Op-Ed

Miami urban core needs more attention

TNS

Miami’s rising stature as a global tourism and business destination has catapulted our downtown into the top tier of the world’s hotel markets.

Downtown Miami is now home to more four- and five-star properties per capita than any other Florida market and a 2014 Bloomberg survey ranked our city’s hotel rates among the world’s highest — surpassing New York, Hong Kong, London and Paris. Research shows the market is strengthening: Miami-Dade hotels set records for room rates and overall occupancy in February 2015, according to STR research.

Our urban core’s emergence as a business and leisure travel destination is by no means accidental. Billions of dollars have been spent on the creation of new cultural and entertainment venues, trendy restaurants and nightlife options, and towering office buildings housing some of the largest companies in the world.

Downtown hotel operators are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the development of new properties — and improvements to existing ones — in an effort to keep pace with surging tourist demand.

These investments are paying off. The InterContinental Miami, which was the first luxury hotel built in downtown during the modern era, underwent $30 million in upgrades in 2012. We’ve since experienced our three highest-performing years in the hotel’s 30-year history, measured by occupancy, the number of events hosted onsite and overall revenue.

For all the progress being fueled by private development in and around downtown Miami, the greatest threat to long-term tourism growth may be our city’s insufficient infrastructure, which has failed to keep up with our growing urban core.

Downtown’s population has doubled since 2000, businesses are adding employees each day, and the number of visitors to our urban core is rising annually. But much of this progress is null if we don’t plan responsibly and enact changes at street-level.

Our downtown sidewalks and green spaces are inadequate given the growth underway; traffic along major arteries in our urban core is constantly halted by rising drawbridges; and members of the downtown workforce residing in some suburban neighborhoods — including many of the more than 600 people who work at our hotel — lack connectivity to downtown via mass transit.

Initiatives like CitiBike and the Brickell-Biscayne trolley have provided incremental relief, but additional investment is needed. Several projects under consideration will go a long way toward alleviating traffic, improving the pedestrian experience and providing alternate entry points into downtown beyond highways like I-95 and I-395.

Connecting Tri-Rail to All Aboard Florida’s downtown Miami station would create instant connectivity between our state’s largest employment district and fast-growing populations in northwest Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. This project, now shovel-ready and awaiting funding, will reduce traffic and encourage the use of public transit.

The proposed Baylink light rail system between downtown and South Beach will create a car-free connection between two of Florida’s top tourism destinations while streamlining the daily commute for employees who traverse Biscayne Bay by car. Funding for this project remains elusive, but all options — including a possible partnership between the public and private sectors — deserve consideration.

Bayfront Park is downtown’s largest green space, yet the 30-acre park sits lifeless most days, a large divide separating downtown from the waterfront. More effort should be directed to activating the park through programming, special events and completion of the Baywalk promenade from Margaret Pace Park and East Edgewater south to Brickell.

Likewise, creating new public spaces throughout the urban core will attract visitors and pedestrians, provide amenities for area residents and connect downtown’s streets with Biscayne Bay, much the same way as Millennium Park has revived the Chicago lakefront.

Public sector investments in critical projects like these will accommodate continued tourism growth while enhancing quality of life for those living and working in downtown.

Robert Hill serves as general manager of the InterContinental Miami hotel, which employs more than 600 people and welcomes 500,000 visitors annually.

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