How new transit zone could reshape the core of downtown
We’ve been handed a great opportunity to remake the county’s center of government operations along Flagler Street downtown. It’s one of those can’t-miss chances – if it’s properly thought out.
The county, which owns the buildings in the area, has also taken control of zoning and now wants to maximize the value of what it’s calling the Downtown Rapid Transit Zone. This month commissioners ordered an area visioning study, to be finished in December.
The concept, as Commissioner Eileen Higgins outlined it to the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce group that focuses on downtown, is to take the space between the government’s buildings, remake some of those buildings, and create a cohesive zone that capitalizes on being Miami’s mass transit hub.
The visioning is going to be the key to those plans, which could breathe life into an area that is now a 9-to-5 government workplace. Sixteen hours a day and weekends now find the area dead – in a downtown that is rapidly becoming a 24/7 urban center.
Who does the visioning and how, who is included and what participants aim for are vital. The county needs to be open to new visions, new ways of urban life. It also needs 24/7 transit service for the area rather than shutting down Metromover and Metrorail far too many hours. Added transit hours will be costly but could be pivotal to a successful area – not to mention the broader task of making transit serve more of us to retain riders who now are drifting away.
Any real area visioning has to know what role transit can actually play in building the new Downtown Rapid Transit Zone.
Commissioner Higgins noted that the massive Philip Johnson-designed plaza that holds three cultural buildings at 101 W Flagler St. is in play in plans. Our history museum and library may be headed for new homes, to be replaced by tall towers on their sites, or possibly stay put under new towers overhead.
The Johnson design for a cultural center was the kind of urban visioning – it you call it vision – that has backwatered the area.
The library, museum and arts center that the plaza was meant to link were in fact separated from the public on a raised, isolated plaza that kept out both the riff-raff and the rest of us. You had to know where you were going and really want to get there to enter the plaza, and then discover that it had no protection from rain or sun – not a bit of cover. It would be hard to design a more unwelcoming public area in Miami – a city in which Mr. Johnson did not reside.
Yet it was done in the name of creating a cultural heart in the neighborhood, which shows that the planning this time around needs to have a vision based on how Miamians will live in the future. The Johnson design stands as a true model of what not to do.
Another danger is to try to create everything for everyone. Ms. Higgins listed for the chamber about a dozen uses for the area, everything from schools to affordable housing to police and media parking. Any of those uses might work, but they sure won’t all fit into the area well or maximize its value to the heart of Miami. We doubt that a vision that tries to make the government hub into a family neighborhood is the best one.
It’s best to pick one single theme for the area and target a handful of uses that make the theme work. If the visioning tries to give everyone what they ask for, nobody is going to get much of anything that works. The space is only 20 acres, after all, not an entire city.
A vote to re-do the neighborhood could well be the last hurrah for most of the 13 county commissioners. Five are term limited and will leave office in 2020, followed by six more in 2022. Ms. Higgins is one of the two with a chance to see the process through.
The area visioning might offer an opportunity to a master developer, or multiple developers working with the county. Whether any government money is ultimately to be involved is yet to be determined. This is an opportunity, but far from a plan.
Commissioner Higgins painted the picture of a “once in a lifetime” chance, a portrait that impressed veteran chamber members who have spent decades working toward an improved downtown. And in this case it’s government, not business, that’s calling for the upgrade.
Certainly the growth of the new station hub for what is now called Virgin Trains USA can be catalytic for change. The arrival of Tri-Rail at the same station at some point soon will help. Plans for the new county courthouse and remaking of the old one can be stitched into the design, as can the upcoming revamping of Flagler Street itself.
As in any major opportunity, however, this one requires a combination of clear vision and careful attention to details. Those elements will determine whether the government heart of a rapid transit zone will actually become downtown’s game-changer.