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.
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.
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.
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!
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