The Biscayne Times

Aug 15th
Boulevard Vision: Slow Down, Park, Shop PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky   
August 2010

When the Florida Department of Transportation first embarked on the renovation of Biscayne Boulevard, state officials promised to mix traffic flow with pedestrian-friendly enhancements. Now, nearly three years after FDOT completed work on the roadway in Miami’s Upper Eastside, residents there say vehicles whiz through the neighborhood, making it more dangerous than ever to cross the street.

“Even with the light, you can’t go across,” complains Margaret Tynan, a longtime Belle Meade resident and president of the community’s homeowner association. “You have to have three sets of eyes.”

A proposal by two urban planners from the University of Miami’s School of Architecture aims to change all that by using trees, furniture, on-street parking, and medians. Called the “Biscayne Boulevard Streetscape Vision,” the plan, commissioned by a local business group, calls for narrowing a portion of the Boulevard and installing classy enhancements that will make the corridor resemble Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, forcing automobiles to slow down and giving drivers a chance to take notice of the area.

“You don’t want cars going 50 miles per hour in this corridor,” says Chuck Bohl, director of the UM’s Real Estate Development and Urbanism graduate program, who presented the concept to Miami residents on July 20.

Using funds from the City of Miami, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Knight Foundation, the MiMo Business Improvement Committee paid Bohl and UM colleague Jaime Correa $20,000 to create a streetscape plan for the Boulevard between 61st and 77th streets. Bohl and Correa had previously designed streetscapes for Miracle Mile and Giralda Avenue in the Gables.

Upper Eastsiders attending the streetscape’s unveiling generally welcomed the idea of a pedestrian-friendly Boulevard, though some were skeptical of another ingredient in the professors’ vision: eliminating a 35-foot height limit for buildings along those 16 blocks. “I don’t know about that,” says Palm Bay resident Joseph Canale. “To me the most important thing is quality of life. We fought very hard to get that height restriction.”

Bohl, however, thinks the 35-foot limit is poison. It will, he believes, stifle the creativity of architects and thwart the construction of new storefront retail and mixed-use projects. “It will chew up the district,” he warns, referring to the MiMo Biscayne Boulevard Historic District.

The historic district was created in 2006, an effort to preserve the 1950s-era motels along the Boulevard between 50th and 77th streets designed in the exuberant style now known as Miami Modern, or MiMo. The historic designation protected existing structures from demolition or significant alteration, but many homeowners living east and west of the Boulevard still feared that, in the future, buildings constructed on vacant lots could tower above their single-family homes. In response, Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes the Upper Eastside, demanded a height limit of 35 feet for the MiMo District in exchange for his support of a citywide zoning overhaul known as Miami 21. The city commission narrowly approved the height limit last year. It went into effect this past May.

UM’s Bohl says a 35-foot limit will force developers of new buildings to construct “single-use” projects such as car repair shops or squat “big box” retail outlets that will attract still more cars to the Boulevard. The limitation could deter development altogether, he adds, creating gaps, or “missing teeth,” that will discourage visitors from walking the district, particularly at night. Bohl also points out that buildings taller than 35 feet are fairly common in the Upper Eastside, “and they are not monstrosities.”

During last year’s city commission debate over the 35-foot limit, a compromise proposal was offered: 53 feet. It was defeated. Bohl laments that lost opportunity, and says a 53-foot limit would allow for “decent infill” of the Boulevard’s many vacant lots. Attorney Barbara Gimenez, secretary of the MiMo Business Improvement Committee and a Belle Meade resident, is optimistic that the streetscape plan can persuade Miami officials that they made a “serious error” enacting the 35-foot limit. “I’m still hopeful that it’s not a permanent change,” she says.

But Sarnoff vows he won’t budge on the height question and doesn’t understand why it should be so inhibiting. For one thing, he notes, Boulevard property owners can “sell” their previously allowed height and density rights to developers elsewhere in the city. For another, he says, “When they had 80, 90, or 120-foot height limits at the height of the development boom, nobody built there.”

Another supporter of the 35-foot rule is Elvis Cruz, president of the Morningside Civic Association. He argues that the restriction helps protect the “historic scale” of the MiMo District. “In the 27 blocks of the MiMo District, there are only four buildings above three stories [35 feet],” he says in an e-mail to the BT. “The vast majority are only one or two stories.”

A building 53 feet tall would “hurt the quality of life for the homes behind it,” he asserts. “Every neutral architect I’ve spoken to has told me the proper respectful scale that should be allowed next door to a single-family home is 3 stories/35 feet.”

Scott Timm, executive director of the MiMo Business Improvement Committee, admits that the 35-foot limit is likely a “done deal” now that it’s part of the Miami 21 zoning code: “Since so many people worked for so long on Miami 21, I don’t see any changes to this coming in the immediate future.”

Yet Timm is fairly confident that many of the streetscape suggestions will be accepted by FDOT, which has principal jurisdiction over Biscayne Boulevard. “I showed the plan documents to two FDOT representatives,” he says, “and they were very receptive.”

The streetscape plan offers three scenarios, all of them incorporating street furniture and landscaping along existing sidewalks. All of them also take into account the Boulevard’s design after FDOT’s reconstruction: four 11-foot-wide lanes -- two northbound, two southbound -- separated by a 12-foot-wide turning lane.

In Scenario 1, the traffic lanes would be “pinched” by up to a foot each, and the 12-foot turning lane would exist only at intersections. This would create enough room for on-street parallel parking on both sides of the roadway, an historic feature of the Boulevard.


Scenario 2 calls for a kind of virtual median running up the center of the Boulevard. It would be designated only by painted stripes. Trees would be planted in the median area. There would be no on-street parking in this option as the traffic lanes would not be pinched.


Scenario 3, the most expensive to implement, would pinch the traffic lanes to allow for parallel parking, and also include a true median -- with curbs, soil, landscaping, and trees.


Timm says FDOT thought the first two scenarios were possible. “They liked Scenario 1 because it didn’t involve any construction other than restriping the roadway,” he recounts, “and they liked Scenario 2 because it preserved the existing 11-foot travel lanes and only required minimal construction in the center median area.”

Ironically, medians were part of FDOT’s original reconstruction plans for the Boulevard, recalls Bob Flanders, a longtime Upper Eastside activist who lobbied in the 1990s for federal and state funding to renovate the thoroughfare. “We really, really wanted it,” he says.

However, a number of Boulevard business owners really, really hated the thought of medians, fearing they would prevent customers from turning their cars to get to their businesses. “They went absolutely crazy,” Flanders remembers. “I tried to tell them that medians work in North Miami but they wouldn’t listen.” Worn down by merchant opposition, FDOT killed the median idea in 2004.

No future forums on the Biscayne Boulevard Streetscape Vision have been scheduled. Timm says the vision is not actually a plan, just a first step. “All of this is still very tentative,” he says. “I’m looking forward to meeting with city and FDOT officials over the next several months to refine how this might work.”

Refinement number one: Finding a money source, as yet unidentified.


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