‘Racists’ or sensible growth? Hialeah and Miami Lakes feud over unopened bridges

Thunderstorms were brewing and rush-hour traffic was near its peak, but Miami Lakes had no time to waste for the ceremonial groundbreaking of a small park being built with a counterattack in mind.

The 6,000-square-foot wedge of grass off a cul-de-sac sits between 154th Street to the east and an abandoned highway overpass to the west, built decades ago above I-75 but never opened to traffic.

On the other side of that bridge, Hialeah leaders and residents are demanding Florida and Miami-Dade open the overpass and let traffic flow through.

“We can’t be car-centric,” Miami Lakes Mayor Manny Cid said after the Aug. 28 launch of “Bridge Park,” which would block space for a roadway connecting to the overpass, which the county’s Public Works Department has already recommended opening. “There’s no capacity.”

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Miami Lakes Mayor Manny Cid speaks at a hastily convened ground-breaking ceremony on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019, for Bridge Park, a public space the town hopes will foil plans to open an unused highway overpass behind the park site. Miami Lakes, Jessica Ferralls

Cid and the other members of the Miami Lakes Town Council had given final approval of the $200,000 park project only the night before, the latest move in an escalating war over suburban bridges that has sparked accusations of racism, broken deals with ties to the planned American Dream mega-mall, and threats of overpass retaliation.

If Miami Lakes won’t agree to the opening of both 154th Street and another shuttered I-75 overpass at 170th Street, then Hialeah wants to teach its neighbor a lesson by shutting down an I-75 bridge that’s already a functioning overpass, this one on 87th Avenue. The Hialeah City Council passed a resolution on Aug. 27 urging Florida to close the overpass over the “myopic” view of Miami Lakes toward regional highway connectivity.

Days after Miami Lakes held its last-minute groundbreaking for Bridge Park, Hialeah resident Eddie Santiesteban stood on the western side of the closed overpass, blocks from his home in one of the city’s newest subdivisions. A stream of trucks from an expanding industrial park rumbled down the single access road that dead ends near a construction site where more buildings are being assembled.

“Would you want to buy my house with only one way in and one way out? It’s a danger zone,” asked Santiesteban, an advertising executive who bought his family’s townhouse in 2014, when the area was still mostly undeveloped. “Safety is the key. I have two kids. What if I have to leave in an emergency?”

Behind the debate over the bridge crossings sits a prickly subtext of suburban gripes, struggles and sensitivities.

The second-largest municipality in the county behind Miami, Hialeah is a working-class city with a median income of about $31,000. That’s less than half the $73,000 the median household income in Miami Lakes, a town of fewer than 30,000 people. About 96 percent of Hialeah residents are of Hispanic origin, according to Census data, compared to 85 percent in Miami Lakes.

Carlos Hernandez, Hialeah’s mayor since 2011, sees class warfare at work when some in Miami Lakes object to more opportunities for traffic to flow between the two municipalities.

“We’re friendly neighbors. I have a lot of respect for the government of Miami Lakes,” Hernandez said before a crowd of about 400 people gathered on a Wednesday evening in the Aragon subdivision for a meeting on the bridges. “But I’ve made it very clear, too. There’s a small group in Miami Lakes who don’t like us. They’re racists. That’s the reality.”

Hialeah approved expanded zoning of the land by the overpasses between 2014 and 2016, and the area is now home to subdivisions with more than 2,000 units.

Those homes, along with a new industrial park, rely on Northwest 97th Avenue as their lone access road. It runs past 154th Street and closes to traffic near 170th Street. That leaves Santiesteban and other residents to drive south to 138th Street before they can head east to Miami Lakes and beyond.

Miami Lakes is a planned community assembled out of cow pastures by the Graham Companies in the 1960s. Designed by former Harvard architecture dean Lester Collins, the town’s curving roads and commercial center were designed as a model of the New Urbanism movement. Its slogan today reads “Growing Beautifully.”

Diane Reyes lives on a one-way street that connects with 170th Street on the Miami Lakes side, one block from where the overpass ends. She’s confident the quiet suburban life in her neighborhood will vanish if Miami-Dade opens a new east-west thoroughfare nearby.

“On Halloween, we’re pretty much all out on the streets. I don’t think that will happen again,” the hotel investor said at a recent town hall meeting on the overpass conflict. On future overpass traffic, she said: “Imagine taking a champagne bottle, shaking it, and then opening it. That’s basically what you’re doing.”

Lorenzo Cobiella, deputy town attorney for Miami Lakes, said municipal planners have rightly assumed that 154th Street would remain a dead-end street serving nearby roads, not a major east-west thoroughfare. “That was designed as a municipal road,” he said. “It’s not made to handle that kind of traffic.”

When Miami-Dade wanted to move its urban development boundary farther west in 2006 to accommodate Hialeah’s request for more growth, Miami Lakes objected. A sticking point was the possibility of the 154th Street overpass opening to traffic once the new subdivisions went up under the more permissive zoning rules that come with land moving inside the county’s development zone.

The expansion north of 170th Street, the lone boundary change to win County Commission approval that year, would end up clearing the way for the largest project in Miami-Dade history. The land, owned by the Graham Companies, is part of the development site set to hold the American Dream Miami retail theme park, a six-million-square-foot project planned by Triple Five, the owner of Minnesota’s Mall of America.

The 175-acre mall project is planned to rise on land off 180th Street. A commercial and residential development by the Graham Companies, which sold Triple Five part of the American Dream site, is planned just to the south, off 170th Street.

An aerial view of a closed bridge on Northwest 154th Street linking Hialeah to Miami Lakes on Thursday, September 12, 2019. Members of a neighborhood in Hialeah are asking Miami-Dade County officials to open the bridge that would connect their community to Miami Lakes. They say the bridge would give their neighborhood a second outlet for traffic and emergency vehicles. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

To end Miami Lakes’ opposition to the 2006 expansion, Hialeah agreed to join its neighbor in support of keeping the 154th Street overpass closed. Under then-Mayor Julio Robaina, the Hialeah City Council in 2007 passed a resolution prohibiting Hialeah from advocating for opening the state-owned overpass.

Now, with a new mayor and new council members, Hialeah wants to reverse course. On Sept. 3, the City Council approved a resolution saying irreversible positions lead to “tyranny” and asked Hialeah lawyers to explore the best way to repeal the 2007 agreement.

Even with the agreement in place, the terms may not matter. Florida owns both bridges. To open them, Florida plans to turn over authority of the structures to Miami-Dade County, which then would take the necessary steps to let traffic flow over them.

“The decision of closing roads and traffic engineering ... that authority is retained by the county,” Miami-Dade assistant county attorney Bruce Libhaber told the Aragon residents’ meeting when asked about the looming Miami Lakes legal challenge. “We frankly don’t see much merit to what Miami Lakes is pursuing.”

For Cid, that position ignores the central role the 154th deal played in Miami-Dade expanding its Urban Development Boundary. “There was an agreement back in 2005 that needs to be honored,” he said. “All parties, including the county, were well aware of it.”

Miami Lakes hasn’t found much help at the county level.

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Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez addresses a meeting of residents about the city’s push to open overpasses on 154th and 170th streets on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019. Miami Lakes, on the other side of the bridges, is trying to build a park to block opening of the 154th Street overpass. To his left is Pedro Portela, an executive of Lennar, which built developments near the overpasses, and to his right are Miami-Dade commissioners Jose “Pepe” Diaz and Esteban “Steve” Bovo. BY DOUGLAS HANKS dhanks@miamiherald.com

In 2017, the Miami-Dade County Commission approved a resolution that endorsed opening the 170th Street bridge, which isn’t part of the original agreement between Hialeah and Miami Lakes.

“What we have in this area right now is a lobster trap,” Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo said in sponsoring the resolution, citing the lone access road serving the subdivisions west of I-75. “We need to be realistic. We do not build bridges just to let them sit there.”

Eduardo Lavin, an accountant and president of the Aragon homeowners association, said property owners on the Hialeah side of the bridges shouldn’t be blamed for counting on traffic relief from the tax-funded overpasses.

“We bought into the idea that these would eventually open,” he said. “They’re not going to be monuments. It’s common sense.”

Florida built the two overpasses as part of an I-75 extension funded in the 1980s. It was up to local governments to connect the bridges to nearby roads, but Miami-Dade never did, said Ivette Ruiz-Paz, a spokeswoman for the local Florida Department of Transportation office. Keeping them closed has been a longtime demand of Miami Lakes, with the issue flaring up whenever large-scale development comes to the area.

Bovo, who represents parts of Hialeah and Miami Lakes, supports opening 170th but has remained neutral on 154th, saying he supports the park idea but also doesn’t want traffic harmed by keeping the overpass closed. “Long term, I think both sides are going to want this bridge open,” he said of the 154th Street overpass.

Triple Five and the Graham Companies both won county approval for their developments in 2018 with traffic plans that assumed the bridges would remain closed, and representatives said they had no interest in seeing the overpasses activated. But Hialeah cited the American Dream project in an August resolution justifying the opening of the 170th Street overpass.

A 2017 county traffic study predicted the mall and Graham projects would mean a surge of traffic for both bridges. Without those developments, the 154th Street overpass — if opened — would see 240 vehicles an hour during morning rush hour heading from Miami Lakes west to Hialeah. With the two projects, that forecast soars to 1,145 vehicles an hour — about 19 a minute.

Miami-Dade is moving toward opening the bridges, with a legal fight likely from Miami Lakes. The town has already launched arbitration with the county regarding the overpasses, a required prelude to a lawsuit.

The projected popularity of the overpasses led the county analysts to recommend opening both bridges with or without the two projects, saying the lack of I-75 crossings in the area puts too much pressure on neighborhood roads like Miami Gardens Drive. That will only get worse as new projects bring more drivers to the area.

“The analysis shows levels of service are going to deteriorate significantly due to all the new committed developments coming to the area in the next five years if no roadway improvements are made,” read the report by the county’s Public Works division. “Both bridges provide a much needed alternate route. ... The benefits from connecting these missing roadway segments would result in an improvement to mobility in the area.”

Miami Lakes hired the Lochner engineering firm to conduct its own traffic study, which produced a split verdict. The 2018 report recommended opening the 170th Street overpass while leaving the 154th Street bridge closed.

That result mostly tracks with the Miami Lakes strategy, which puts the 154th Street bridge at the center of the fight. At a recent Town Council meeting, board members called the new Bridge Park a key component of their planned legal fight to keep the overpass closed.

The groundbreaking ceremony covered only the city-owned portion of a larger park plan designed to provide a permanent alternative to cars and trucks crossing the 154th Street bridge.

Several years ago, Miami Lakes commissioned plans for a larger “linear” park that the town wants to build all the way across the overpass, a more modest version of New York’s High Line park over an old rail bridge.

The 30-acre city park would include a broad bike and pedestrian path, benches, trees for shade above one of the busiest highways in Miami-Dade. The idea, according to the Land Collective architectural firm that Miami Lakes hired to design the park, is to promote “connectivity between Miami Lakes and Hialeah communities, using infrastructure for social purpose.”

In a letter last year, Florida’s Department of Transportation warned about the dangers of having a park environment over I-75, saying proposed fencing might not stop “projectiles” and frowning on the idea of strollers peering over the bridge to look at traffic below. Florida said it could endorse a pedestrian walkway for the overpass, but wanted Miami Lakes to get agreement from Miami-Dade for its plans.

Hialeah did endorse the the linear park in a 2015 vote, but now plans to undo that position as it reverses course on the overpass in general. County lawyers point out Hialeah’s stand is largely irrelevant, since it’s Miami-Dade that has final say on the bridges once Florida turns over control.

With dueling traffic conclusions from Miami Lakes and Miami-Dade, the county wants a third, joint study to get a final analysis on 154th Street. But Miami Lakes is balking at that plan as it inches closer to litigation.

“We’re moving forward with the park, no matter what. There’s a sign out there. We’ve done soil testing. Drainage is going in very soon,” Cid said. “If there’s no settlement, then we’ll definitely be seeking for the issue to be cured in the courts.”

This post was updated to clarify the title of Lorenzo Cobiella, deputy town attorney for Miami Lakes.

Doug Hanks covers Miami-Dade government for the Herald. He’s worked at the paper for nearly 20 years, covering real estate, tourism and the economy before joining the Metro desk in 2014.
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