It took 20 years for Meg Daly’s late father, the prominent attorney Parker Thomson, to realize his ambition of a transformative performing arts center in Miami.
It may not take Daly and her ad-hoc team of volunteers, dreamers and entrepreneurs quite that long to pull off her own unlikely conceit: a 10-mile-long park and walking and cycling trail that aims to regenerate an overlooked swath of Miami in the same way the heralded High Line did along lower Manhattan.
But she’s having to tap into every bit of that reserve of Thomson family grit to get it done.
On Thursday, a contractor is scheduled to break ground on the first phase of the much-anticipated Underline, which will eventually extend from downtown Miami to Dadeland under the Metrorail’s elevated tracks. That initial segment, in the booming Brickell district, is just seven blocks and a half-mile long.
But moving from conception to construction in five years is a flash for a civic project in Miami. At least two more segments, one along Miami’s The Roads section and another in Coral Gables, will follow in short order. And no matter what it takes, Daly says, she is determined to see the Underline all the way through to completion in the same unflagging spirit her father instilled in her.
Thomson, who died suddenly last year at 85, not only helped usher the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts into existence, but also was Daly’s earliest champion when she was struck by the inspiration for the Underline, an idea she at first feared might be a non-starter.
“I had what I call this crazy idea. My Dad was the second person I told after my husband,” recalled Daly, a marketing executive who had never tackled anything of the kind. “He’s always been one of the greatest sounding boards. And he said, ‘I don’t think it’s crazy. I think it’s a great idea.’ ”
Soon, Daly said, Thomson was making introductions, helping raise money and plying her with suggestions, all in service of her particular vision. Just before he died, Thomson was still tagging along with Daly to Tallahassee and city halls to corral support and money, both of them working as volunteers.
“He brought so much credibility to this,” Daly said. “It was really eye-opening for me.“
It was Thomson who emphasized to Daly the importance of starting construction before the end of 2018 to make it abundantly clear to skeptics and supporters alike that the Underline is no pipe dream. The groundbreaking, she noted, will come precisely 383 days after his death.
“I really feel like he’s still helping us,” she said, pausing briefly to stifle tears. “It’s very emotional. There is nothing greater than having your parents believe in you and what you’re doing.”
What Daly’s doing — in close collaboration with Miami-Dade County and its transit agency, which have pitched their full weight behind the Underline — is just short of Herculean.
A master plan drawn up by High Line designers James Corner Field Operations for the nonprofit group she leads, Friends of the Underline, envisions 10 miles of continuous, parallel but separated pathways for people on foot and people on bikes. Lushly landscaped with native species, the trail would connect a series of parks, gardens, playgrounds and other gathering spots whose look and feel relate to neighborhood surroundings that range from intensely urban to placid suburbia.
The comprehensive concept could cost as much as $120 million to build out. Daly has so far secured about $90 million in funding commitments from Miami, Coral Gables, Miami-Dade and the state of Florida, including money from road and park impact fees paid by developers and state funds earmarked for trail construction.
It’s a radical idea for Miami: A flowing, expansive urban safe space for people to walk, bike, recreate and congregate that’s intimately linked to transit. The Underline would not only connect neighborhoods and improve quality of life for the 125,000 people who live within a 10-minute walk of the trail, but also promote Metrorail use and commuting by bike by making both more appealing and convenient, Daly and Underline supporters say.
It’s potentially also a draw for tourists, providing a fresh way to see Miami, and a boost to economic development. Developers and commercial property owners along the line are already exploring the possibility of opening cafes, markets, restaurants and other businesses to cater to Underline users.
Doing all the above entails major design and engineering challenges. None is bigger than ensuring that cars don’t collide with Underline users at its numerous street intersections, which include some of the busiest and most dangerous in the city. Miami-Dade and Florida Department of Transportation engineers are analyzing the intersections. All will require tweaks big and small, say Daly and the county’s project manager, planner and architect Irene Hegedus: moving traffic signals, realigning the right of way, and in some places eliminating right turns-on-red.
A trail-alignment study is underway to determine precisely where the trail should cross intersections to maximize safety, Daly said. The Underline project will remove the existing paved M-Path, which meanders behind columns that often block views of oncoming users. Some sharp turns now make it difficult for a cyclist to navigate.
There is no electrical system at ground level under the trains, so one must be installed along the trail’s full length to it can be lit at night. Because the trail was once a rail corridor, there is soil contamination that must be remedied. A foot of topsoil will be removed so that the surface can be capped by a textile material to contain any remaining pollution, then covered with clean fill.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez says the effort and expense will prove well worth it.
“It took me like five minutes to see the vision,” he said. “You are creating a great linear park in the heart of the city. It will have a multi-generational benefit. And if you are going to do it, you need to do it right.”
Daly came up with a great idea at the right time, said Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the Miami-based Knight Foundation, which funded development plans for the Underline.
Other cities have embarked on high-profile projects that turn abandoned urban spaces such as rail corridors into parks and trails. The best known is the High Line, which reclaimed a rusting, disused elevated train line for use as a linear park. It has proven a massive tourism draw and spurred billions of dollars worth of development along its route. Atlanta is also creating a 22-mile Beltline; some portions are already open.
Both projects, like the Underline, were launched by neighborhood activists and enthusiastically embraced by government, business interests and citizens. That the same is happening in Miami, Ibargüen said, represents a leap forward for the city and its demand for and conception of public space. The exploding condo and apartment-dwelling population of Brickell, for instance, virtually requires the park-like amenities the Underline will provide, Ibargüen said.
“It creates a kind of natural demand. And there is the vision and tenacity of somebody like Meg,” Ibargüen said. “I can’t help but note it was her father who saw a parking lot, along with (the late developer) Woody Weiser, and imagined a performing arts center. It took them literally 20 years. And it turns out it’s his daughter who looks at this amazing amount of land under the Metrorail that you and I might look at and say it looks crummy, and she sees something great.
“Having been stalked by this woman, I can tell you, she is not going away, just like her father,” Ibargüen said, only half-joking. “It must be in her genes. She makes a good case, and then she comes back.”
That Daly thought of it at all owes to an unhappy accident. She had broken both arms in a cycling mishap, couldn’t drive or do much else, and was taking Metrorail to physical therapy. One day, walking to the train under the railway, she took in for the first time all that space underneath the elevated train tracks.
There was a paved pathway, but it was threadbare and got scant use. What if someone could instead turn it into a walking and cycling trail lined with lush tropical vegetation? Daly pictured joggers, cyclists, families and rail users sharing the trail all the way from Dadeland through South Miami and Coral Gables to Miami’s Coconut Grove, Silver Bluff, The Roads and Brickell neighborhoods.
Daly roped in assistant county parks director Maria Nardi, who now holds the top job at the department, and eventually Gimenez and the transit agency, which owns and manages Metrorail and the land underneath it.
Friends of the Underline has a formal agreement with the county to guide the development of the Underline, which will be built in phases by designers and contractors working for Miami-Dade under competitive bids. The group has also hired the planning and engineering firm Kimley-Horn to draw up a consistent basic design template for the trail and determine the cost for each segment.
The group is now launching an affiliate that will manage and maintain the trail, a job estimated to require $3 million a year. Daly has not yet figured out where that money will come from, but corporate donations, naming rights and sponsorships and proceeds from a new county taxing district enacted to tap into new development around transit lines could help cover that cost, she and the mayor said.
Daly and Gimenez emphasize that the Underline is only one piece of a broader concept for a longer Miami Loop. It would include the intersecting Ludlam Trail, a similar multi-use green trail and park running from Dadeland Mall to just south of Miami International Airport planned for a former freight-rail corridor. In September, the Miami-Dade Commission approved the purchase of the six-mile corridor for $25 million. The Ludlam Trail could in turn eventually link up with the Miami Riverwalk and back to the Underline.
“It’s a very big vision to have a 22-mile, off-road, multi-use walking and biking trail,” Daly said, referring to the Miami Loop idea.
The Underline has one built-in advantage: Because there is already a paved path along its full length, people can use and enjoy it before it’s complete.
“As soon as the first pocket is developed, you are able to start experiencing it,” said developer Brent Reynolds, a member of Friends of the Underline’s board of directors. “It’s right around the corner.”
The inaugural Brickell Backyard segment is the most complex and, at a cost of $14.2 million, the most expensive in the Underline plan, Daly said. But given the booming area’s density and young population, it’s also the piece most likely to get immediate and heavy use. Funding includes $5.4 million in county money, $4.8 million from Miami, and nearly $4 million from the state.
The section begins at the Miami River and extends seven blocks south to the edge of Simpson Park, the last preserved remnant of a hardwood hammock that once covered the Brickell area. The plan for the nine-acre segment, which was designed by James Corner under a competitively bid contract and is scheduled for completion in 18 months, consists of several outdoor “rooms” with features that Brickell residents asked for during a series of public meetings. Those include:
▪ A green, dog-friendly park at the edge of the river.
▪ A gym consisting of a court that can be used for basketball, volleyball or mini-soccer, workout stations and a running track around the block.
▪ A three-block Promenade with a performance stage at one end with room for 300 people or 85 yoga mats; tables for chess, checkers and dominoes; a 50-foot-long table for communal dining.
▪ An Oolite Room with four butterfly gardens set around rock outcroppings that sit across the street from Southside Elementary School.
Phase two, which is set to go out to bid in November, will extend from Coral Way to Southwest 19th Avenue along South Dixie Highway, Daly said.
The project then skips over to Coral Gables, where the city is planning a segment stretching between Douglas and LeJeune roads. That includes a revamp of a tiny, trail-adjacent park, now a fenced-off bit of asphalt, which could become a staging spot for food trucks, Daly said.
That Gables segment also includes a quarter-mile piece to be built by Reynolds and his firm NP International. The Friends of the Underline board member is also developer of the Gables Station mixed-use project now under construction along Ponce de Leon Boulevard. Under the permitting agreement with the Gables, Reynolds will contribute $3 million to build and landscape the trail portion, which is now being designed by Kimley-Horn, the firm already working on the design template for the entire Underline.
Next to the trail, Reynolds will add a public dog park, the city’s first. The municipality will pitch in $300,000 toward the dog park.
His architects designed the Gables Station building to face the Underline, Reynolds said. An expansive courtyard will open up to the trail, and the ground floor will have food, drink and other “activated space,” he said. His concept is to get building residents out to the Underline, and Underline users to the retail — just the kind of symbiotic flow that Daly envisioned. It’s also an attractive lure for potential residential and retail tenants, Reynolds said.
“Our idea is to draw people out and into the Underline space,” he said. “It’s definitely part of our story. It plays well into modern-day trends of health and wellness and alternative means of transportation and connectivity.”
Reynolds plans to start building his Underline section in the second quarter of 2019, and it should be ready when Gables Station opens in late summer 2020, he said.
Meanwhile, Daly remains an unpaid volunteer, five years in. Friends of the Underline, which receives no public money directly and subsists on private contributions, has one paid staffer and depends on pro-bono attorneys and supporters to do much of its work. But for her it’s much more than a job, she says. Daly, who has two adult children, says it’s now her life.
“I do this full time,” she said. “This is all I think about.”
As the groundbreaking draws near, Daly only wishes her father could be there to cut the ribbon with her. With him gone, she’s had to do the work of not just two people, but. sometimes. it seems. that of a whole squad.
“It’s like he’d died yesterday. I think it was a huge loss for our community,” she said. “You don’t replace Parker Thompson with one person.”