Miami-Dade County

Ludlam Trail plan back on track

A rendering shows a stretch of the proposed Ludlam Trail.
A rendering shows a stretch of the proposed Ludlam Trail. Courtesy Landscape DE and Friends of Ludlam Trail

Plans for the Ludlam Trail, the proposed conversion of an old rail line into a six-mile-long bike path and park that nearly ran aground over the extent of accompanying development, have popped back into the public arena — in a markedly reconfigured form that’s winning over leery residents and activists as well as the property’s owners.

The new blueprint, drawn up by Miami-Dade County planners, appears to resolve several issues that raised a public outcry and prompted the rail line’s owner, Florida East Coast Industries, to withdraw its initial proposal just before a scheduled commission vote in December.

The substantially reworked version, backed by FECI, neighborhood associations and the nonprofit Friends of Ludlam Trail, would restrict residential and commercial development along the former rail corridor, which runs 6.2 miles in a straight shot from Dadeland to Miami International Airport, to four “nodes” at major road intersections. That would leave three-quarters of the stretch of land, including all areas behind single-family homes, as open recreational space, planners say.

The county plan would also guarantee development of a continuous public bicycle and pedestrian pathway along the full length of the line if FECI goes ahead with development, satisfying neighbors and advocates who complained the original FECI plan would have allowed new construction to eat up much of the available land while doing little to ensure the promised trail would actually get built.

Backers of the trail say the new plan, hammered out by the county’s urban-design team in consultation with residents, advocates and FECI officials, represents a significant improvement that balances the company’s development goals with the public interest while bolstering the bikeway’s viability.

“We’re thrilled,” said Victor Dover, a prominent urban planner and board member of Friends of Ludlam Trail, an advocacy group that supports creation of the bikeway and was critical of FECI’s original approach. “This is so much better than the proposal we were so alarmed about last year.”

The trail plan is now headed to consideration by the county planning board and the County Commission, which in December gave the green light to county planners to take over the creation of a special zoning district for the rail line’s conversion. In the past two weeks, three county community councils that had previously turned thumbs down on the FECI plan endorsed the new proposal, although some members expressed reservations over the scale of development it would permit at some of the designated nodes.

This is so much better than the proposal we were so alarmed about last year.

Victor Dover, board member of Friends of Ludlam Trail

If the County Commission agrees, the plan would go to the state for review before returning for final consideration by commissioners. The county would then need to write and approve the zoning rules for development in the nodes and prepare a working design for the trail.

There are still some big ifs, however.

The trail plan is contingent on the county, and possibly the city of Miami, through which a portion of the trail runs, coming up with enough money to buy most of the property from FECI, though no price has been set. The company in the past put its value at $100 million, but the county will conduct an independent appraisal using a consultant. So far, about $8 million in funding from various sources has been identified.

Also undetermined is who would build or pay for construction of the trail, which could cost tens of millions to build as envisioned — as a heavily landscaped park with some restored natural areas and limited recreational facilities such as benches, shelters and bathrooms.

It’s also unclear how trail users would get safely across some heavily trafficked roads that intersect with the rail line, including Bird Road and Southwest Eighth Street. Some proponents say that may require bridges, a costly proposition.

Still, FECI officials and the Friends group feel so encouraged by the compromise proposal that they’ve rolled out plans to begin opening portions of the line to the public almost immediately. For the next year, under the moniker of Ludlam Days, the Friends organization has laid out a schedule of events and initiatives, including bike rides, hikes and runs, to familiarize people with the trail and rally public support for the permanent plan — an approach known as Tactical Urbanism.

The first of those: an exhibit on the vision for the trail at the Coral Gables Museum. The exhibit opened Thursday and runs through Jan. 31. Next up: A Nov. 7 bike ride from A.D. Barnes Park at Bird Road south to Southwest 80th Street along the trail.

The rail corridor, Florida East Coast’s South Little River Branch Line, dates to the early 1930s and was used for cargo service until 2004.

FECI agreed to co-sponsor the events when its CEO, Vincent Signorello, went for a ride on the trail with other company officials.

“We all went out and it was a great day. It really crystallized the idea of getting some events going to activate the trail,” said Alfred Lurigados, director of corporate development at FECI. “People will be able to touch it, ride it, walk it.”

FECI and the Friends group, which includes planners and architects with substantial experience with similar projects, will also soon begin incremental improvements to the trail, most of which no longer has train tracks. Using a combination of volunteers and hired crews, they plan to replace invasive plants and trees with native species, and build temporary landscaped trail segments with formal entrances, directional signage and marked crossings at street intersections.

“It’s exceeded my expectations,” said Friends chairman Anthony Garcia of the group’s relationship with FECI. “There is a lot of excitement and anticipation now.”

Because scientists have found endangered Florida bonneted bats along the trail, the county plan also calls for erection of bat boxes to serve as roosting spots for the rare and elusive animals, which are federally protected.

The rail corridor, Florida East Coast’s South Little River Branch Line, dates to the early 1930s and was used for cargo service until 2004. Since then, the land has lain fallow. Tracks remain north of Southwest 12th Street only. The corridor is 100 feet wide for most of its length, though it narrows to 78 feet in some areas.

The county has long eyed the corridor, which runs through some of Miami’s densest urban and suburban neighborhoods, for transportation use, and at one point considered it for a bus rapid-transit route. The idea now is the line would serve not just for recreation, but for short errands and commuting by bike since it runs through or near residential areas, shopping centers, offices and numerous schools and parks.

The county plan would also require that the Ludlam Trail be connected to the M-Path running along South Dixie Highway beneath the elevated Metrorail tracks. A separate effort now under way aims to transform the scruffy, lightly used M-Path, which connects Dadeland to the Miami River, into a 10-mile-long landscaped linear park and bikeway dubbed the Underline. Advocates note that the Ludlam Trail could eventually connect to planned riverfront trails, completing an extensive urban cycling, walking and running loop.

Under current land-use rules for the corridor, FECI could build some 582 housing units and 250,000 square feet of industrial development anywhere along its 70-plus acres. The county plan would significantly boost those numbers, but, unlike the original FECI plan, restricts development to about 15 acres in four delineated areas — at Bird, Southwest Eighth, Coral Way and the Blue Lagoon area. The density and character of new development would match the surroundings, and FECI doesn’t get the additional development if the trail is not built.

FECI and Friends officials say development of the full trail is likely to take years, and say some significant work remains to be done.

But, added FECI’s Lurigados, “I’m confident that, little by little, we’ll get this done.”