The Biscayne Times

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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
October 2016

Latest roadwork on busy NE 79th Street has drivers on edge

T79thStreet_1he Florida Department of Transportation just finished an $8.1 million project to resurface and enhance NE 79th Street from Biscayne Bay to NW 13th Avenue. Those enhancements include new traffic lights, flashing crosswalks, signs, and some medians with grass and trees.

But there was little celebration in Shorecrest, a residential neighborhood that lies north of NE 79th Street and east of Biscayne Boulevard. Some Shorecrest residents complain that FDOT has yet to comply with their key request: to add a second westbound lane to NE 79th Street. As a result, they grumble, it’s harder for cars and buses to drive west during rush hour, encouraging some commuters to speed through residential Shorecrest streets.

“It looks like the people behind the desk are making the decisions and they’re not driving around,” says Vera Saes, a Shorecrest resident for the past four years.

It isn’t just residents who are dissatisfied with FDOT’s work. Some operators of businesses on NE 79th Street east of Biscayne Boulevard are distraught over the disappearance of parking spaces on the north side of the street. And Ricky Noel and Nikko Osborne, Miami City firefighters based at Fire Station No. 13 at 990 NE 79th St., say the narrowing of 79th Street, and the new medians, have made it harder for them to respond to emergencies. Occasionally, they’ve had to drive their vehicles along the eastbound lanes, into oncoming traffic. “We had to adapt and overcome,” Noel says. “We just try to drive safely and not cause any more accidents.”

Since the 1970s, 79th Street between I-95 and Biscayne Bay has had three lanes going east toward Miami Beach and North Bay Village, and just one lane heading west into the City of Miami. However, that single westbound lane was wide enough to accommodate two vehicles prior to FDOT’s road project.

Westbound traffic from North Bay Village can also take the one-way, two-lane NE 82nd Street, which winds through single-family areas of Shorecrest and Little River. Shorecrest residents have long sought the transformation of NE 82nd Avenue into a simple residential street. They’ve also asked that NE 79th Street be converted into a highway with two lanes heading east and two lanes heading west.

“It isn’t safe,” says Shorecrest resident and real estate agent Mina Kuhn. “There are so many accidents, and people speed through our neighborhood. We’ve been voicing our concerns to FDOT for probably more than ten years. Their mind is set. They’re not going to change it. And in order to please us, they decided to do some beautifications.”

79thStreet_2Maggie Steber, a photographer who has lived in Shorecrest for 16 years, feels that FDOT actually made the street less safe. Steber says turning left (south) at NE 7th Avenue near Marine Max -- a route often used by drivers wishing to travel south on Biscayne Boulevard -- is a frightening experience.

“The traffic going east comes right at you, and if someone misses a slight swerve in the lane, a car could hit you head on and kill the driver,” Steber writes in an e-mail to the BT. “Considering how Miami drivers are constantly distracted by texting, talking on the phone, sunlight, speed, I think it’s an accident waiting to happen.”

FDOT didn’t respond to questions by deadline, but in response to e-mails from Shorecrest residents, Sandra Bello, an FDOT spokeswoman, claimed that Miami-Dade County has a “future project to widen this intersection and add...dedicated left-turn lanes” on NE 79th Street.

As for the concrete medians, Bello stated that they were purposely placed by bus stops as a safety feature. “Concrete medians have been added as part of this project at each of the described locations, which help prevent drivers from going around the bus into head-on traffic or striking a pedestrian trying to get to the bus on time,” Bello explained.

The medians also grind westbound traffic to a halt whenever a Metro bus stops. “You can’t go anywhere,” observes Shorecrest resident Abbie Cuellar. “Everyone is stuck behind the bus.”

As for the removal of parking spaces, FDOT officials have claimed the spaces along NE 79th Street were painted on the north side by mistake.

Mistake or not, those on-street parking spaces were used by offices, restaurants, and stores that have been proliferating on the north side of 79th Street east of Biscayne Boulevard. The removal of the spaces has been especially painful for properties with limited parking.

“It definitely did hurt us,” says Miguel Pinto, a commercial real estate broker with Chariff Realty, who represents two properties on NE 79th Street with limited parking.

79thStreet_3Cuellar, an attorney, used to have an office in a two-story building at 647 NE 79th St. It had just eight-spaces, which had to be shared with the building’s other office tenants, as well as Guarapo Juice Bar and a hair salon. Still, Cuellar could walk to work and her employees and clients had the option of using the on-street parking, including three spaces right in front of the building.

And then those spaces disappeared. “One morning I got a frantic call from my assistant,” Cuellar recounts. “She said they took away all the parking on the north side of 79th Street. I thought she was just being crazy, but they had, in fact, taken out all the parking.”

So Cuellar moved her office to Coral Way, 11 miles from her Shorecrest home. “It sucks,” she says, “but there’s no parking over here.” Cuellar says she wasn’t alone. Some of her former neighbors left the building, too. Guarapo employee Guillermo Cleffi says the lack of parking is one of the reasons why the juice bar is moving out of the 647 Building. “The parking in general is hard to get to,” Cleffi says.

Marky’s Gourmet Store, also known as the Russian Store, has operated at 687 NE 79th St. for 30 years. It has plenty of parking on the premises. However, the store’s manager, Joseph Vulf, says business has been harmed by the slow flow of westward traffic following the road construction. “A lot of people are complaining,” he says.

Derkis Sanchez, co-owner of Tim Freeman’s Frame Shop at 931 NE 79th St., says he loves the new businesses that have sprung up along the street, but he too dislikes the changes FDOT made, contending that it makes it harder for businesses to operate. The concrete median FDOT placed in the 700 block, Sanchez observes, makes it harder for drivers to ingress and egress. “It sucks,” he says. “They should have left at least the right-of-way for people coming in and out.”

It isn’t just the medians. The yellow lines have gotten wider, too. Sanchez says he’s seen many people ticketed by police for crossing those yellow lines.

Antolin Carbonell, a Miami historian and occasional BT contributor, contends that FDOT engineers are facing an uphill battle when it comes to improving 79th Street. When the Shorecrest area was platted by the Krames-Corlett Company in 1924, both NE 79th Street and NE 82nd Street were simple residential roads. Then in 1928, the development of the Hialeah Park Race Track further west and the lobbying of property owners in Miami and Miami Beach, spurred the construction of a bridge at 79th Street, connecting Miami Beach to the mainland via North Bay Village.

79thStreet_4By the 1950s, 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard were gridlocked, Carbonell says. So FDOT condemned properties on the south side of the street and widened 79th Street. But they were hampered in their efforts to widen the road on the north side owing to Shorecrest’s platting.

“You have to blame it on the shortsightedness of developers in the 1920s,” Carbonell says. “They bought all this land, but they didn’t provide sufficient right-of-way [to widen the streets].”

In the 1970s, FDOT bought and ripped down houses along NE 82nd Street in Shorecrest and proceeded to build a one-way, two-lane westbound roadway leading to I-95.

Traffic on NE 79th Street, meanwhile, continues to increase, thanks to a wave of development on the beaches and Miami’s Biscayne Corridor, especially near NE 79th Street.

Doron Valero recently invested $4.5 million transforming the faded Biscayne Plaza Shopping Center at the intersection of Biscayne Boulevard and 79th Street into Midpoint Plaza, a revamped retail area with abundant parking.

Across the street from Midpoint Plaza, developer Leo Wu is currently turning the former 12-story INS building into the Triton Center, a complex that will include 139 hotel rooms, 324 apartments, and 17,000 square feet of retail.

About a mile to the east of the future Triton, at 7950 N. Bayshore Court, on Biscayne Bay and within Shorecrest itself, are the two 20-story towers that make up Shorecrest Club Apartments. Constructed last year by Adler Development and ECI Group, Shorecrest Club Apartments has 437 units.

The NE 79th Street corridor east of Biscayne Boulevard has also undergone a resurgence. This revival has made the street more expensive, not to mention congested. Just three years ago, a retail space could be leased for around $20 a square foot, says commercial broker Miguel Pinto. Now landlords are receiving more than $35 a square foot. “West of Biscayne Boulevard it’s $20 a square foot [for retail] or $15 a square foot if the property is unimproved,” Pinto adds.

Pinto credits the surge of new businesses to the success of the MiMo Biscayne Boulevard Historic District on the Boulevard itself. Because of that popularity, NE 79th Street’s rates are a bargain compared to the Boulevard. “A great deal [on the Boulevard] is $50 a square foot,” he says. In spite of the parking scarcity, Pinto already has a Pilates studio ready to replace Guarapo at the 647 Building.

Christina Silva, a 33-year-old Belle Meade resident, owns Flash Studios Hair Salon behind the 647 Building. She says the street has improved “100 fold” from five years ago, when people were warned that it was “full of prostitutes, kind of raunchy, and terrible.” The lack of parking, however, is a sore point.

“Somebody needs to build a parking garage around here,” Silva says. “There are so many restaurants that weren’t here before and so many changes happening that we don’t have the proper amount of parking for the volume of people coming here.”

 

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