Business Monday

A walker-friendly boulevard in works

Biscayne Boulevard in downtown Miami often serves as the city's front porch, welcoming visitors to Bayside Marketplace, the AmericanAirlines Arena and other venues.

But with eight lanes of traffic, the wide boulevard can be imposing -- or even downright intimidating for anyone not in a car. "Like a highway, " says downtown business owner Jose Goyanes. Enter Miami's Downtown Development Authority. As part of a 118-page downtown master plan that is still in the draft stages, the panel is considering a proposal to give the boulevard a more inviting, pedestrian-friendly feel.

What would that mean? Trees. Lots of them. The concept is to replace five acres of traffic lanes and parking lots with a public park, stretching from Northeast Fifth Street to Southeast Second Street.

Another element of the proposal: Narrow the boulevard to make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street.

The public will get its first glimpse of the still-unfinished master plan today at 5:30 p.m. at a Downtown Development Authority board meeting. The vision of a new Biscayne Boulevard is sure to be part of the discussion.

"That is our window on the world, " Executive Director Dana Nottingham said of Biscayne Boulevard. "It's where the visitors, residents, business workers -- everyone -- comes together."

LOW COST

And making it a lot greener and walkable, it turns out, wouldn't cost much. Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes much of downtown, said he's been told by city staff and state transportation officials that the cost to city taxpayers would be "minimal to none." City staffers have not yet assembled any formal assessment of the proposal.

The Florida Department of Transportation would have to contribute some funds for redoing the street, but not a staggering amount -- about $1 million or less, Sarnoff said.

"This is as close to a no-brainer as you'll ever find, " he said. "It's just wise and prudent for us to pursue this as quickly as possible."

Under one proposed scenario, underground parking lots would be built beneath the proposed public park.

European companies would be willing to fund it in exchange for reaping the long-term revenues from parking fees, Sarnoff said.

Some ideas put forth by the authority to spruce up downtown Miami are simple. They include installing better street lights and creating uniform guidelines for storefront facades, signage and awnings.

Other suggestions are complex and would require the cooperation of various stakeholders. One such proposal calls for reconfiguring and redeveloping the site of the downtown Hyatt Hotel and the James L. Knight Conference Center, located on Southeast Second Avenue and fronting the Miami River.

The city of Miami owns the Knight Center as well as the Hyatt land, which is leased by the hotel chain. If both sides agree on the new layout, the DOT, too, would have to get involved because the plan calls for lowering the adjacent I-95 ramps that are both a physical and visual barrier.

But the results could be jaw-dropping: a new riverside park with an expansive view of the Miami River.

Bernard Zyscovich, the architect who helped write the authority's master plan, says a less-intimidating, more pedestrian-friendly downtown would make the area more lively for Miamians to meet and interact -- hopefully even after dark -- and draw more tourists.

Zyscovich calls it "urban tourism."

"Now, people go to cities because they have an interest in seeing what the life of the city is like, " he said. The problem with downtown today, he said, is it's "not the kind of place you'd ever want to come back to, by and large."

The authority's master plan has been in the works for a while, but the plan's arrival on the public stage couldn't be more timely.

In recent weeks, the downtown area has been the unofficial whipping boy for Miami's business community.

It started with Macy's Florida Chairman Julie Greiner, who last month ripped the state of downtown in a speech to the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.

She complained of "broken curbs, collapsed sidewalks and garbage-strewn empty lots."

ON THE WAY UP

The city, fearing the loss of one of downtown's most important tenants, has been trying to make nice with Macy's. Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, while disputing Macy's assessment of downtown, acknowledges it is a neighborhood in transition. But the mayor says it's on the way up.

When asked last week what downtown needs, Diaz responded: "Time."

The residential towers now rising downtown are key, the mayor added. More people living in downtown will lure better restaurants and more retailers.

"It's happening, but you don't turn it around overnight, you don't turn around decades of neglect overnight, " Diaz said. "The city is going to do its part."

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