Underdeck, Miami Heritage Trail designs march ahead
Progress on an I-395 Underdeck Greenway is accelerating as the City of Miami has submitted a final design concept and deals with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to adjust between the formal budget proposal and the redesigned operating plan the city presented in August 2019.
But funding to do the project, due to open in 2024, is still needed.
The 33-acre public open space under a reconstructed I-395 promises to “re-stitch neighborhoods divided by the original interstate road,” Jeremy Calleros Gauger, city deputy planning director, told a Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce committee Nov. 10.
FDOT has handed the city management of the Underdeck and reviewed the city’s concept in October 2020. From March to September, the Planning Board submitted a final concept and developed a memorandum of understanding for action with FDOT.
Now, said Mr. Gauger, “we’re in the budget squeeze part of this, where FDOT is telling us ‘This is how much money we have for the whole project,’ and we’re saying, ‘this is how much we need’ to get the design that the city wants to successfully manage it.”
In his presentation, Mr. Gauger pointed to challenges the city faces regarding the current structure, a poorly lit “no-man’s land, in terms of who’s responsible for this area,” he said. Currently 770 columns sustain I-395 above.
The proposed greenway would reduce columns to fewer than 200 and eliminate “massive amounts of dirt embankments.” In addition, bridges would be deliberately broken up with higher overhead clearance – from the current 18 feet to 45 feet at Northeast First Avenue and from 20 feet to 60 at Northwest Third Avenue – allowing more light to shine in. The greenway could also accommodate full-size trees, making it “a completely different space.”
It cost FDOT about $9 million to remove the embankments, said Mr. Gauger, and the original plan would cost around $11 million for total build-out of the space.
The city is now figuring out the difference in price. “Getting some more money from FDOT is obviously the most direct way to fund the project,” he said, “with additional pressure at the state level. That’s how we ended up with the improvements to the pedestrian bridge.”
Last December, FDOT funded $22 million to construct an enhanced pedestrian bridge and remove earthen berms that surrounded I-395 in the first steps to the Underdeck, which is to be completed in fall 2024.
The Underdeck would have a pedestrian walkway called Miami Heritage Trail from Northwest Third Avenue to Biscayne Boulevard and a pedestrian bridge over the Florida East Coast Railway.
“The [Underdeck] area is a little narrower in Overtown, where there is an existing neighborhood, and it gets a little wider towards the Performing Arts Center and museums,” he said. “We’re working with [Miami-Dade County] to rearrange some parking and services for the art centers.”
Another problematic area, he said, was the area where the railway passes. “There were some very large-scale embankments – concrete walls supporting the roadway overhead. Instead of there being a connecting point, there was a narrow pedestrian bridge through a labyrinth of large walls with only surface parking.”
With the return of Brightline trains, Tri-Rail coming to downtown and increased freight traffic from the Port of Miami, he said, it was critical to build a viable bridge to connect the Overtown area to the rest of the Underdeck.
“We worked with FDOT and advocated that this is something that needs to improve,” he said, “and they budgeted quite a bit of additional money to remove the solid wall embankments. We still have some pieces that have come down because that’s where the off-ramp locations are. But we went from a very narrow pedestrian bridge that was jammed in between these vertical walls to a proposal that is happening now: a 24-foot-wide ‘active heart’ bridge that will have enough room for activities.”
The Miami Heritage Trail would be the main trail down the spine of the greenway, “celebrating Miami’s historic and contemporary culture through integrated public art, feature lighting and open space enhancements,” according to Mr. Gauger’s presentation. The city’s redesign of the Underdeck would have 50% green space compared to the previously planned 30%.
The city also plans to use enhance programming at the completed Underdeck to generate revenue: community plazas, cafés, concession areas, active recreation and spaces for rents.
“The idea is to install things like conduits, and make sure we have power supply at all the correct locations where you could set up a sound booth or lighting, or staging equipment,” Mr. Gauger said. “Same idea with the community plazas; they should be multifunctional with power, water, sewer connections at key places, for farmers’ market, an entrepreneur pop-up space, or longer-term temporary uses.”
“There would be areas for playgrounds, dog parks,” he added, “platforms for event spaces, restrooms, operations buildings, and interactive water features with elements that when they’re turned off are still functional spaces.”
This opportunity for revenue would help the city manage the Underdeck’s operating costs in the long run. Mr. Gauger said the Underdeck Greenway “is probably something that will end up with a trust or conservancy with a non-profit public partnership for overall management of the space.”
“As we’re looking for funding opportunities, the infrastructure bill just passed, and I know there are a lot of new opportunities there for funding,” said Javier A. Betancourt, executive director of Citizens Independent Transportation Trust, at the meeting. “This administration seems very keen on mitigating some of these horrible mistakes from the past, where we divided these low-income communities. And maybe there is an opportunity for federal resources there.”
As the city continues to seek funding, the deadline for the final Underdeck overall plan was extended to February 2022.
In 2018, the Downtown Development Authority committed $50,000 to design, the Miami Parking Authority committed $50,000, the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency agreed to give $150,000, and the Southeast Overtown/ Park West Community Redevelopment Agency agreed to give $150,00. None of these amounts has been confirmed by the FDOT, Miami Today previously reported.
David Restainer, managing director of Douglas Elliman Commercial and chair of the New World Center committee of the Greater Miami Chamber, said, “this is not just a signature bridge, this is extraordinarily impactful to the quality of life. The infrastructure is important, the resiliency is important because we’re connecting a neighborhood that has been somewhat disconnected to the west of our waterfront.”