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Written by Adam Schachner -- BT Contributor   
July 2013

The large number of parking lots downtown, and our dependence on them, is holding back our development

NPix_AdamSchachner_7-13othing illuminates traffic hell like Biscayne Boulevard during an event at the American Airlines Arena -- especially a Miami Heat game.

Metromover stations are within cursing distance of the arena, but drivers overlook free transit for the comfort of their cars, perhaps believing that driving is more convenient, even while shelling out upwards of $20 for gas and parking. For major events at the arena, they may spend $50, only to expend absurd amounts of time and energy, and to endure even more congestion.

We have a peculiar situation along Biscayne Boulevard near the arena. For several hours a week, this property is the most desirable real estate for a majority of Miami’s independent “investors” -- the game-going public. Fierce competition erupts during arena events as drivers scramble to stake temporary claims on downtown real estate.

Yet these parking lots are occupied for fewer hours each week than most people work in a day.

According to the Miami Downtown Development Authority, as of 2011 downtown (from Brickell to Edgewater) hosted a resident population of 71,600, and a daytime workforce of more than 200,000. Between public-transit commuters, workplace garages, and residential parking, downtown’s population would seem to have adequate parking accommodations. At least, that’s what the predominantly empty lots along Biscayne Boulevard suggest.

The nighttime clamor to use these spaces is clearly profitable for the lot owners. While these properties come with associated expenses, the fact that they contain no buildings or other facilities limits costs for maintaining what are essentially unoccupied asphalt slabs. Then game night arrives and they are instant income. Miami’s driving culture only reinforces the notion that the lots are more valuable undeveloped than developed.

The Miami-Dade County Appraiser’s Website provides surprising information on the values associated with downtown’s empty lots. The numbers inspire serious contemplation: A majority of the parking lots near the Freedom Tower (and the arena) have changed hands in the past few years for sums in excess of $20-$30 million.

Development has returned to the area in a big way, and some of the deliberately underdeveloped spaces around the arena are commanding prices comparable to properties in Brickell. Meanwhile, the Brickell boom has created a “major parking problem,” as a Daily Business Review article stated in June, which also indicated that the area’s “pronounced recovery is hindered by the absence of public parking.”

Jaime Correa, an architect who has worked around the world and the Knight Professor for Community Building in the University of Miami’s Suburb and Town Design program, says this: “The problem with parking is not parking itself. The problem is deeper than that. The real problem is that our contemporary cities have been designed in increments that contain one use and one use only. We put all our government buildings in one place; our high-density residential buildings in another; our midsize buildings in another. Our schools are located in the middle of nowhere. Our recreational areas are leftover spaces. We lack legible public space.”

In a column for the BT this past December (“The Power of Thinking Small”), former Brickell/Downtown correspondent Craig Chester observed that “presently, popular destinations like the Arsht Center and American Airlines Arena sit on islands lacking any integration with their surroundings,” and wondered whether event-goers were likely to visit other downtown attractions. His conclusion: “The answer is probably not, if the walking conditions are as uninviting as they currently are.”

An eyesore and deterrent to foot traffic, these vacant lots surely have better uses while they remain undeveloped. Miami is enjoying a surge in farmers markets, food trucks, art festivals, and outdoor events requiring accessible terrain. Yet downtown has not effectively claimed such opportunities -- with one notable exception: Grand Central Park.

The brainchild of downtown property owner Brad Knoefler, the park (named after Knoefler’s nearby nightclub) sits on the site of the former Miami Arena. The five-acre park has become a popular public space -- on private property, but built mainly with public money. However, Grand Central’s days are numbered. Late last year it was purchased by developers who see potential for a different kind of green on that spot.

Picture a downtown where open spaces aren’t used solely for car storage on game nights. These parking lots should be a coveted commodity during the day and on the arena’s off nights.

Consider the possibilities for sports tournaments and league events should more vacant land be repurposed. One example: Miami has its own women’s roller derby squad, the Vice City Rollers, but they are forced to compete on a roller rink at the Palmetto Golf Course in far south Miami-Dade.

The last few minutes of a Heat game -- especially one that’s already been decided on the scoreboard -- speak volumes on the issue. Spectators in courtside seats disappear during the fourth quarter. These fans have most likely spent half my year’s rent on their tickets, but abandon the full return on their investment to beat the rush to the parking lots. They’ve escaped to their cars, road warriors paying a semester’s worth of tuition in parking, gasoline, and tickets for games they do not watch all the way to the end -- because of traffic.

Alternatively, spectators commuting by public transit maximize their ticket purchases. While access to fixed-rail transportation is embarrassingly bad throughout Miami, an irony of our deplorable transit structure is that the limits of train travel do not apply to Heat games.

The American Airlines Arena is among the few attractions that can easily be reached by public transit, one leg of which is free of charge. Parking at Metrorail stations costs $4, and each trip is $2. Rail commuters pay remarkably less to get to games than those who park, and they don’t have to leave early to beat the traffic.

Miami’s civic leaders should listen to Correa’s formulation of a viable cityscape without dependence on parking, especially given the options we have for alternative transportation. His vision resonates: “Less parking is not a sign of lack. Less parking is a sign of intellectual and real development. Less parking is not a curse; it is a blessing.”

Downtown attractions interspersed among parking lots, such as the future Perez Art Museum Miami and the Museum of Science, are gathering places and beautification efforts. Still, these islands of urban progress are being created amid a sprawl of asphalt and emptiness.

From preseason to last month’s NBA championship, the Heat played a total of 59 games at home. That leaves 306 days and nights when most of those parking lots could be used for something other than cars. Ideas? Send them to us.

 

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