Is Punxsatawney Phil raising his head on Flagler Street?
Written by Michael Lewis on November 6, 2013
It’s Groundhog Day on downtown’s main thoroughfare, Flagler Street.
The question is whether to celebrate or scream.
As we reported last week, Miami’s Downtown Development Authority plans to remake Flagler in the city’s heart using the theme of the Henry Flagler railroad that gave birth to Miami. The remake would include beautification, wider sidewalks for outdoor dining and railroad gates to close the street to traffic for events.
The authority sees costs at $5 million to $10 million and is seeking funds.
The concept is wonderful. What is there not to applaud?
But, like the 1993 film Groundhog Day, where actor Bill Murray painfully relived the same day over and over looking for groundhog Punxsatawney Phil, we’ve been applauding the same show on Flagler for decades. We’re still waiting for the happy ending.
Each time, the development authority deemed the timing right, plans solid and funds attainable. But success has been as hard to find as the end to Groundhog Day.
At the time Groundhog Day was exiting theaters and Netflix hadn’t been dreamed up to replay it, Carr Smith Associates was unveiling the Flagler Marketplace Corridor study, the third such study the development authority had commissioned in a 13-year span – and by far the least ambitious.
The theme was to repave Flagler in the vibrant colors of the 1920s and 1930s, with wider sidewalks and a way to make cars “almost like an intruder in a pedestrian area.”
The cost was $10 million. “It’s very do-able,” said development authority Executive Director Matthew Schwartz. “The time is right economically.”
By 1997 the authority was citing city support for the then-$12 million plan. “We’ve got the invoices ready to go,” said Executive Director Patti Allen. “It’s now a matter of the money coming in so we can pay.”
By June 1997 the now-$13.6 million plan was rolling ahead, Miami Today’s Catherine Lackner reported. “We’re working on a package to move that forward and have it before the city commission before the August recess,” she quoted a city official.
But merchants worried that they couldn’t fund the then-$14.5 million facelift. “I just don’t believe the city has the funding to do the entire street,” said Sergio Rok of Rok Enterprises.
By 2000, however, Flagler was nearing the end of the long road with its by-then $15 million renewal, Ms. Lackner reported. “Once funding is approved,” said a development authority staffer, “a schedule will be put to it.”
But that November, the authority’s chief of staff revealed that plans had changed: “We’ll be taking a completely new, unconventional approach.”
The project finally got done. It was new, it was unconventional – and it didn’t work. “Miami surprised by another bill for Flagler Streetscape project” was our headline on a 2006 report, with the main contract at $9 million but its costs soon rising to $11.9 million.
“Mistakes were made on this project,” said then-Commissioner Tomás Regalado. “We cannot keep approving more money for this even though Flagler is a very important street in the City of Miami.”
Sidewalks wound up uneven and cracked, and nobody seemed to approve of the finished streetscaping.
Enter, right on schedule as Bill Murray’s 6 a.m. alarm clock rings, the railroad theme, officially unveiled last month though Ms. Lackner has been reporting on it since early in the year. Its aim is to replace the last renovation of Flagler. Though funding sources aren’t yet pinned down, the price tag is far below earlier incarnations.
Is the timing right this time?
By our clock, yes, for several reasons.
First, Flagler landowners reportedly will tax themselves for the project. They’re motivated by improvements in downtown’s real estate market.
Sergio Rok, downtown’s largest landlord who had worried 16 years ago that the city wouldn’t have the funds, told a forum last month that at least two of his downtown sites will become residential projects within a year.
The climate has also improved as homeless street dwellers have all but disappeared. Fifteen years ago, a wholesale jeweler based on Flagler told us, it wasn’t safe to go on the street after 6 p.m. But now it’s fine, he told us as we dropped him off there at nearly 11 p.m. Friday.
The birth of clubs and restaurants that came in tandem with a vastly enlarged downtown corps of young residents has also helped.
The city, unfortunately, is still in sore fiscal shape. Its help is unlikely. So the development authority is looking to the county.
“The owners’ involvement is very compelling, and it will be difficult for the county to say no,” said Neisen Kasdin, an attorney and authority board member.
Pardon us, Mr. Kasdin, but is that the 6 a.m. Groundhog Day alarm again? It’s quite easy to see the county saying no to what one commissioner derisively calls “the wine and cheese crowd.”
For Groundhog Day to pull out of Flagler’s station with a happy ending, the design concept – wonderful though it is – takes a back seat to the money.
We’re told property owners will tax themselves, but how much and when?
We’re told the county can’t say no, but we’ll believe it when the votes are in.
We’re told this can be done for $5 million to $10 million, far below the upgrades planned in the 1980s. But what about the overruns last time around?
We love the concept. It’s perfectly fitting.
But until we see adequate money on the table, it’s still Groundhog Day on Flagler Street.