Here’s how to cross Biscayne Boulevard in the heart of downtown Miami:
Wait a looong time for the crossing light. Hurry across four inhospitable lanes of traffic before the light changes. Now scoot along a parking lot — watch for cars going in and out! Then brace for another long wait and four more lanes of hurtling car traffic. Good luck making it across!
Is it any wonder that only a few of the tens of thousands of people who work and now live downtown ever venture across to Biscayne Bay?
A new proposal by the city’s Downtown Development Authority aims to change all that. The conceptual plan would perform radical surgery on six blocks of the boulevard, converting what’s now effectively an eight-lane highway dividing city from waterfront into an inviting, pedestrian- and bike-friendly urban greenway.
DDA planners say the ambitious scheme, christened Miami Green, would create an appealing new front entrance to downtown Miami, one much better in tune with its ongoing transition from dark-after-5 office district to ’round-the-clock neighborhood.
“It’s our signature street and it deserves attention,” DDA deputy director Javier Betancourt said. “People are hungry for it. People understand that downtown is at a stage where it needs to transform.”
The plan would put the stretch of Biscayne from the Bayfront Park Metromover station to Northeast Fifth Street on what planners call a road diet. It would shrink the number of automobile lanes in each direction to two, reestablish parallel parking on the western and eastern edges of the divided street, and add a two-way, separated bike lane on its east flank. The curbside parking could turn into a third traffic lane on each side during rush hour or special events.
Miami Green would also transform the boulevard’s medians, taking out the parking lots and their acres of sun-baked asphalt and cars and replacing them with a linear park replete with vending kiosks, cafes, shaded lawns and playgrounds, in the style of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas. The proposal also contemplates underground parking beneath the medians.
DDA officials say the plan, the product of months of public meetings and studies, enjoys broad support from downtown business and property owners as well as residents. Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez have both endorsed it.
It’s still at a preliminary stage, though. Coral Gables planning and architecture firm Behar Font & Partners prepared the conceptual plan free of charge, and the DDA, a semi-autonomous public agency governed by an appointed board, just applied for a $1 million grant from the Florida Department of Transportation to pay for a full-fledged blueprint. A response is expected in July.
The plan would have to clear several substantial hurdles, not the least of which is funding. The DDA’s grant application says the project could cost as much as $85 million if underground parking is included, but it’s too early to say where the money might come from. Betancourt said the project might require some significant amount of private donations to become reality.
“Funding isn’t part of the conversation yet because you need to get buy-in,” said Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, the DDA chairman. “I think it’s a conversation starter and a way of moving Miami to the pedestrian-friendly environment it never was.
“Biscayne Boulevard — I would call it reasonably ugly, disconnected. It creates a barrier to people who want to go to the parks,” he said, referring to Bayfront and Museum parks on the downtown waterfront.
The agency would also have to satisfy concerns from the Miami Parking Authority over the potential loss of revenue and from FDOT, which has jurisdiction over the boulevard because it’s a state road, over the effect of the proposed road diet on traffic.
DDA planners say both agencies are broadly amenable to the plan. FDOT district director Gus Pego has publicly blessed the concept, pending a detailed traffic analysis.
The plan already has attracted national attention because of its potential for improving the walkability of a city notorious for autocentric, dangerous streets. Experts have noted that Miami’s historic street grid could become highly walkable if street designs were improved.
“If Miami is to become one of the most walkable cities in the country, it’s projects like this that will get it there,” said a feature published on CityLab, an Atlantic magazine website that focuses on urban planning.
CityLab journalist Eric Jaffe, however, raised one concern: that the sum of underground and parallel street parking, which would add a net 150 spots to the now-existing 380 slots, would produce a “glut” of parking and encourage more driving, defeating one goal of the plan.
But even a loss of parking spaces would be worth it if the plan succeeds in enlivening the boulevard and generating foot traffic that could boost local businesses, one downtown resident and entrepreneur said. With thousands of new condo residents in the neighborhood, street retail and activity is improving, but it’s not yet what downtown backers hope, he noted.
“As one business owner, I love the plan,” said David Polinsky, whose Ten Fruits juice and lunch bar, open two years, is a block off the boulevard. “It’s really intimidating to cross Biscayne Boulevard. It’s sort of a dead zone. It’s great that downtown has some momentum. It’s gotten steadily better with more people on the street. I think improving and activating that median is the next natural step.”
A principal goal of the plan, DDA planners say, will be improving the crossings from downtown streets across Biscayne Boulevard to the stretch of waterfront that encompasses Bayfront Park and Bayside Marketplace as well as the Bayfront Park Metromover station, which is elevated over a median.
They also want to significantly improve the pell-mell crossing at Flagler Street, which is soon to undergo its own, fully funded $12 million makeover into a pedestrian-oriented Main Street with wider sidewalks, shade trees and improved crossings.
The plan stops at Northeast Fifth Street, just south of AmericanAirlines Arena. In part that’s because the broad medians end there, and in part because the section of the boulevard from there to the Interstate 395 overpass was redone in recent years by FDOT.
Because it’s just as perilous to cross that northern section to the new Museum Park, the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Frost Museum of Science, which is under construction, the DDA would like to revisit the area with a similar pedestrian-friendly scheme in the future, Betancourt said.
The planned lane diet would markedly reduce the crossing distance on Biscayne for pedestrians, while the on-street parking would act as a buffer from traffic for people on the sidewalks, Betancourt and DDA planning chief Eric Riel said.
A study by the DDA concluded that the loss of lanes would not worsen traffic along the six-block stretch. That’s in large part because Biscayne Boulevard already narrows to six lanes to the south, where it turns into Biscayne Boulevard Way and eventually Brickell Avenue, as well as north of the stretch in question. That means the extra lanes in the middle do nothing to relieve congestion, and can actually exacerbate it by forcing motorists to merge at either end, the DDA planners say.
“There is really no reason for this to be eight lanes. It’s overkill,” Betancourt said.
The centerpiece of the plan is the series of linked parks that would replace the MPA’s parking lots. Those would be a combination of green space for lounging and active uses, such as a farmer’s market, playgrounds and basketball courts, that could attract people at all times of the day.
“You have to have a combination of passive space and active space. You have to activate it,” Betancourt said. “People need a reprieve from what has become a very intense urban center. That attracts people, and people attract business. It’s a balance.”
Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.