After a long trek, Miami-Dade finally ready to purchase Ludlam Trail park

A rendering of how an abandoned railway would look after being converted into the Ludlam Trail “linear” park. On Friday, Sept. 14, 2018, Miami-Dade commissioners approved a $25 million purchase of the five-mile corridor to create the biking and hiking trail.
A rendering of how an abandoned railway would look after being converted into the Ludlam Trail “linear” park. On Friday, Sept. 14, 2018, Miami-Dade commissioners approved a $25 million purchase of the five-mile corridor to create the biking and hiking trail. Friends of Ludlam Trail

Miami-Dade commissioners on Friday approved the $25 million purchase of a nearly six-mile long abandoned railway for conversion into the Ludlam Trail park, a biking and hiking trail running from just outside Miami International Airport south to land around the Dadeland mall.

The unanimous vote marked the end of a years-long struggle to close a complicated land deal with the parent company of the Brightline railway for 57 acres of land and permission to build dense commercial and residential complexes at a few spots along the trail.

Championed by cycling enthusiasts and park advocates, the Ludlam project had sparked fierce controversy in the past over concerns it would bring too much development to the vacant spine of land that divides dozens of residential neighborhoods.

“Finally,” sponsor Rebeca Sosa said in casting her yes vote on legislation approving the deal with Florida East Coast Industries. “We are making history in Miami-Dade County.”

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Miami-Dade Commissioner Rebeca Sosa hugs Frankie Ruiz, a leading Miami runner, after a commission vote to spend $25 million buying a five-mile abandoned railway. Miami-Dade plans to convert the land to the Ludlam Trail park, a hiking and biking trail. BY DOUGLAS HANKS dhanks@miamiherald.com

Significant work remains to build out the full 5.6-mile “linear park” envisioned for Ludlam, which suffers from soil contamination that must be fixed before reopened to the public. Miami-Dade has secured about $27 million of the $94 million price tag for the Ludlam plan, meaning the new biking and hiking trail would emerge in phases.

Ludlam is one of two high-profile trails Miami-Dade hopes to create in the coming years. The other is the Underline, another linear park that would be created out of the paths that already exist under the elevated tracks of Miami-Dade’s Metrorail system.

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People take a nighttime stroll along the land that makes up the southern portion of the Ludlam Trail. Lit up for an evening event in December 2016, the trail has been since been fenced off to prepare to cleaning up contaminated soil ahead of Miami-Dade purchasing the five-mile trail from Florida East Coast Industries. Miami-Dade plans to spend close to $100 million converting the abandoned railway into a park. MIAMI HERALD FILE PHOTO

The two would come within blocks of each other at the Dadeland North Metrorail station, creating what’s being branded as a “Miami Loop” with other trails in the works. With the Metrorail land already under county control, the 10-mile Underline is expected to come to life first.

Before the Ludlam vote, a commission committee endorsed a $14 million construction contract for the first two-mile phase of the Underline. The agreement covers the work and equipment needed to transform the foot path into a park, with a mini basketball court, exercise equipment, space for table games and performances, and landscaping.

“It’s a new world for our county,” Underline organizer Meg Daly said at the special commission meeting called to approve the Ludlam project.

While Miami-Dade is purchasing the land, there’s a clause in the deal that theoretically could unravel the plan. Because the land is a former railway, federal law requires the owner to allow the property to be converted back to tracks if Washington ever demands it. The scenario is considered extremely unlikely, and Miami-Dade is entitled to a refund by FECI if that clause is ever triggered, said Ed Marquez, the deputy mayor who negotiated the agreement.

The original Ludlam proposal gave FECI more latitude to develop along the trail, sparking hostile town halls in 2014 and outright rejections of the proposal from community boards. The final deal gives FECI less leeway, limiting development to several “nodes” along intersections where the Ludlam Trail meets major thoroughfares, including Bird Road and Southwest Eighth Street.

Sosa, whose district includes part of the Ludlam Trail, said she had her first meeting with residents about the plan in 2011. She has been lobbying Florida lawmakers for funding to purchase the property and for construction. For the purchase approved Friday, Miami-Dade is using $11 million in state grants and nearly $14 million in county fees paid by developers for roads and other public-works projects.

Miami-Dade is exploring the creation of a taxing district along the corridor to divert property taxes toward maintenance expenses for the park. Marquez said he expects creation of the Ludlam Trail to boost property values throughout the corridor, which runs along 69th Avenue between Northwest Seventh Street and Southwest 80th Street. “It’s an amenity,” he said.

Advocates see the grassy, landscaped park linking neighborhoods with the residential and commercial centers developers would build along the Ludlam “nodes,” with people able to walk and bike along the illuminated trails to restaurants and shops. About 35,000 people live within a half-mile of the trail. For now, the pending project has actually cut off use of the trail, which had been a popular walking and cycling outlet until this year. Miami-Dade has fenced off the area after testing for potential contamination during negotiations with FECI.

The company, which did not have a representative speak during the commission meeting, has agreed to cover clean-up costs if the work becomes extensive, Marquez said. Otherwise, the county expects to have the initial clean-up finished sometime in 2019.

Tony Garcia, co-founder of the Friends of the Ludlam Trail group that has been a top advocate for the project, told commissioners the inaccessibility of the trail made the meeting a “bittersweet” moment for him. He urged the county to move quickly to reopen the area. But after years of public hearings, community meetings, and private sessions on the Ludlam Trail, Garcia described himself as stunned to see it finally becoming an approved land deal.

“This is an emotional moment for me,” he told commissioners. “I usually don’t get nervous in front of audiences. But I feel very overwhelmed.”