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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
December 2019

Biscayne Corridor property owners engage in a station turf war

ATrains_1s recently as this past January, Miami-Dade Transit director Alice Bravo told Biscayne Times that after Tri-Rail moves into Virgin MiamiCentral Station, work would begin toward setting up a temporary “demonstration station” on NE 2nd Avenue at the edge of the Miami Design District.

Back then, Tri-Rail was projected to start operating at Virgin MiamiCentral Station by summer. The summer has come and gone, and it’s now apparent that Tri-Rail won’t be using MiamiCentral until sometime after December 2020. And that indefinite delay has caused local officials to begin thinking instead about where the next permanent Tri-Rail station should be built.

On November 14, during a committee meeting on transit issues, Bravo told Miami-Dade County commissioners that creating a temporary station is no longer practical. That’s why the Florida Department of Transportation is now willing to allow a $1.97 million grant -- previously earmarked for a temporary station -- to be used to build a permanent station in the vicinity of Midtown Miami.

“The state is willing to modify the grant to make a permanent station,” said Bravo during the county’s Transportation and Finance Committee meeting.

That news pleases Albert Garcia, chairman of the Wynwood Business Improvement District (BID). For the past 14 months, the Wynwood BID has argued that a future station should accommodate current and potential demand of the Wynwood and Edgewater neighborhoods.

Trains_2Garcia hopes that the next station will be built at the southern end of Midtown Miami, between NE 25th and 27th Street. To help make that dream a reality, the BID has paid at least $25,000 on studies explaining the need for a station in that location. The BID has also garnered support from local property owners who are willing to donate part of their land and contribute funds toward the construction of a Tri-Rail station.

“New businesses and new residential are coming into this area, and we [Edgewater, Midtown Miami, and Wynwood] already receive upward of five to six million annual visitors,” Garcia says. “The streets are not getting any wider, so in order to be able to manage not only current but anticipated growth we aspire to bring to the neighborhood, we have to bring in additional [transit options].”

However, Craig Robins, founder of Dacra and principal developer of the Design District, insists that the area, a 159-acre commercial sector that’s been transformed into a luxury shopping and dining destination, also needs a train station.

“While we feel strongly that the station in the Design District should not be moved, we have no objection to the county building a second station in Wynwood if they feel it is needed,” Robins states in an e-mail to the BT. “Our hope is that our neighbors to the south are not trying to take something away from us in order to benefit themselves.”

A station at both NE 27th Street and on NE 2nd Avenue beneath the I-195/Julia Tuttle Causeway, is probably impractical. According to Steven Abrams, executive director of Tri-Rail’s overseer, South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA), train stations should be at least 2.5 miles apart. The proposed Midtown and Design District stations would be less than one mile apart.

Trains_3Nevertheless, City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has expressed his willingness to make an exception in the case of Midtown Miami. During a November 1 meeting about Tri-Rail, held at Miami City Hall, Suarez argued that the normal rules probably don’t apply to what he called the most densely developed corridor in the southeast United States. “I’d like to see a stop at or near every commercial area,” he said.

The location of a new Tri-Rail station, and how that station would be built, could be discussed by SFRTA board members within the next couple of months, Abrams tells the BT.

“Our next board meeting is December 6, but the agenda is packed, so while I may provide a brief update, I do not anticipate a board discussion until our January 24 meeting,” Abrams explains in an e-mail.

The City of Miami may also soon have a greater say in where train stations can be placed within its municipal boundaries. A resolution, co-sponsored by county Commissioner Xavier Suarez (Francis Suarez’s father) and county Commissioner Jean Monestime, would require the local transportation agency, the Transportation Planning Organization (TPO), to coordinate with Miami city officials in identifying future Tri-Rail station locations. That resolution will likely be heard by the TPO’s board on December 19. (Monestime and both Suarezes are TPO board members.)

A station, or stations, just north of downtown may be the next step toward creating Tri-Rail Coastal Link, the proposed, publicly funded commuter train system that would run from MiamiCentral Station to Jupiter Inlet in Palm Beach County, with as many as 28 stops.

Trains_4But before any commuter-train plan can progress, it will need approval by the railroad tracks’ owner, Florida East Coast Railway (FEC), as well as Virgin Trains USA, a private company that operates the Brightline express train between the downtown areas of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach, and aims to open a station at Orlando International Airport by mid-2022. (Virgin Trains USA has an exclusive easement agreement with FEC.)

In 2014, state, county, and City of Miami officials agreed to allocate $68 million to pay for a rail extension linking the state-owned rail corridor west of I-95, where Tri-Rail now operates, to the FEC railway that runs near Biscayne Boulevard.

The money would also cover the cost of building a Tri-Rail platform within the MiamiCentral complex. Under a 2015 agreement between Tri-Rail and Brightline’s operators, Tri-Rail can set up additional stations along the FEC railway within eight miles of MiamiCentral, pending technical reviews. That northern point is generally considered to be the Y-shaped rail junction at NE 73rd Street and NE 2nd Avenue.

The agreement also requires Tri-Rail to pay Brightline’s operators $1 million for access to the tracks. Abrams says the $1 million will be paid once Tri-Rail is allowed to operate from MiamiCentral, an event that has yet to happen because Virgin Trains and FEC have yet to finish installing Positive Train Control safety technology along the rail corridor, as mandated by the federal government.

Tri-Rail and Virgin Trains also have yet to forge an agreement that would allow Tri-Rail stations north of NE 73rd Street. That hasn’t stopped the Miami-Dade County Commission from investing $72 million toward the construction of a train station at 19700 W. Dixie Highway, just west of Aventura Mall. Under a development agreement approved by the county on October 10, Virgin Trains will use county funds to build the station and a pedestrian bridge that would stretch over W. Dixie Highway and Biscayne Boulevard toward Aventura Mall.

The station itself will be owned by the county. A lease agreement detailing rent has yet to be negotiated. Virgin Trains, meanwhile, is negotiating for the construction of additional train stations in PortMiami, Boca Raton, Disney World, and Tampa.

Still, the Aventura Station development agreement does require Virgin Trains USA to enter into good faith negotiations with a commuter train service that charges rates far lower than the $10-$40 for a ride on Brightline. That includes designing a platform for a future commuter train at Aventura Station. (The logical train service would be Tri-Rail.)

Another effect of the Aventura station deal: It reignited discussions about Tri-Rail Coastal Link. As county Commissioner Estefan Bovo put it during the November 14 committee meeting: “The investment in Aventura sent a shockwave across the entire line.”

Indeed, a few weeks after the Aventura Station deal was consummated, a pair of meetings on future Tri-Rail stations was held at Miami City Hall on November 1, hosted by father-and-son Suarez plus Monestime.

During that meeting, Albert Garcia, Wynwood BID founder David Polinsky, and Edgewater landowner Rick Rammos declared their intention to give land and funds toward the construction of a commuter train platform. They again presented a study that concludes there will be far more residential and commercial development within a half mile of NE 25th Street than there will be within the Miami Design District.

The Wynwood BID pitch was followed by a proposal by Plaza Equities chairman Neil Fairman to build a station at NE 62nd Street for the phased 7.8 million square-foot Magic City Innovation District project slated to be built on 18 acres in Little Haiti.

Commissioner Xavier Suarez made his own pitch -- to have Tri-Rail trains travel along an existing east-west rail link from Miami International Airport toward the Biscayne Corridor, with at least one station at the site of the stalled Poinciana Industrial Park project in the Gladeview-Liberty City area. Suarez’s idea was embraced by Monestime, as well as Al Hardemon, uncle of Miami City Commissioner Keon Hardemon, who declared that such an east-west line would be an “opportunity for Model City and Liberty City.”

The Design District had no representatives at the November 1 meeting. However, attorney Neisen Kadsin did appear on the Design District’s behalf at the county committee meeting, where he argued that a station near NE 36th Street was imperative for a future rapid transit connection between Midtown Miami and Miami Beach. That’s why $2.5 million in state and county funding was originally earmarked for a temporary Design District station on NE 2nd Avenue beneath I-195, he argued.

But Albert Garcia says time is running out. If Tri-Rail’s directors wait any longer, future development may prevent the construction of a new station.

Rick Rammos, co-owner of Bon Vivant Woodworking, says his family is willing to contribute a portion of its land to build a train station. His family owns a controlling interest in Miller Machinery & Supply Company, which has operated in a two-story warehouse at 127 NE 27th St. since the 1930s. And although Bon Vivant moved to Opa-locka last year, the family still owns the two-story building on the south side of 27th Street, which now serves as an office building for such businesses as Metro 1 Properties, Plaza Construction, and Brodson Construction.

Rammos says his family’s property is better suited than the NE 2nd Avenue Design District  site for a train station because they would allow more room for freight and Brightline trains to pass by any Tri-Rail trains that are unloading passengers. That’s why All Aboard Florida, the precursor to Brightline, approached the family five years ago.

“They were interested in making a deal, purchasing our property, or doing a joint venture,” Rammos recalls. “We had discussions, plans drawn up, and numbers thrown out, but nothing made sense to us.”

(Virgin Trains did not reply to questions from the BT by deadline.)

Since then, Rammos says, the family property has been in “limbo.” But should a station be built behind his family’s building, they might be interested in developing something next to it. Current zoning already allows 12-stories of development, he adds.

“I would think they would end up being some kind of office, commercial, or retail, something along those lines,” he tells the BT. “But I’m not a planner or an architect.”

Tony Arellano, managing partner of Downtown Realty Advisors, says train stations are desperately needed in an area overflowing with new development and vehicular traffic. Nevertheless, just because a train station is nearby doesn’t mean that a property is any more attractive for development.

“I think train stations are good for long-term value,” Arellano says, “but in the immediate term, I don’t see any huge effects.”

 

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