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Written by Mark Sell - BT Contributor   
November 2011

So FIU wants a new access road to its Biscayne Bay campus? Not so fast…

Pix-for-Mark_Sell_11-11If Florida International University is even thinking about turning the Arch Creek East Nature Preserve trail into a four-lane road, it’s time for a rethink.

Thanks to the mobilization of NE 135th Street residents and their allies over the past 30 days, the option appears dead on arrival. But politics works in strange ways, and activists are girding for a five- or ten-year fight, fearing that the notion could at any time emerge from its evident tomb and rejoin the living.

FIU wants more access than just NE 151st Street for its growing 7500-student Biscayne Bay campus in the City of North Miami. The campus (part of a 46,000-student university) hosts schools of hospitality, journalism, and environmental science, and runs a shuttle bus nearly 25 miles to its main campus in west Miami-Dade.

The university has stepped up its efforts to get more access after the recent openings of Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School and the David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center created two 15 mph school zones on 151st Street.

The nature trail option, by far the cheapest, is to convert the preserve trail into a four-lane road, as it was before Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman worked to deed the land back to the City of North Miami, creating a preserve “in perpetuity” in 2007.

It turned the main highway from the aborted Interama cultural center project into a pedestrian and bike trail bounded by City of North Miami land on one side, and Oleta River State Park on the other.

The alternative option is to run the access road through 143rd Street and across the Biscayne Landings site, and then via a bridge over protected wetlands. That will likely require cooperation with Michael Swerdlow, who is moving forward to consolidate his hold on the site, buying up the 160 bank-owned condos and promising new amenities within 18 months.

For now, the 135th Street option appears off the table with respect to the North Miami City Council, which must give its blessing to any access option.

On October 17, Mayor Andre Pierre declared his opposition to the 135th Street plan to a packed meeting of the Arch Creek East Neighborhood Association, joining council members Michael Blynn and Scott Galvin, who has led the charge against it and is not subtle in his assessments.

“FIU is the evil one in the whole process,” Galvin told the group that night. “We’re going to fight this tooth and nail. They are starting to backpedal, to explore 143rd Street as an option, and they want the taxpayers to pay for this.”

FIU insists it has no preference and is always on the lookout for other options, but is adamant about the need for another access road. “The rumors that we have a preference are incorrect,” says Sandra Gonzalez-Levy, FIU’s senior vice president of external relations. “We have believed there is a need for an access road, and the last thing we want is an incident that underscores the need for it. There are concerns about accessibility and safety.”

Gonzalez-Levy does acknowledge that 135th and 143rd streets are the two top options for now, but adds that the university is exploring other possibilities.

In late September, Galvin sent out e-mails asking residents to “stop this madness.” In response, more than 20 residents showed up at 2:00 p.m. on Monday, October 3, at a meeting of the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The Kimley-Horn consulting firm presented its $50,000 study of access road options, including the widening of 151st Street, the 143rd Street option (which would cost $11-$30 million), the 135th Street option ($5-$10 million), and running a limited-access road through Oleta River State Park. (The latter won’t happen; it’s a state park.) The study had been requested by Mayor Pierre (an MPO member), on whom FIU had been leaning for months.

All options are tricky, as they intrude on wetlands and would thereby invite a swarm of agencies and oversight. They are also theoretical, as public money is scarce these days.

Neither Kimley-Horn nor the MPO made any recommendation following the meeting. Enough residents showed up to impress the MPO with their opposition, and attendees said that former North Miami Mayor Kevin Burns, who was active in creating the preserve, was particularly eloquent.

In the meantime, FIU noticed that Scott Galvin had been stirring things up, and called him to a meeting that Friday -- the kind that diplomats call “frank and businesslike.”

“I had a feisty meeting with them,” Galvin says.

“We agreed to disagree,” adds Gonzalez-Levy, who called the meeting and gathered a powerful assembly, including Biscayne Bay Campus Provost Steve Moll, FIU Vice President for Governmental Relations Steve Sauls, and representatives from Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and even student government leaders.

Also tagging along was super lobbyist Ron Book, who was “representing himself” at the meeting. Book, whose name graces the Ronald L. Book Athletic Stadium on 151st Street, next to Mourning High, also represents Michael Swerdlow and the City of North Miami in governmental relations.

Galvin told the Arch Creek East group on October 17 that he viewed this meeting as a form of mau-mauing and walked away unimpressed. The FIU people said they were simply trying to make the university’s position clear.

Galvin also told the group that night that Swerdlow had come out in support of the 143rd Street option over the 135th Street plan.

Book won’t confirm or deny Swerdlow’s preference. “Michael Swerdlow is ready to work with all interested parties for an amicable and just resolution,” Book says.

Burns and Galvin (pictured here), as well as the residents, suspect FIU was trying to pull a fast one. What’s worse, and difficult to prove or disprove, is the widely circulated story that FIU isn’t really at the center of this, but is a cat’s paw for a waterfront condo developer quietly in cahoots with certain unnamed parties somewhere in the City of North Miami. (The city’s corruption issues do nothing to allay these unconfirmed suspicions.)

FIU has just completed a master plan, which presents an opportunity to schedule a presentation before the council and reach out to the city.

Says ex-Mayor Burns: “What FIU needs to do is come out into the community and dispel any miscommunication or missteps they might have made. They will save a whole lot of money and aggravation.”

Gonzalez-Levy admits things could have been handled better. “Maybe we put the cart before the horse,” she says.

Now that FIU is on notice, there’s time to right the cart.

 

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