I have done my fair share of traveling around the world, and one thing I have noticed about great cities is the use of wide and beautiful boulevards, pedestrian malls, and public spaces.  Unfortunately though, while Downtown Miami would like to claim world class status, the public realm is far behind the reality on the ground.

Downtown Miami is currently awash in Heat mania, but no matter how many Lebron’s, Bosh’s, or Wade’s Miami brings down, the reality is right there on the ground. Dangerous streets, few public spaces, autocentric design, missing crosswalks, yawning parking lots, and the list goes on. Unfortunately Miami likes to dwell in its own hype a bit too much.

Biscayne Boulevard, the front porch of Miami, is a giant parking lot.  With speeding vehicles on 4 lane streets in each direction, an ocean of surface lots, and enough concrete to fill a river.  With Flagler Street, what should be the equivalent to Lincoln Road on this side of Biscayne Bay, officials have been too shy to close the street and create a real attraction worthy of the beautiful South Florida weather.  Instead, they have relegated it to a clogged and polluted street, not worthy of the historic character it’s architecture and name carries. As Morris Lapidus, the brains behind Lincoln Road once said: “A car never bought anything” – and boy was he right.

In Brickell, the story is much the same.  Brickell Avenue and its massive intersections are uncomfortable and dangerous, a far cry from the world class status officials always describe it as. It is quite ridiculous (and embarrassing) that crosswalks are 3 or 4 blocks apart and one has to see business professionals jaywalking and trudging through bushes along medians in the dense and urban Banking District of Miami.  Luckily though, Brickell Avenue is getting a little love after much activism.

My travels have shown me that great cities are built from the public realm up – not by millionaire basketball players and the wealthy fans that visit them. It’s amazing how much weight the city has given to the Miami Heat. One day these players will be gone, and what will we have? The same dangerous, ugly, and unwalkable streets we had before.  Great cities are built to benefit the generations to come – not to dwell in the hype of the temporary present, but to look into the future.

In Barcelona, you have Las Ramblas, a spectacular pedestrian boulevard comparable to Biscayne Blvd or Brickell Ave in size.  In Rome, the Coliseum was closed off to vehicular traffic and transformed into a magnificent public space many decades ago.  The story is much the same throughout most of the great cities of Europe, Asia, and South America.  From Istanbul to Tokyo or Columbia to Mexico, the facts are on the ground – beautiful and majestic public thoroughfares and spaces are important components of any world class city.  Great cities create a great quality of life, and this attracts talented people, culture, arts, businesses, and tourists.

Even Miami Beach has shown greater sensibility to the positive impacts of pedestrianization (as I would like to call it).  Lincoln Road is arguably one of the most successful pedestrian malls in the United States (sales per square foot).  If this isn’t a sign of what should happen in downtown Miami, I do not know what is.  Ocean Drive as well is a spectacular mixture of architecture, humanity, and nature.  A marvelous place to people watch.

Mexico City, a “third world” city, has shown an amazing ability to integrate wonderful public spaces, promenades, and pedestrians malls into the chaotic city of 25 million people.

Paseo de La Reforma, a street not unlike Biscayne Boulevard and Brickell Avenue in terms of density and traffic, boasts a wonderful promenade along the median covered with beautiful flowers and foliage.   It also has something that most major cities have and downtown Miami lacks, many (and consistent) crosswalks.

 

Paseo de La Reforma in Mexico City

Paseo de La Reforma in Mexico City

Crosswalk on Paseo de La Reforma in Mexico City

Crosswalk on Paseo de La Reforma in Mexico City

Horacio Street in Mexico is another beautiful example, located in the densely populated neighborhood of Polanco.  The street boasts a wide and beautiful median, with occasional fountains, parks, flower stands, and roundabouts.  Amazingly, their are no traffic lights on Horacio Street and during my time here, I have felt perfectly safe.   Why?  Because the speed limit is no more than 15 miles an hour, creating a calm and pleasant environment along the entire street for both cars and pedestrians.  In many ways  Horacio is more than a street, rather, it is a long linear park covering more than three dozen blocks.

Horacio Street in Mexico City

Horacio Street in Mexico City

Horacio Street in Mexico

Horacio Street in Mexico

Even in the “Centro” of Mexico, which is the chaotic and historic downtown, officials have begun making improvements towards the pedestrian realm that other great cities have made.  Francisco I Madero St, which leads into the Zocalo (the second largest public square in the world), is currently being converted into a pedestrian mall.  Other neighborhoods throughout the city have also transformed various streets into pedestrian malls and today they are FULL of people enjoying the city.

New Pedestrian Mall on Francisco I Madero St in downtown Mexico

New Pedestrian Mall on Francisco I Madero St in downtown Mexico under construction.

 

If the City of Miami truly wants to make downtown Miami a destination, they need to get past the hype and the Miami Heat, and realize that great cities are created from great public spaces.  And not just one for that matter, but rather, an integrated network of connected public spaces and thoroughfares.

They could easily start by converting the parking lots on Biscayne Blvd into a pedestrian promenade worthy of the location it has.  Biscayne in downtown Miami as it stands now is a pedestrians worst nightmare.  Missing crosswalks, massive streets with speeding cars, 8-10 blocks of concrete lots, and more.  It truly is ridiculous when the entire (beatiful) waterfront of downtown Miami and its attractions are isolated from the city by 150+ feet of roadways and surface lots – one can count the crosswalks across the entire waterfront of downtown with one hand.

Parking could easily be replaced in one (yes one) parking garage (perhaps even underground). Street parking could also be used along the blocks, to buffer the traffic from the promenade, but also to make up some of the lost parking – thereby reducing the speed down Biscayne Blvd through design.  Imagine a linear park and slower traffic complementing the beautiful skyscrapers, parks, and attractions already there.  One could easily argue that this could become one the most beautiful places in the city.

In Brickell, the redesign of Brickell Avenue needs to take into account the drastic density increase over the last (and next) few years and create a more pleasant landscape for residents and tourists.  One crosswalk every three or four blocks is absolutely ridiculous, so is the current speed limit, and massive intersections.  Again, luckily (and after much activism) some of this is being taken into consideration during the current redesign of Brickell Avenue.  Nevertheless, enough is not being done.

Another great improvement would be the transformation of historic Flagler Street into a pedestrian mall.  With historic architecture, cheap rents, great public transportations, and a fabulous location, Flagler has the potential to become one of downtown’s most popular attractions.  I have often heard the argument that Flagler cannot be transformed because there are no alleys behind the buildings for the service trucks.  This is true rubbish.  Many pedestrian malls around the world allow service vehicles (and only service vehicles) to drive through at very slow speeds (5 mph).  Just because the occasional service vehicle needs to come in, it does not mean we should relegate Flagler to ugly and undeserving conditions it faces today.  Cross streets could also be used as staging ground for delivery trucks and such.

It is truly a shame that the City of Miami does not see the large tourist potential of downtown Miami.  Miami has unbelievable weather that makes a well designed outdoor space a “hot” commodity.  Miami Beach understood this many years ago, and now it is arguably one of the coolest urban environments in the Unites States.

The unbelievable development that occurred over the last few years is just the beginning of a transformation that will happen over the next few decades. With millions of tourists descending on Miami Beach every year, the City of Miami should take care to create the type of environment travelers have come to expect – it wouldn’t be hard to pull some of those tourists to this side of the bay.  In fact, some have already started crossing over, as is evident by the growing numbers of tourists on the streets of downtown and Brickell.  Nevertheless, more must be done if we expect the to come back in greater numbers.

The private realm has done its part in the last few years to bring masses to downtown Miami, the city and the state nevertheless, have done very little to adjust the streets and public spaces that must accompany the massive redevelopment of the last few years.

The City of Miami must take ownership over Biscayne Blvd and Brickell Avenue, and force the Florida Department of Transportation to listen to the needs of residents, businesses owners, and city officials.  I am tired of local and state officials “passing the buck”.  They must take Flagler Street and create an attraction from the most historic street in South Florida.  Brickell Ave, Biscayne Blvd, and surrounding streets must accommodate and integrate with the urban setting they inhabit.  The city must create a cohesive pedestrian environment throughout the entire downtown area and beyond.  The current fractioned landscape is a far cry from what is needed.

I will not accept the argument that the City of Miami is a world class city when the facts on the ground say something very different.  Don’t believe the hype!

21 Responses to Don’t Believe the Hype – Look at the Facts on the Ground

  1. kevin says:

    Adam, I agree 100% with everything you just said, and I applaud you for shining light on a problem that everyone avoids. The DDA and city government always focus on all the sold condos, and new residents, but nothing on the realities of life in Downtown. It’s not safe to walk around, and no improvements have been done to make this a true city center.

    I’ve always agreed that making Flagler Street pedestrian-only is what our city needs. Not only to respect our history and past, but to create a true public space for people, not for cars. As it stands now, Downtown, Brickell and Omni are just urban suburbs, built for the car.

    The city and DDA need to lower parking requirements drastically, and start advocating to bring Tri-Rail to Downtown, lower speed limits, add bicycle lanes, add crosswalks, fix sidewalks, buy land for parks, etc. So much needs to be done, that isn’t be done.

    Thank Adam, and hopefully our government can begin to truly create the world class city our city can become.

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  2. B says:

    I completely agree with you about Flagler Street, but I also think Brickell Ave. is a completely different animal. The difference is that Brickell Ave. has many office buildings (and condos) with parking garages that either face Brickell Ave or cannot be practically accessed without using Brickell Ave. (most of the other avenues you talked about do not seem to have this situation either). Given the state of public transportation in South Florida, most Brickell workers have little choice except to drive to work and park in these garages. the other world class cities you mention have effective public transit, but we don’t!!!

    While I agree Brickell Ave. needs more and safer pedestrian crossings (I’d prefer tunnels or elevated crossings), I don’t think “pedestrianizing” the road would work. Perhaps S. Miami Ave., but not Brickell Ave.

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  3. Craig says:

    B – I agree with you that Brickell obviously needs more and safer pedestrian crossing. Disagree that they should be elevated (people tend to not use them) or underground (too costly).

    Totally agree with you on South Miami Avenue. There is a proposed S. Miami Streetscape project called Resolution No. 38/2010 called the ‘South Miami Streetscape Design Plan’. Please e-mail Comissioner Sarnoff and urger him to move this plan forward. It would include new crosswalks, sidewalks, signage and a reconfiguration of the S. Miami/SE 12th street intersection.

    Currently, there is hardly any crosswalk paint in on S. Miami fron 12th to 8th, the heart of the pedestrian area, and no crosswalk connecting both sides of Mary Brickell Village. I am not sure why getting basic things like crosswalk paint is such a monumental challenge, but either way, we need to galvanize support to move the project forward.

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  4. Adam Mizrahi says:

    Brickell Avenue can have a nice balance. It doesnt need to be too pedestrian, but it needs more of a balance. Elevated guideways never work. Why would anybody go up and down a tiring overpass when they can cross at gorund level in 1/8 of the time. I wouldnt use them and you wouldnt either. Furthermore, the cost of putting an overpass at every intersection would be probitive, and if you dont, people wont use them. Manhattan shows us that we can have crosswalks at every intersection AND ground level crosswalks. There is a reason why you dont see them in used widely in Manhattan (or anywhere else for that manner) – they are a waste of time, money, energy, and they are UGLY!

    People and cars can live together, they just need better balance. Tokyo shows us this, Manattant, etc. Just think of 5th Ave or Amsterdam Ave. You have tons of cars, but also very consistent red lights and crosswalks to allow pedestrians to cross.

    This whole overpass thing is silly, IMHO, it is suggested by people who dont walk. Because if you walk regularly, and that is, multiple times a day, you are not going to be doing that every time you cross.

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  5. Katherine says:

    Although beautifully written, I’m getting tired of the same old retoric.

    What may have been true in the past does not always remain true. I have been following the City,County, DDA and FDOT projects in and around downtown for just over a year and have seen a marked change in their approach to streetscapes and pedestrian mobility.

    Just recently these agencies have developed plans and/or studies for South Miami Avenue, Biscayne Boulevard and a Downtown Bicycle/Pedestrian Mobility Study that address exactly the issues raised in your article. Also, I’ve seen that positive civic engagement with them (i.e. FDOT on the Brickell Avenue) significantly improves their projects for the betterment of all users (i.e. lower speed limits, additional crosswalks AND improved pedestrian/vehicular mobility).

    I suggest that transitmiami use your knowledge and influence to partner with these agencies and get more involved in the solutions to our public realm instead of just repeating the same tired retoric.

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  6. Felipe Azenha says:

    Hi Katherine,
    Have you considered that perhaps the “marked change” that you have witnessed by the City,County, DDA and FDOT may be due to the influence of Transit Miami?

    Please let me assure you that we do not just sit behind our computers and vent. We do actively engage the City, County, DDA and FDOT. We are doing plenty of work behind the scenes; more then some may realize.

    We still have a long road ahead of us, but we also see some positive changes.
    Thanks for reading Transit Miami.

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  7. Craig says:

    Exactly, Felipe! Left to their own devices, the FDOT project on Brickell Avenue was to be disastrous for pedestrians! Transit Miami was instrumental in calling for more pedestrian/safety elements to be added into that project. If anything, we need more people out there engaging others with this ‘same old rhetoric’! It’s the only way we’re able to influence the heavy-handed FDOT projects that are taking over downtown!

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  8. Rod says:

    FDOT is in the middle of redoing Biscayne Boulevard in Edgewater but is not putting in any new lights/crosswalks. Why is this happening? Are we going to have to wait for crosswalks till the next time they decide to redo the street in 20 years?

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  9. Adam Mizrahi says:

    Some people write, some people are activists, some people build, some people complain. That is life. :)

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  10. B says:

    Re. Overpass/underpass crossings: Many world-class cities I’ve visited in Asia DO use them, and quite sucessfully. They’re not necessarily an eyesore, like anything, they can be designed artistically (as if asphalt painted with white and yellow lines is attractive…LOL). For example, google “Hong Kong Pedestrian Overpass.” Some cities even use subway stations as pedestrian underpasses. The key is NOT having ground-level crossings, put hedges or fences in the median and “no pedestrian” signs, eliminating ALL potential conflicts between automobiles and pedestrians, and making the overpasses easy to access.

    Overpasses also give views of the city that you otherwise couldn’t enjoy, and you never feel rushed to cross by impatient drivers turning right or blinking red hands. Finally, YOU DON’T HAVE TO WAIT FOR THE LIGHT TO CHANGE:). Surely waiting for the light to change takes away any time advantage of the street-level cross walks. And after you wait for the light, crosswalks rarely give you enough time to cross without feeling rushed. Having spent many months living in several Asian cities and walking everywhere, I actually prefer overpasses to our obsession with (cheap) crosswalks. Overpasses are dedicated for pedestrians’ use only, what pedestrian would not enjoy them?

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  11. TransitDave says:

    Adam, Great article, especially the comments about Flagler Street, and it’s interesting to note that there is only one small surface parking lot with an entrance on Flagler Street, (across the street from the courthouse) which means that it could be converted to a pedestrian only street with NO disruption to parking areas whatsoever. This is equally true for temporary weekend street closures such as Flagler Fest.

    As a former Brickell area resident, I remember well the hazards of being a pedestrian in the area, and the powers that be need to treat Brickell Avenue and Biscayne Boulevards as what they are, NEIGHBORHOOD streets, not expressways. If they would just adopt that philospohy, and put out a few speed traps, cross walks and other improvements, that would go a long way in slowing the car traffic down, so the people and bike traffic could get around safely.

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  12. Craig says:

    B – So where exactly would these overpasses go on Brickell avenue? To connect two privately owned office buildings? While increasing, Miami does not have nearly the density that many Asian cities do. To compare the two for a pedestrian issue is irrelevant.. Who would pay for these overpasses anyhow? I just don’t understand what they will connect or who would use them.

    Manhattan has exactly ONE pedestrian overpass I can think of. It connects two buildings of Hunter College, which makes sense. There are many underpasses in the form of subway stations, and train station (Penn, GC) access points. These make sense because people are already underground from taking rail.

    Simply put, you can’t reasonably expect someone to walk down/up stairs or take an elevator just to cross a street unless it’s a major expressway or a very cold climate. (Minneapolis has many overpasses and tunnels)

    Also realistically speaking, say there was an overpass somewhere along Brickell or Biscayne – what if you are 8 blocks from it? Waiting for the stoplight vs. waiting for an elevator to access the overpass? Seems like a wash. I’d rather wait for the stoplight.

    Encouraging people to remain at street level is important for local business and promoting a vibrant neighborhood/streetscape. Read about the elevated train in downtown Detroit that has virtually removed all pedestrians from street/retail level. We need to encourage vibrant streets and removing people from street level does not do that. I bet more people would even ride the metrorail and especially metromover if it were built like a light-rail or street-car style at street level. It’s a psychological barrier.

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  13. Brad Knoefler says:

    Katherine,

    I don’t think it’s the same rhetoric but the same lack of results on the ground that all of us who live Downtown have to experience every day. While I sure that the meeting and engagement strategy may influence long term planning with these agencies, we need real results now for the thousands of new Downtown residents.

    One of the major problems is that in general our Government doesn’t care about the needs of residents and taxpayers. Just look at the $75,000 the DDA spent on ugly planters when a permanent, pedestrian, friendly streetscape could have been installed. Not a single person or business owner was involved in the decision making process, even when they could have contributed valuable ideas and predicted the effect on the neighborhood. Why has the CRA spent more than $9 million in the past six months on the Museums, instead of fixing the sidewalks and improving connectivity?

    There are dozens of small projects that can be implemented quickly and cheaply and have a major impact on our urban lives. The problem is when no one listens or even seems to care about residents’ needs..

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  14. B says:

    It’s more a matter of pedestrian activity and design philosophy more than density. The Las Vegas Strip is obviously less dense than Brickell Ave., yet they use overpasses, and quite ornate ones as well. Despite the obvious disadvantages of crosswalks on major thoroughfares with heavy pedestrian activity (cars not yielding, waiting for the light, not enough time to cross, esp. for elderly/disabled, traffic disruption), some will always prefer them. It’s just what you’re familiar with…or, perhaps you’d really rather not have the road in question be a major thoroughfare at all (e.g., Brickell Ave.). Sidewalks and offsets of the buildings from the road are plenty wide enough to accomodate. At Financial District, connect to Metromover at platform-level. Finally, most overpasses do actually dump you on the sidewalk, still allowing for street level activity.

    About spacing: Let’s try every 2 streets so you’re never more than 1 block from one? That’s about 5-6 overpasses for upper brickell. Chump change compared with most other construction projects going on in the City.

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  15. Craig says:

    I guess I just see it as defeatist mentality. It’s surrendering the roadways to cars and treating anyone not in a car as somehow unworthy of being on or near the road. Like they have to be elevated and removed from the street because roads should be for cars only. That is a very anti-urbanist argument and one that is outdated for modern, urban landscapes.

    That’s not so say some would not make sense, like connecting transit hubs and stations with neighboring buildings. I get that. It’s the same reason why Penn Station has below-ground access points 7 blocks from the actual station. But for someone just outside trying to cross a street, we need plentiful and safe intersections and crosswalks. It’s just the reality of an urban landscape. I maintain that you can not reasonably expect people to use one just to cross a street if the overpass does not connect two areas that provide value to the pedestrian. (For exapmple, two offices or a condo building in which I neither work nor live in)

    Overpasses should be a rare exception to a safe crosswalk, not the preferred alternative.

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  16. Mike Moskos says:

    Well said Adam.

    But, I think you have to realize that government always seems to be way behind the curve (perhaps simply because of the lengthy processes they’ve devised). The trend in Miami clearly seems to be towards dense urbanization, especially among the young. The only reason I can fathom to be socially isolated in a suburb/exburb is to have space to grow a big garden (and you don’t see many in South Florida). I think your arguments would gain much traction if you could get in front of business groups or owners of buildings on those streets suited for pedestrian malls (like Flagler). What business owner doesn’t want the traffic of a Lincoln Road outside their door?; what building owner doesn’t want higher rents?

    On a side note, many of the buildings on Brickell look like they were transplanted from an exburb office park with little adaption for pedestrian life. Watch how rapidly that changes when the first building owner remakes a ground floor and his/her building springs to life. Others will follow. Brickell will one day look like one continuous Mary Brickell village. And when there are thousands more pedestrians on the street, overflowing the sidewalks, government will suddenly fast-track improvements.

    PS: Be sure to check out the urban chickens/roosters in the field across from the Brickell Metrorail station. Maybe one of the high-end chefs will turn the field into a free-range, organic, restaurant scrap-fed chicken egg farm. Better than an empty field.

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  17. Cody says:

    I know the DDA is working on narrowing Biscayne Blvd and removing the parking for public space, which is really awesome, but how can we fast track this? How can we get Flagler Street to go pedestrian-only?

    We need to get the local businesses on Flagler Street to get together and form a coalition for the change, by starting with the big local players- the Gusman Theater, La Epoca, Macy’s, Alberto Cortes, and even some of the bigger restaurants. The owner of La Epoca is on the DDA board, he has tons of say of what gets done on Flagler Street.

    We need change in Downtown, and I don’t think it’s happening fast enough. Downtown isn’t as pedestrian and bicyclist friendly as it could be and I know the DDA and city are working to ameliorate this, but the change isn’t coming. Where is it? Where are the public spaces, wider sidewalks, crosswalks, shade trees, bike lanes, etc? We need them now, not on the “Long-term transportation plan for 2030″. Come on, we need this!

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  18. Dan says:

    As someone who works in the County Courthouse with a north-facing view, I think a pedestrian mall on Flagler is step #2. Step #1 should be to eliminate NW 1st Ave and the parking lots by Metrorail from the courthouse north to the Metrorail bend and turn that area into a park. Miami doesn’t have a true central park like other real cities (Central Park, Boston Common, Chicago’s Millenium Park, etc).

    Bayfront doesn’t really count since you need to cross Biscayne, which as everyone above has noted, is a half step away from being an expressway.

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  19. Miamistax says:

    A lot of streets have no need for pedestrian bridges or underpasses, but some would benefit from them. @Adam: a pedestrian overpass built with no attention to being integrated into its environment will often be ignored as you point out, especially on streets with low numbers of cars. There are opportunities to do them right. Look at the Brickell people mover station. It cries out for a pedestrian bridge to get over Brickell Avenue and connect directly to the station platform. The people mover station in the middle of Biscayne Blvd was supposed to have pedestrian bridges which never got built. The station gives you a reason to want to go up. Look at the Omni people mover station’s pedestrian bridge from the platform straight into the building. Look at the bridge to Macy’s restaurant. Before they uncovered and cleaned the glass, pleople didn’t even know they were on a bridge.

    Also, as far as pedestrians not wanting to walk vertically, many great cities like Chicago and Washington lift or drop their roads so the pedestrian stays on ground level and doesn’t have to climb. Lakeshore Drive has a combination of pedestrian tunnels and car and truck overpasses and pedestrians use them in huge numbers, partially because as “B” correctly notes, they also block the unprotected locations from crossing.

    Now, for examples of how not to do a pedestrian bridge. Look at the County building and Library/Museums across the street from each other. The County building sticks its second level walkway out of its building on the east side to drop down to its plaza with an escalator and stairs; and the library puts a bridge over the street on the west side with an elevator and stairs to the same plaza. Why didn’t they put both in the same place so you could walk from the people mover straight to the library? Look at the pedestrian bridge to the Douglas Road Metrorail Station. The station side landing is nowhere near the station platform and the opposite side puts you on a walkway in the middle of the block; all of it 100 feet away from a traffic light with crosswalks.

    And the number one place needing a pedestrian bridge downtown: The AAArena with its thousands of pedestrians and every police car in town lined up in Biscayne Blvd’s median trying keep people from crossing every time there’s a game.

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  20. M says:

    Adam and others – you might be interested to read this week’s Miami Today News. Page 18 as an article about the Downtown Development Authority’s attempts to lure higher-end retailers and businesses to Flagler Street. They have a discussion about closing Flagler Street and how Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road became so successful. You can get a free online version at http://www.miamitodayepaper.com

       0 likes

  21. Mark Lesniak says:

    Adam,

    Bit late… but THANK YOU!

    Mark

       0 likes

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