Latest News

Travelers shortchanged in redesign as lobbyists swarm

The $5.4 billion construction plan at Miami International Airport promises architecture of "world-class" quality. The most important and public piece of MIA, the main terminal - where passengers buy tickets and check bags - will fall far short of that mark. Its oppressively low ceilings and cramped quarters are going to be touched up and rearranged, not erased.

The concourses being designed for influential airlines, meanwhile, will achieve state-of-the-art grandeur: ceilings as high as a cathedral, monumental spaces, cascades of natural light. Why? The new design for Miami International Airport is as much a work of politics as it is a work of art. The disparities in architectural quality - and construction budgets - between the main terminal and some of the concourses reflect the fact that while private interests hire teams of lobbyists, the general public has none. So while most of the airport is being rebuilt almost from scratch, the main terminal, MIA's public face, is being redone at a fraction of the cost. The main terminal is MIA's front door and central passageway. It connects the eight finger-like concourses, where the gates are, and it is the building that in many ways defines visitors' first and last images of Miami. It is a relic of the 1950s. The baggage-claim level is dark and cave-like. The ticketing level, the airport's central artery, has grown sclerotic with kiosks and concessions. At peak times, luggage-laden passengers bump and stutter-step in the infamous welcome-to-Miami dance of frustration. On the terminal's third floor, a $12 million moving walkway system runs empty because it is hidden from sight, and because it is accessible only by labyrinthine connections. "A disgrace, " says Donald E. Lefton, the vice chairman of Carnival Hotels and Casinos and the chairman of the One Community/One Goal visitors task force. "MIA has the most user unfriendly arrangement that can be imagined." MUCH WON'T CHANGE The renovation will make some improvements to the main terminal. Skylight-like openings will allow more natural light. Some of the aisle-blocking clutter - kiosks, concessions, telephone banks, baggage wrappers and the like - is supposed to be removed. All the finishes, including a terrazzo floor, will be new. But key components will remain unchanged. The baggage claim basement will keep its hovering ceilings, tight dimensions and big windows opening to a gloomy roadway underpass. The main ticketing level will not be freed of its confusion. The disorienting geometry of the terminal's main corridor, laid out in an angular horseshoe shape and filled with a forest of columns, will remain. Its ceilings, relatively low for such a major public space - lower than a new Publix grocery store - won't change overall. The moving walkway on the airport's third level, a wonderful convenience if only anyone knew it was there, will continue to be largely invisible. Even Raul Rodriguez, the architect of the main terminal renovation, says: "This will not be a world-class main terminal." DAUNTING TASK Exactly how Miami-Dade's $5.4 billion airport reconstruction plan could skimp on the main terminal is a question that gets several answers. Airport director Gary Dellapa says the reasons are simple: Money is tight and the logistics of main terminal construction are overwhelmingly complex. Construction that requires shutting down a portion of the main terminal could be calamitously disruptive to passengers. Moreover, improving the terminal's baggage level by raising its low ceilings would require raising the floor of the ticketing level above. That, in turn, would require raising the terminal's approach roads. "What we are doing is much more difficult than building an airport, " Dellapa says. "We are building an airport on top of an airport - and the airport underneath can't just be shut down." Others familiar with the design debates say that the main terminal might have commanded a bigger budget, if only the general public had hired lobbyists. To win approval of its new $1.3 billion super-concourse, American Airlines had to retain more than 10 influential County Commission lobbyists and lawyers. United Airlines, which is now slated for an area of the airport getting $500 million of new construction, hired six. LONG STRUGGLE In fact, the success of American Airlines in winning its super-concourse is a story of political perseverance. American Airlines began to push the idea for a new "super-concourse, " 47 gates long, in 1991. It would replace an equivalent number of existing gates and was estimated to cost about $500 million. The airport director at then, Rick Elder, objected to the proposal. He said the airline could be accommodated by renovating Concourses D and E, a project estimated to cost roughly $100 million less than the super-concourse. With the strong support of then-Commissioner Alex Penelas, the airline in 1993 won approval for its $500 million super-concourse, then pushed for removal of the airport director who had opposed them. "We need a correction of what I judge a totally unworkable situation at the airport, " American Airlines lawyer Ted Tedesco said at the time. Elder resigned under pressure later that week. The fight was not over, however. By December, further study showed that building the super-concourse would cost far more than expected - about $800 million, or $300 million more than the estimate used at the County Commission meeting. Some commissioners began to reconsider the project, bridling at the cost. Using the same forecasts of demand that had been used to develop the super-concourse, the airport staff resurrected the idea of accommodating American Airlines by renovating Concourses D and E. Estimated cost: $480 million, or about $320 million less than American's preferred super-concourse scheme. Once again, American Airlines representatives objected. They said the super-concourse, with all 47 gates arrayed in a line, would offer efficiencies that were impossible to achieve with the gates spread among two or three concourses: Planes could be turned around faster. Connecting passengers could take a train in the concourse to reach American gates. Moreover, the concourse would stand at the airport's entrance, a monumental advertisement for American, MIA's dominant carrier with 49 percent of passengers. The County Commission, once again led by Penelas, agreed with American officials, who were promising more flights and local jobs. The Commission approved a lease that called for the construction of the super-concourse. By this time, May 1995, the project cost had risen to $975 million, roughly $500 million more than the proposed alternate project. Since then, the projected cost of the super-concourse, which would be a mile long, has grown to $1.3 billion. UNREALIZED PLAN The genesis of the main terminal renovation plan, by contrast, is a tale of world-class ambition - thwarted, and then thwarted again. The respected Coral Gables firm of Rodriguez and Quiroga was hired in 1992 to refurbish the main terminal. Their first proposal offered a dramatic change. They reconceived the main terminal as a continuous grand hall. A model they built showed the terminal's main floor as a monumental space with ceilings about 50 feet high and glass on both sides. The moving walkways on the third floor, instead of being hidden, would have run as a mezzanine to the grand hall. Overall, the design promised many of the qualities that characterize today's world-class airports: a dramatic central public space, clarity, natural light and so on. The scheme did not win over airport planners. "It died for lack of a second, " architect Raul Rodriguez said. "No one at the airport - none of the bureaucrats - stood up and said this is world class. They thought it was too radical." Asked why the grand hall scheme was rejected, airport director Gary Dellapa shrugs and rubs an index finger against a thumb. "Money, " he says. No cost estimates or other formal studies were undertaken to determine its cost, however. "Psychologically, " Rodriguez said, "it was just more acceptable to them to keep it as a renovation." SAME GRID The subsequent scheme that Rodriguez came up with next is far less ambitious. When the main terminal program is done, passengers will notice new floors, new finishes, some new skylight-like openings and some new escalators that will better connect passengers to the moving walkways. Outside, the facade will present arches intended to resemble early aviation hangars. But there will be no grand hall. The dense grid of columns that makes the main terminal feel chaotic and cramped will remain in place. The low ceilings - about eight feet in baggage claim and 12 feet in the main level - will remain unchanged, except for some spaces around the new escalator wells. In airports considered "world class" like the new Denver airport and the rebuilt National Airport in Washington, D.C., typical ceiling heights are 40 feet and 55 feet, respectively. One of the stated goals of the main terminal renovation is to "unify the entire main terminal, " as one MIA report says. As a result, the 1992 contract with Rodriguez & Quiroga called for the firm to design the renovations throughout the main terminal. Now three independent architectural teams, all local, will have a hand in designing the main terminal. One main terminal renovation, from Concourses A to B, was designed by Spillis, Candela & Partners. Rodriguez & Quiroga will renovate the main terminal from there to Concourse H. A third architectural team, a partnership of Borelli Associates/Mateu Carreno Rizo & Partners, is designing an extension of the main terminal to meet the new Concourse J. The schemes coming from the different teams vary; they will not unify the main terminal. Why hire more firms? Airport director Dellapa explained that the County Commission has asked that airport contracts be spread around as much as possible. The airport's effort to keep retail shops in the main terminal may also compromise design and passenger comfort. In an effort to reduce congestion in the main terminal, the airport once had planned to relocate most of the existing main terminal shops to spaces elsewhere in the airport. This would have allowed architects to widen clogged terminal passageways by as much as 20 feet. Recently, however, airport officials began to ask that the architects plan for more retail in the main terminal. Kiosks have begun to cut into passageways again. "A town center" of shops has been proposed, too. In response, airport officials note that about half of airport revenues come via concessions. Removing them from the main terminal would not only strand some airport patrons, but deprive MIA's coffers. "We need to have shops in the main terminal, " Dellapa said. "Otherwise, if you don't have a ticket, you won't be able to get a cup of coffee or anything else. What about the people who've come to pick up arriving passengers?" This leaves the main terminal - too small to adequately accommodate both retail and the fluid movement of passengers, not to mention millions more passengers in coming years - stuck the way it is. Too crowded. Too chaotic. "We understand the responsibility to be prudent with the airport's budgets, " Rodriguez said. "The problem is, if you say you want a world-class airport - and there is good reason to want this - you can't do it by scrimping on money and then cramming it with kiosks and shops. It's just not going to work that way." A WORLD CLASS REJECTION This architect's proposal would have introduced "world class" qualities to MIA's congested and outdated main terminal: The spaces would have been monumental, with ceiling heights of nearly 60 feet and broader passageways. Natural light would have flowed in from glass walls. The terminal's moving walkways, now hidden from sight on the third level, would have run as a mezzanine to the space. The proposal was rejected by airport planners as too costly, though other parts of the airport are receiving similar treatment.

This graphic was produced on the MacIntosh graphics system and could not be included in this text library database. Please refer to microfilm for this date. MIA'S $5.4 BILLIONI FUTURE Miami International Airport is undergoing a massive $5.4 billion reconstruction equivalent to, as airport planners like to say, "building a new airport on top of the old one." The biggest project is the $1.3 billion super-concourse being designed for American Airlines.

Related stories from Miami Herald