Traffic

In downtown Miami’s Brickell, rising towers loom over choking traffic

Brickell construction gridlocks traffic

Construction in Miami's Brickell district affects traffic, workers and businesses. Video by Marsha Halper / Miami Herald staff
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Construction in Miami's Brickell district affects traffic, workers and businesses. Video by Marsha Halper / Miami Herald staff

Amid the stunning rebirth of this new Brickell into a high-rise condo farm works a man who has poured drinks on the same block of real estate for 20 years.

Bartender Johnny Fernandez used to crack cheap beers and turn up whiskey bottles late into the night at iconic Tobacco Road. When the oldest bar in Miami closed its doors for good last year, Fernandez didn’t go far for a new job. He’s now just a few doors down at The River Oyster Bar.

In other words, he works on the corner of what might be the most chaotic intersection in downtown. Miami Avenue and Southeast Seventh Street is an active construction zone with the enormous Brickell City Centre going up all around Fernandez’s familiar haunts. To the north is the Miami River, and to the south is all of Brickell, or what might simply be called Miami’s construction district.

“It’s like a whole different world,” said Fernandez while topping off a popular local craft beer, M.I.A. IPA. “It’s New York with all the high-rises.”

The River Oyster Bar serves up a great lunch that features stuffed clams and fried oyster buns. Not that many people would know it. Like many small businesses in Brickell living through the area’s transformation, this inviting restaurant struggles during the day. A combination of hellish traffic, limited parking, construction dust, and noise, noise, noise, constant noise is keeping people away from Brickell.

Construction in Miami's Brickell district affects traffic, workers and businesses. Video by Marsha Halper / Miami Herald staff

Compound these growing pains with a disabled bridge and it’s no wonder Fernandez, a Miami native, is at least halfway entertaining the idea of moving to Tavernier, or one of the other spots along the Upper Keys. The northbound lanes of the Miami River Bridge have been closed for months, and those familiar with the bridge’s refurbishment say it could be finished by October. The current contract — it has already been extended once — runs through December.

Fernandez’s bar is positioned on the northernmost edge of hardhat land. A few blocks south is the belly of the beast. Mary Brickell Village is now surrounded on all sides — north, south, east, west and nearly every direction in between — by towering construction. In all, 12 new towers are under construction in Brickell with eight on the way, according to CraneSpotters.com.

Sergio Miranda is a manager at the restaurant Dolores But You Can Call Me Lolita, 1000 S. Miami Ave. He lives in The Roads, which is only a few blocks west of downtown, but the commute takes about 35 minutes due to the construction and temporary traffic patterns.

“Ever try to fit into a bottle of Coke?” Miranda said. “That’s what it’s like.”

How long does it take Miranda to drive home at night?

“It’s three minutes on Sunday when everyone is dead and drunk,” he said.

Miranda’s restaurant is across the street from the future construction site of another condo project, Brickell Flatiron. Pretty soon his commute could be even worse, and his lunch business even slower. A major part of the current problem in Brickell, say managers of restaurants and businesses, is the lack of parking.

“And it’s getting worse,” Miranda said.

There are fewer lots now, and many of them are being used by construction workers, according to those who work in Mary Brickell Village. Construction workers also park on the street in the mornings, which further reduces the number of people who might visit Brickell.

Luis Atencio, a valet attendant, can race from his stand in Mary Brickell Village to his company’s lot on Brickell Avenue in under a minute. Once there, it can take him 10 minutes to pull a car around Coral Way and up Miami Avenue. It’s barely two-tenths of a mile. Atencio is losing money on both ends. There are fewer parking places, and the traffic snarls limit the number of cars he can valet per hour.

“It’s 50 to 60 percent less in tips,” Atencio said.

When will all the construction be completed? Not anytime soon. The 12 towers currently under construction are all scheduled to be completed by 2017. More will be under construction when those are finished, though. Ultimately, the Miami Downtown Development Authority hopes there will be no end to the construction.

That’s frustrating news for commuters.

“My commute is nine miles from South Miami to the Mary Brickell Village area,” said Don Earle, who works in the Chase building across from Publix. “The first eight miles take me about 15-20 minutes each morning. The last mile, coming down Southwest Third Avenue to 13th Street to South Miami Avenue, takes me about 20 more minutes. It is 100 percent due to blocked off streets caused by construction.”

In addition to the temporary growing pains in Brickell, Earle, like many who work in downtown Miami, is also concerned about the potential for long-lasting logistical problems caused by the real estate boom, not to mention the specter of another collapse in the market. These are exciting times south of the river, to be sure, but just how the city adapts to the changing landscape could be an important factor in the permanent success of the growth. After all, the 12 towers under construction will add a total of 3,625 units in Brickell alone. The eight scheduled for construction will add an additional 2,972 units, according to CraneSpotters.com.

In the last 10 years, the population in downtown has gone from less than 40,000 to more than 80,000, according to the DDA, and those numbers will soon be skyrocketing. With that in mind, a delegation of Miami’s city planners traveled to Denver on Aug. 5-7 for a transportation summit. The goal was to learn how Denver transformed its public transportation infrastructure to accommodate the city’s changing needs. Denver has laid more than 100 miles of light rail in recent years, among other improvements.

Javier Betancourt, deputy chief of the DDA, attended the Denver fly-in “to see how they did it, and also to inspire local officials.”

“We’re building the downtown we’ve all dreamed of,” Betancourt said. “Most people still commute. We really have to start transitioning.”

This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight. Miami Herald reporter Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this story.

TOWERS IN BRICKELL UNDER CONSTRUCTION UNITS FLOORS

Brickell Heights SLS LUX 450 59

Cassa Brickell 81 10

Brickell 10 155 22

Brickell Heights West 332 47

Brickell Heights East 358 49

Le Parc 128 12

Echo Brickell 180 57

SLS Hotel & Residences 453 54

1010 Brickell 387 50

Bond 328 44

Brickell City Centre Rise 390 43

Brickell City Centre Reach 383 43

-Source for list: CraneSpotters.com

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