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Front Page » Opinion » Rail zone engineers must look ahead but watch the tracks

Rail zone engineers must look ahead but watch the tracks

Written by on March 26, 2014
Rail zone engineers must look ahead but watch the tracks

Miami is boarding an exciting railway journey that could transform down-town’s west side into a thriving urban hub with commerce to complement the residential and office zone nearer Bis-cayne Bay.

The trick will be for the engineers to wear bifocals that focus on big-picture benefits while simultaneously spotting flaws in the tracks that could derail the express.

As a reader of Miami Today, you know that these changes center on a railway station district whose zoning and control are being hashed out by the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County, with the aim of handing the throttle to the county but brakes to the city. The next stop is the county commission April 8.

The nearly 10-acre district is owned by Florida East Coast Industries, whose All Aboard Florida is to link Miami and Orlando in a private venture that should let rail travel compete in speed, comfort, safety and revenues with aviation.

The railroad’s depot zone near county hall is also geared to attract almost every use but hospitals, manufacturing and warehouses – anything that belongs in the urban heart of a major metropolis could rise there.

To add luster, a public railway, Tri-Rail Coastal, running 85 miles into Miami for commuters, is ticketed for a Miami terminus in All Aboard Florida’s depot.

With All Aboard Florida projecting 4,000 daily passengers and Tri-Rail 24,000, the west side suddenly would have arriving daily 32,000 more people who could use Metrorail and Metromover, which are to link to the station, and perhaps even a new county bus hub.

Those rail riders could also be shoppers, diners, hotel guests, office tenants, west side residents, and convention and meeting goers – and the zoning that’s now rolling through government halls provides for all those uses, an urban heart within a larger urban body.

There’s even culture: adjacent are the main library and the expanding HistoryMiami museum. All the rest of downtown’s cultural amenities and other hotel rooms, offices, residences, stores and restaurants are steps away.

The planned revamp of Flagler Street to cater to pedestrians plays into this scenario of a non-automotive rail zone orientation, as do zoning plans to plant the scant required parking up to a mile from the zone.

If you like cities in general and Miami in particular, there’s nothing not to like in this dense development scenario. As the executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society, Laura Reynolds, encouraged county commissioners, “Build out” in the rail district to avert sprawl past the Urban Development Boundary.

Having given unqualified support to the thrilling prospect of railroad-driven densification of the west side, let’s be mindful that while the prospect is indeed thrilling, its execution could be chilling.

First, land deals and real estate developments, not passengers and freight, have been the economic drivers for successful US railroads.

The only reason All Aboard Florida could exist is that its grandfather, Henry Flagler, accumulated vast real estate holding in bringing to Miami his first railway in 1896. The company that is his legacy owns that land today.

Mr. Flagler got free land to lure the railroad here. There would have been no metropolitan Miami without the economic engine of the railroad, so the land giveaway was a good deal for all.

Governments must ensure that they adhere to a similar formula: any zoning or plan approvals or future requests from railroad operators must be good for all.

Second, neither public officials nor developers should be swayed by euphoria in a new era of such massive developments as Brickell City Centre, 50 announced high-rise condo projects, the proposed Miami Worldcenter near the rail zone, and the potential in the rail zone itself.

Miami’s history reveals a pattern of euphoric growth spurts that tend to outpace demand, followed by retrenchment during an economic dip, followed by euphoric growth, followed by retrenchment, followed by…

Well, this is a time of euphoric growth. And while a railway would retain demand in less heady times, that’s not necessarily so for all the ancillary uses posited for the railroad zone.

What developers do is develop when the money is available, hoping to sell or lease before the next demand decline. Governments must realize that the next decline is not an if but a when. They must ensure that city and county financial links to this project remain strong in less optimistic times.

So when project supporter and Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez expresses concern that the city not get “bogged down by the minutia” and lose sight of the big picture, he’s exactly half right:

Public officials must use their bifocals to see how all of this very welcome railway area development is going to pump strength into the heart of our urban core, but they can’t afford to lose focus on the details that will make the heart pump at optimal strength.

Details include whether city hall will get enough say in the future care of its own heart, whether building a zone full of high-rise residences that aren’t required to build a single parking space will help or harm the city, how dense a dense city core should be, and what happens if one of the two railway arteries leading to this urban heart should clog up or never start at all.

An urban expert could add dozens of questions. None should delay the project, but the public sector must enter this exciting return to the urban railroad era with eyes open, focus clear and answers to questions that some consider minutia before a massive rail terminus with all the trimmings is carved in stone.

This project, as Mr. Suarez rightly says, should be transformational. But then, commissioners said that in Little Havana when they poured $3 billion into a baseball stadium and absolutely nothing happened.

This is too fine an opportunity to make the same mistake.