The station architecture, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, designers of the new One World Trade Center tower and the Time Warner Center in Manhattan, is still being refined. But the architects want to suspend the three towers on columns over the train platform.
The two retail floors at the base of the complex would be enclosed in glass, brightly transparent and fully accessible from the street, a design that county reviewers praised in their analysis.
“It’s what you’d expect to see in a vibrant downtown,” Reininger said. “Because of where it is, it needs to be a beautiful work of civic infrastructure. It’s going to be an iconic, photogenic place.”
County reviewers have some issues, documents show. Transit officials want a definitive commitment and clear designs from All Aboard for the Metrorail and Metromover connections, both elevated and at ground level, in particular along Sixth Street, which will be the link between the main station complext and the Overtown project.
Planners say the site plans also don’t do enough to make sidewalks around the station welcoming to pedestrians, and they’re requiring a greater amount and variety of greenery, including shade trees, on its perimeter.
Reininger said those questions are normal in a complex review process and are being worked through.
All Aboard will also build new stations in downtown Fort Lauderdale and West Palm, the first phase of its planned Orlando service, which will use existing FEC tracks. All Aboard must build tracks for the second phase, connecting West Palm to a new intermodal station at the Orlando airport.