Downtown Miami, squared

By | September 19th, 2011 | 6 Comments

Here’s a thought: We celebrate the fact that Downtown Miami abuts a beautiful body of water called Biscayne Bay by clearing space for a public park/square where we citizens can enjoy a respite from the gridlock and exhaust of urban life. I know, in a car-centric, casino-craving, condo-glutted metropolis like Miami, it is hard to imagine that we would ever gift ourselves such a place. Fortunately, someone has rendered the mirage for us.

The sketch appeared (attributed to no one, oddly) on Saturday in a Miami Herald opinion piece by District 7 commissioner Xavier L. Suarez. In the column, Suarez hails the park as an alternative to the casinos so many lobbyists — including School Board member Carlos Curbelo — want to proliferate downtown. He goes on to challenge the Genting Group, which recently bought the Herald building and intends to build a Dubai-worthy (i.e., embarrassingly gaudy) resort complex in its place, complete with a casino if possible.

The Genting principals have indicated that they want their hotels to be casinos. They have also said that they will build their project regardless of whether gaming is approved. I say we hold them to their word, and offer them the alternative of being connected to the world’s most enticing urban public space, with cultural, recreational and artistic facilities congregated into one contiguous venue.

Hear! Hear! Earlier in the piece, Suarez draws a comparison between Miami and Chicago, each of which borders a body of water on its eastern flank. But the contrast between the way the two cities take advantage of their locations is far more striking. Chicago has dedicated practically all of its lakefront to green space, including the truly world-class Millennium Park, and has a road, Lakeside Drive, that offers mile after stunning mile of unobstructed views of Lake Michigan. Miami, on the other hand, has crowded the shores of the bay with monumental buildings that keep it out of site of drivers on Biscayne Boulevard.

Befitting a public servant, Suarez proposes a solution to a public problem. His park would comprise 40 acres of downtown bayfront; it would connect the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center to the Miami Arts Museum and the Miami Science Museum when they open in Museum Park; and it would require burying a half-mile of Biscayne Boulevard, from the southern tip of Bicentennial Park to the northern tip of the Arsht.

“This downtown public space mirrors, but greatly exceeds, Chicago’s Millennium Park, in terms of open space,” Suarez says.

As someone who lived in Chicago for a year and enjoyed many a minute, hour, and day in Millennium Park, I can tell you that the space has an incredible impact on its surroundings. Downtown Chicago is one of the great urban grids on Earth, but it nonetheless needs its park. It is like the rug in The Big Lebowski: It really ties the city together.

The park Suarez envisions could have a similar impact in Miami. The question, of course, is whether it is a pipe dream. Anticipating the average Miamian’s cynicism — totally understandable, of course, particularly when it comes to visionary city planning proposals — Suarez declares the following:

For those who think this concept is too costly and visionary, the idea of sinking the 100-foot boulevard for 750 meters is roughly equivalent to digging and building 15 Olympic-size pools in a row then adding a roadway on top. It is about the same length, and only three times deeper, than the pool proposed by architect Bernardo Fort-Brescia for the Genting project, which would extend from Biscayne Boulevard to the bay.

That may be, but everyone knows money talks in Miami. And even though Suarez makes an economic argument for the park — it will serve as the vital connective tissue between Miami’s many imminent large-scale projects, including the Genting resort and Museum Park — provincial local politicians and store-bought lobbyists would likely easily make the case that sectioning off 40 acres of downtown for picnicking and Ultimate Frisbee is no way to combat a recession, let alone a budget crisis.

Suarez anticipates them as well.

“Miami will be the most exciting global city because of its natural, cultural, and human assets,” he says, “not because we have casinos in every hotel.”

He’s right on the money.

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6 Comments on “Downtown Miami, squared”

  1. 1 Adrian Salgado said at 1:34 pm on September 19th, 2011:

    Whoa! The 2nd coming of Xavier Suarez, our modern-day Daniel Burnham.

    Sounds like a wonderful plan in a city that so desperately needs a natural identity. Too bad it doesn’t stand a Chinaman’s chance. Another what-if to talk about in 10 years.

  2. 2 Jordan Melnick said at 1:38 pm on September 19th, 2011:

    @Adrian, as much as I hate to succumb to knee-jerk cynicism, I fear that you’re right. I wouldn’t be surprised if Suarez’s plan got a few chuckles inside City Hall. But if large-scale visions like this are not possible here, it seems that incremental changes are. The continual successes of bike activists as of late offer a glimmer of hope.

  3. 3 Adrian Salgado said at 2:10 pm on September 19th, 2011:

    I feel you, Jordan. I hate to be “that guy” too (the one that succumbs to knee-jerk cynicism), but civic pride doesn’t even fall in the Top 10 for Reasons Local Politicians Run For Office.

    I chuckle anytime the Miami-Chicago comparison comes up. I wrote a blog post about it years back, actually.

    Although the two cities share similar physical characteristics (the bodies of water on the eastern flank), their histories couldn’t differ more (except the Al Capone era, maybe).

    Chicago was built with civic pride and the vision of wealthy leaders who understood the importance of natural resources and public spaces for ALL to enjoy.

    Miami was built with…well, I’m sure you’ve seen Scarface, Cocaine Cowboys, countless episodes of Miami Vice, etc. I’ll save you the time.

  4. 4 Jordan Melnick said at 2:19 pm on September 19th, 2011:

    I’d like to read that blog post, Adrian.

  5. 5 Adrian Salgado said at 2:53 pm on September 19th, 2011:

    Here it is, Jordan (keep in mind it’s from 2007): “Miami: A Tropical Chicago?”

  6. 6 geniusofdespair said at 4:24 pm on September 20th, 2011:

    I wrote about this too in August….but the rendering I had was in color

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