The shovels are finally hitting the pavement on Flagler in downtown Miami, nearly two years after city officials agreed to undertake a total reconstruction that’s meant to restore the tatty but storied byway to its rightful place as the city’s glittering Main Street.
Work has just begun on what’s expected to be a two-year, $13 million streetscape project, starting at the Miami-Dade County Courthouse and proceeding in 13 stages all the way to Biscayne Boulevard.
By the time the job is done, Flagler’s cracked, stained, slanted and narrow sidewalks, its scrawny-to-nonexistent greenery and its notoriously backup-prone gutters will be history, replaced by 150 shady oaks, new lighting and stormwater drains, and sidewalks twice as wide to accommodate the cafe tables and shoppers that the project’s backers expect the new street to attract.
On Thursday, the Miami City Commission approved the last bit of funding for the project, $920,000 for an upgraded drainage system and removal of old abandoned pipes that have been sitting beneath Flagler Street’s pavement for decades.
The street project’s timing seems especially fortuitous. It comes as New York entrepreneur and developer Moishe Mana has amassed what the website The Real Deal has tallied at nearly $200 million worth of properties on or abutting Flagler, with the idea of turning the street, which has long functioned as a down-market, discount-shop strip, into a restaurant, cultural and retail destination, all while preserving its historic low scale.
That combination of public improvements and private enterprise is what worked magic in places like Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive and Lincoln Road Mall, where the Flagler Street project’s backers note street and sidewalk improvements set the stage for a dramatic revitalization. That’s what they hope to replicate in downtown Miami.
“It’s really exciting,” said Brian Alonso, whose family owns the upscale La Epoca department store in the historic Walgreens building and the newer Lost Boy Dry Goods clothing shop in the also-historic DuPont building, both on Flagler. “Streetscape projects can transform an area. On Ocean, when you had Tony Goldman assembling property and the streetscape improvements at the same time, you had something transformative. You have something similar happening here. Mana can single-handedly change the area.”
Mana, who recently submitted plans for a massive, ambitious and controversial multi-use redevelopment in Wynwood, has been publicly coy about his precise plans for Flagler. But a video his company released in the fall shows refurbished buildings along Flagler, some occupied by rooftop lounges and restaurants. In the video, Mana calls Flagler Street a “Cinderella” that merely needs a new dress to reveal her beauty.
“Downtown is the future of Miami,” Mana says.
It’s also, of course, ground zero for Miami’s past, the spot where the Tequesta Indians settled and where oil and railroad tycoon Henry Flagler founded the modern-day city in 1896.
Through the 1950s, the stretch of Flagler between Biscayne Bay and the Miami River was the city’s principal commercial and entertainment district and gathering place, drawing throngs to its shops, restaurants and movie theaters. But as suburban sprawl drained away its vitality and importance, property owners turned to cut-rate businesses and fast-food outlets catering to tourists that shut down at 5 p.m., turning Flagler into a ghost town after dark. Those shops, too, have been disappearing in recent years, leaving behind vacant storefronts and deteriorated buildings.
Downtown’s condo boom, though, has begun reversing the trend, and new restaurants and shops have begun popping up along the street, though wholesale changes have been slow to come.
The streetscape project is backed by the city’s Downtown Development Authority and local property owners, who agreed to contribute $1 million toward its cost. It’s designed to accelerate redevelopment by making Flagler much more oriented to pedestrians. To allow the widening of sidewalks, most on-street parking will be eliminated and replaced by valet stations. New and improved crosswalks will make getting across Flagler, now often a dicey proposition, far easier and safer. Simple U-shaped bike racks will provide convenient parking for the growing number of cyclists traversing downtown.
Special gates, designed to recall railroad crossings and Henry Flagler’s trains, will allow the street to be closed for special events. The street redesign is by Curtis + Rogers Design Studio of South Miami.
The project is funded by $6 million from a Miami-Dade County economic development fund and $6 million from the city of Miami, in addition to the special assessment of $1 million from property owners.
The project was twice delayed — once when no bidders responded to the first advertisement, and the proposal had to be redrafted, then a second time when engineers realized that designs for the new drainage system were inadequate and had to be upgraded, said Alonso, who’s a member of a task force overseeing development of the project for the DDA.
But the city and contractor FH Pashen are promising to move quickly and with as few disruptions to businesses as possible. Access to businesses will not be restricted. The first phase will be done within 60 days, and some of the coming stages may be combined to accelerate work, Alonso said.
In the end, he said, the wait will be worth it for downtown workers, residents and business owners.
“It’s going to be really nice for cafes, restaurant and strolling in the evenings,” said Alonso.