Brightening the blight

A year ago, a top Macy's executive ripped the condition of downtown Miami in front of a shocked Chamber of Commerce audience, describing the city's urban core as a place of "broken curbs, collapsed sidewalks and garbage-strewn empty lots."

The stinging speech served as something of a wake-up call to community leaders. In the year since, many sidewalks have been repaired. Six uniformed downtown "ambassadors" have been hired to deter crime and guide visitors. And new residents have steadily trickled in, attracted by shiny high-rises and short commutes.

The city's central business district, where thousands make the daily trek to work in the office towers and government centers, still has a ways to go. "What people need to understand is that that place was derelict and in decay for decades, " Miami Mayor Manny Diaz said. "You can't flip on a switch and change it overnight."

Some business owners chafe at the pace of change. Thursday afternoon, new planters of flowers brightened up Flagler Street, where people hurried up and down the sidewalks as a police officer pedaled along on a bicycle. A block to the south, the street was deserted and many of the storefronts vacant. As 5 o'clock rolled around, even Flagler quickly emptied.


"There's a lot of good intentions, there's a lot of good people, but the question is, if you go out, do you see a difference?" said downtown property owner Rafael Kapustin, a longtime critic of the city's Downtown Development Authority. If downtown has improved, Kapustin says, "I haven't noticed."

Members of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, which hosted Macy's Florida CEO Julie Greiner's speech last June, will discuss downtown as part of their annual goals-setting conference today and Saturday at the Doral Golf Resort & Spa. More than 1,000 people are expected to attend the event, which also will address community issues such as workforce housing.

At stake is the fate of a central business district that seems to have been bypassed by the national trend of redevelopment that swept the nation's downtowns since the 1990s.

New York City ran the adult businesses out of Times Square. Thousands of people moved into downtown Los Angeles. Chicago's Loop came back to life. In South Florida, Fort Lauderdale, Delray Beach and Coral Gables all had downtown revivals.

Starting in the 1990s, Fort Lauderdale's Las Olas Boulevard, for instance, added dozens of restaurants and bars east of U.S. 1. New condos, office towers, museums, an IMAX theater, a riverside walkway and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts sprouted up to the west.

In Miami, the real-estate boom that brought new life to the Brickell Avenue financial corridor south of the Miami River has not been as kind to the central business district. Although new condos have been erected on Biscayne Boulevard and along the Miami River, other key areas -- notably Flagler Street -- have seen little new development.


The good news, Mayor Diaz said, is that people are starting to move into the condo towers. Experts say residential development is a key factor in successful downtown revitalization.

"It will grow up to be a 24/7 destination, which is the dream that we've always had for our downtown, " the mayor said. "In a very short period of time, I envision hundreds and hundreds of people walking up Biscayne Boulevard, going to sidewalk restaurants."

Meanwhile, a recent $1.6 million master plan commissioned by the DDA included a well-received idea to narrow Biscayne Boulevard between Northeast Fifth and Southeast Second streets, a change that also would move the boulevard's parking spaces underground and free up five acres for new park space. The idea is to make the area more pedestrian-friendly. The master plan has yet to receive final approval from the city or the DDA, and future funding is a question mark.

But $4 million in sidewalk and street improvements to the area surrounding Flagler Street are going forward. Construction crews broke ground last month.


And Neisen Kasdin, a former Miami Beach mayor and chairman of the chamber's downtown committee, is putting a lot of stock in the Miami Megaplan -- a wide-ranging city-county spending pact that finances museums at Bicentennial Park, a new tunnel to the Port of Miami, a baseball stadium in Little Havana, and perhaps a streetcar system.

Kasdin, who was on the redevelopment board that led the revitalization of South Beach during the '80s, sees several ways the plan could help downtown. For example, the tunnel could take many trucks off the streets of downtown and the nearby Omni District. The streetcar would enable riders to travel quickly between downtown and the Design and Health districts to the north.

Kasdin, who also is the DDA board's vice chairman, said the mayor and city commission are the drivers behind downtown redevelopment, and that in recent months, the various downtown groups have started to march in the same direction.

"There was a time when they were all going in different directions, but I think that's changed, " he said.

Many longtime merchants would like to see faster progress.

Jose Goyanes, owner of Churchill's Barber Shop and Metro Beauty Salon and a DDA board member, said there has been progress since Greiner's speech, but not enough.

"Now at least we get the city manager walking around downtown. We get the mayor, " Goyanes said. "In the past, you wouldn't hear of the DDA doing much, just a lot of talk."

The new plantings and sidewalk repairs are welcome, but he's still waiting on new trash cans, which the city says are on the way.


After Greiner's speech, Macy's itself came in for criticism from neighboring merchants, who questioned whether the retailing giant had done its part to liven up the area. Goyanes echoes those comments, saying, the Macy's building still "does need a lot of work."

A Macy's spokeswoman said the company recently painted the outside of its store and plans to renovate its corporate offices. She declined to comment on the company's long-term plans.

Goyanes predicted that a downtown revival is inevitable. In a few years, he said, downtown will be as lively at night as Brickell, which has come alive with restaurants and bars.

And, he predicted: "It's going to get to the point where you don't think about it as north or south of the Miami River."

Miami leaders last year responded to criticism of downtown with a series ofpromises. Have they delivered?

Promise: Improved street cleaning and landscaping Status: New landscaping has been added and street-cleaning increased. But new trash cans have been delayed.

Promise: Downtown AmbassadorsStatus: Out on the street, they serve as guides for tourists and report crime.

Promise: Police surveillance camerasStatus: Some, but not all, of the planned camera locations are up and running.

Promise: Urban "pocket'' parkStatus: Waiting for permits to start construction.

Promise: Demolition of the Lerner buildingStatus: The decaying eyesore next to Macy's has finally been torn down. But the vacant lot is a mess.