|It’s Time to Walk the Walk|
|Written by Christian Cipriani -- BT Contributor|
Imagine 15 miles of public walkway along Biscayne Bay and the Miami River
After decades of wishful thinking and false starts, portions of a waterfront esplanade linking Miami’s bayfront neighborhoods are slowly falling into place amid renewed governmental and public support.
Last month the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce hosted a presentation by Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, a founding principal of urban planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ) and longtime dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture (she recently relinquished that position after 18 years).
At the luncheon she shared highlights from the School of Architecture’s 84-page On the Waterfront study, which outlines plans for a continuous 15-mile walkway along Biscayne Bay. It would stretch from Alice Wainwright Park, just below the Rickenbacker Causeway, to the north end of Edgewater, with a deep diversion inland along the banks of the Miami River.
Among the most vocal supporters at the luncheon were members of the hospitality industry. It’s in their interest, she noted, for tourists to walk out of hotels and interact with the water, rather than just hop in a taxi. Moving with great urgency is a Miami hallmark; a baywalk would bring the lost art of calm wandering not only to visitors but also to locals.
The City of Miami considered ideas from On the Waterfront when compiling its own unified baywalk recommendations, which it presented to the public in April. The city’s vision, however, involves serious compromises in the name of immediate implementation, like snaking foot traffic away from the water (at times all the way to Biscayne Boulevard) to avoid private property.
With so many critical gaps remaining, one might hardly notice that more than five miles of publicly accessible waterfront walkways currently exist in the City of Miami. Much of the forward movement is coming through new developments along the Miami River Greenway that will include public walkways, and the Museum Park area, which benefits greatly from being public land. The same cannot be said for challenging, built-up areas like Edgewater, where so many older condos occupy the waterfront.
In spite of everyone’s best intentions, a continuous baywalk presents many issues -- especially around public-private property ownership. Among the most difficult to solve is how to persuade residents of condominiums built before 1979 to turn their private land into a public thoroughfare. Since that year, waterfront developments in the City of Miami have been obligated to provide a paved and landscaped public walkway within a 50-foot public easement (to the building, not the property line).
The hope is that if these older buildings see neighbors get involved, they’ll feel pressure to not be the holdout that breaks the chain. This is what Plater-Zyberk describes as the first step toward significant cultural change: See an example of the goal you want to achieve, remove the barriers, make it happen, and then regulate the process for future replication.
Last month the BT also spoke with Spencer Crowley, the Miami-Dade County representative to the Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND). FIND is an independent special taxing district of the state, and one of its missions is to provide matching grants to local governments for waterfront improvement projects.
Most of these grants are under $1 million, but because they’re based on each municipality’s tax revenue, it could theoretically grant Miami-Dade County up to $6 million per year in matching support. Among FIND’s more visible achievements was funding seawall reconstruction around the Miami Circle after it began eroding into the river. It also subsidized the city’s purchase of land along the Little River for Manatee Bend Park.
FIND gave a total of $5.8 million in grants toward waterfront projects at Parcel B (behind American Airlines Arena), Bicentennial Park, and the FEC Slip, covering the costs of seawall design, permitting, and construction. They’re now helping to fund landscaping, lighting, and other improvements to the new baywalk next door at Museum Park.
This is the context in which Crowley discusses some of the baywalk’s many financial, legal, and political complications. He sees the city’s zigzag plans as a “realistic” solution when considering older bayfront properties. “It’s hard to place such big demands on private property owners,” he says.
But Crowley is working with stakeholders to close gaps in the baywalk one by one, starting with the Miami Women’s Club. The City of Miami recently applied for a $150,000 matching grant from FIND to link the Double Tree Grand Hotel to Margaret Pace Park, along the club’s waterfront property line.
Crowley actually calls a continuous baywalk in the city’s core, from SE 15th Road in Brickell north to Margaret Pace Park, “immediately achievable.”
“I think we’re close to eliminating the last impediments in a central area, and the opportunity to achieve a connected baywalk is very real,” he says. Echoing Plater-Zyberk’s theory about how significant cultural changes come to pass, Crowley points to Museum Park’s baywalk as a potential benchmark that others will emulate: “Once Museum Park opens, we’re going to have something really great that will help convince people of the possibilities.”
At the city’s April public input meeting, two options were brought up to deal with old properties that won’t adapt anytime soon: A walkway cantilevered out over the bay was dismissed as too expensive, and a floating walkway or “dock” system was labeled environmentally unsound. Floating docks feature prominently in On the Waterfront, and regulations in fact only stipulate that a dock must let through 50 percent of sunlight to nourish the sea grass.
The real impediment to building out from the seawall is ownership of the bay bottom. Some private condos already own a portion of the bay in front of them, but as Crowley explained, it’s more commonly owned by the State of Florida, and largely protected from local development by the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve Act.
There have been several recent attempts by local municipalities to get around the act by lobbying for exemptions. In both 2011 and 2012, the City of Miami Beach went to the state legislature seeking a limited exemption (about ten feet out into the water) so the city could build a baywalk from Lincoln Road to South Pointe Park. However, without vigorous lobbying, there just wasn’t the political will to make it happen.
Similarly, North Bay Village has the chance to create a waterfront node at the end of North Bay Island, around a proposed eight-story condo development, but it would take an exemption to allow anyone to build out into the bay. This is unlikely to happen.
Even without ownership and legislative issues, an over-the-water baywalk would come up against regulatory issues. Despite dock/walkway designs that allow sunlight through, and On the Waterfront’s plans for planting lots of mangroves -- which could arguably create a net positive environmental impact -- some worried activists won’t tolerate any exemption from the protections of the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve Act.
Much of On the Waterfront also recommends significant new landscaping, with a heavy investment in shade trees. This is a serious quality-of-life issue in Miami. Despite being one of America’s most sun-beaten cities, it repeatedly fails to offer shade trees in many public spaces. Priority is instead given to iconic yet useless palm trees (at great expense, too, especially for Royal Palms). Yet it’s a misconception that only palms thrive in this climate. To see how dense, shaded, and diverse Miami’s plant life can be, talk a walk through Greynolds Park.
The problem, Plater-Zyberk notes, is that not everyone values trees. Some decision-makers see them as messy, high-maintenance, and susceptible to bugs and disease. She also suggests the existence of a more basic gap: “A lot of people here are coming from very paved places, where green spaces are not part of their cultural values.”
But cultural shifts are indeed happening around Miami, evidenced by a growing willingness to make significant investments in landmark projects like performing arts centers, sports complexes, and museums. Remember that Manhattan wasn’t designed around Central Park. It was a radical retrofit spearheaded by well-funded visionaries. It will take the same level of vision and financial commitment to bring to life a complete, uncompromising baywalk that Miami can herald as a landmark.
“In the history of American cities, many of our important places of gathering an identity were produced after-the-fact,” Plater-Zyberk says. “Almost anything you look at is an incremental aggregation of private, often speculative, development.”
The rapid booms and busts of frenetic, private, and extremely speculative development have defined Miami. Now, however, may be the time to fire up the collective will and forge the city around a new mold -- a thriving, iconic, 15-mile baywalk. Our own linear, waterfront Central Park.
On the Waterfront, Jacob Brillhart, principal author, with contributions by Victor Santana and Brett Bibeau, can be downloaded here: arc.miami.edu/images/uploads/UM_OnTheWaterfront.pdf.
Volume 13, Issue 7, September 2015
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