Miami-Dade County

Flagler Street in downtown Miami to get a makeover

Anyone who traverses it has long known that poor, shopworn Flagler Street, the closest thing Miami has to a Main Street downtown, could sure use a lift.

The pink sidewalk tiles installed in an ill-conceived makeover a decade ago are grimy and cracked. The sidewalks are narrow, cluttered and slanted at crazy angles. Stormwater backs up into the street after a hard rain. Shade trees are nonexistent.

But amid the vacant storefronts and schlocky discount stores are clear signs of revival: a smattering of restored historic buildings; nice shops, and new cafes and restaurants that draw a crowd after 6 p.m., the old witching hour when everything downtown used to shut down.

Now a rare alliance of property owners and city and Miami-Dade officials has decided the time is ripe to restore Flagler to its place as Miami’s signature street. And they’ve got the shovel-ready $12 million plan to do just that.

The plan, in the works for three years and almost fully funded, entails a near-total redesign and reconstruction of the street from Biscayne Boulevard to the Miami-Dade County Courthouse to make it a lot more attractive and welcoming to pedestrians — and thus, they say, a much better place for residents, downtown workers and businesses.

By eliminating most on-street parking and replacing it with valet stations, the plan by South Miami’s Curtis + Rogers Design Studio would extend and level sidewalks to allow ample room for pedestrians, cafe tables, bike racks and benches. Oak trees would grow and spread shade without obstructing or buckling pavement thanks to an innovative, below-grade root-management system. Better-designed crosswalks would make it easier and safer for people to cross the street.

Backers of the Flagler plan note that similar improvements on South Beach’s Ocean Drive and Lincoln Road Mall propelled their fortunes at an early stage in their revival. Flagler has another advantage to capitalize on, they say: the arrival of thousands of new condo residents downtown.

“Our goal is to revitalize Flagler Street,” said Brian Alonso, whose family runs the upscale La Epoca department store in the street’s landmark Art Deco Walgreens building, which they own. “To get there will require a lot of components, but the streetscape is key.

“We’re at a similar point where Ocean Drive and Lincoln Road were — interesting things were happening, then they did the streetscapes, and everything just took off.”

To seed the project, which has been developed under the auspices of the Downtown Development Authority, Flagler Street property owners agreed to a special assessment totaling around $1 million.

The city, which will rebuild the street, will cover between $5 million and $6 million of the cost. Earlier this month, Miami-Dade commissioners and Mayor Carlos Gimenez agreed to fund the balance, up to $6 million more, from unused bond proceeds. A start date for the project, still undetermined, will depend on how soon the county can release the money.

“We want this to happen,” said Deputy Miami-Dade Mayor Jack Osterholt. “These are the kinds of projects that we think make the difference in downtowns. We want something that’s going to put people on the street, to make it more livable and more viable.”

Supporters of the makeover concede that street improvements by themselves won’t bring back the half-mile downtown stretch of Flagler Street, named after industrialist Henry Flagler, whose railroad gave birth to modern Miami and whose engineers laid out the city’s core. Up through the suburban boom of the 1950s and 1960s, the street and its department stores, lunch counters and half-dozen movie theaters were the city’s social and shopping focal point.

A true revival, supporters say, will hinge on attracting a better class of shops to replace the cut-rate electronics and luggage stores and fast-food outlets on which landlords survived for years. Those stores have been disappearing along with the bargain-hunting tourists, who have largely defected to suburban malls.

And that, Alonso said, will require not just public investment, but also a coordinated retail strategy and renovations by property owners to rundown buildings, some of them historic structures dating back to Flagler Street’s earliest days.

While a number of buildings on the street are protected as designated historic landmarks, including the Gusman/Olympia Theater and the Alfred I. DuPont office tower, questions hang over the future of some other architecturally or historically important but unprotected buildings — in particular the big Art Deco Macy’s building, which the chain is widely expected to vacate once it opens a new store in the planned Miami World Center complex north of downtown.

Although most Flagler Street properties are owned by a small group of families — the Rok family alone owns 17 buildings — outside investors have recently purchased some key spots, including the Macy’s building. Zoning allows 80-story skyscrapers, which some believe could disrupt the human scale that gives Flagler Street its intimate, historic feel.

Some property owners sitting on a DDA task force guiding improvements for the street have been reluctant to embrace designation of more buildings on Flagler, concerned about the effect on property values.

In spite of the uncertainties, the streetscape investment is probably worth making now, said DDA chairman Marc Sarnoff, a city commissioner whose district includes downtown.

“There’s a lot in flux on Flagler, but it’s still the right thing to do,” he said. “This is a conversation worth having now.”

DDA deputy director Javier Betancourt said Flagler should preserve and build on its distinctive qualities — the kind of historic, authentic urban ambience that people increasingly seek out. Betancourt believes the street has the potential to become Miami’s Lincoln Road.

“Flagler has soul and it has good bones,” Betancourt said. “We should not turn it into just any other street. It’s a real street. It has that dynamic people are looking for.”

In a nod to downtown history and Flagler’s legacy, the redesign incorporates railroad crossing gates that would be lowered to close sections of the street for festivals and other special events. Planners considered turning the street permanently into a pedestrian promenade, but concluded that was risky and impractical.

“The aim overall is to make it more walkable, more active, and a place where we can have visitors and residents congregate,’’ Betancourt said. “One of the things we’re lacking in Miami is public gathering space. It doesn’t always have to be a park. It can be a street that’s turned over to pedestrians for part of the day.”

The project will be intensive and disruptive, Alonso said. It will require digging 12 feet below the surface to replace antiquated utilities, like 80-year-old clay stormwater pipes. It will also require flattening the street right-of-way, which comes almost to a point in the middle, probably because layers of asphalt have been added over old trolley tracks that are believed to remain buried below it.

And all the sidewalks, which in some spots are inclined so sharply that outdoor cafe tables appear to be leaning over, will be removed and replaced with simple, easy to maintain concrete. In another Flagler echo, embedded steel train rails will run along the sidewalk edges.