Miami-Dade To Turn ‘wAsted Space’ Into Vibrant Neighborhood

A view of Edward Ruscha's "Words Without Thoughts Never to Heaven Go" at the Miami-Dade County Main Library on Monday, Aug. 22, 2022, in Miami. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald via AP)
A view of Edward Ruscha's "Words Without Thoughts Never to Heaven Go" at the Miami-Dade County Main Library on Monday, Aug. 22, 2022, in Miami. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald via AP)
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MIAMI (AP) — This is the vision: At the western end of downtown Miami, a dense, walkable, transit-centered and family-friendly high-rise district would bloom over eight city blocks.

Rents for thousands of apartments would fall within reach of the average Miamian. Children would walk to neighborhood schools, check out books at a new public library and explore Miami’s colorful history at an alluring new museum. Neighbors could gather at a new park, dine and shop nearby, or work out at an up-to-date wellness center.

Residents could comfortably walk to work or commute on myriad transit options just a few steps from home — Metrobus, Tri-Rail, Metrorail or Metromover — or easily hop onto I-95. To go on vacation, families could stroll over to a fast Brightline train to Disney World or Tampa’s Florida Aquarium, or ride Metrorail directly to Miami International Airport and, beyond that, fly to almost anywhere in the world.

In what’s being billed as one of the biggest and most ambitious urban redevelopment schemes in the country, Miami-Dade County has packaged some 17 acres of publicly owned downtown real estate and put it up for bid. The county hopes to lure developers who can deliver on a far-reaching blueprint for a transformed, connected and vital downtown district with thousands of residents and new civic spaces.

It’s no sure thing, however.

The path to development of what the county has branded as MetroCenter will be long — officials say it could take 15 years — and filled with daunting hurdles. The cost of building everything, including 6,000 to 8,500 new apartments and condominiums, could amount to around $10 billion, officials said. They called the estimate “an initial benchmark” that will be refined as project planning advances.

The financing strategy sounds straightforward, but for developers it’s a very big ask: For the opportunity to build large-scale projects on prime land, they would pay Miami-Dade market rent and a small percent of profits, set aside at least a couple thousand apartments as affordable and workforce housing, and provide required new public buildings like a new main library to the county. The county would reap a windfall of substantial new revenue, including millions in property taxes every year, and get better facilities without tapping taxpayers.

To grasp the formidable scale of the transformation that Miami-Dade intends to achieve, take a tour of the reality on the ground around the monolithic slab of the Stephen P. Clark Government Center tower today. The county properties run roughly from I-95 and the Miami River east to the Florida East Coast Railway tracks, and from Flagler Street to Northwest Third Street.

The 17 acres up for grabs are mostly a down-at-the heels hodgepodge consisting of: parking lots and garages; a county gas station and fleet repair shop; cracked, stained sidewalks; scruffy, underused green areas; a couple of outdated county buildings, one so deteriorated that it’s already set to be demolished; and the lightly visited, fortress-like cultural center complex that houses the HistoryMiami museum and the county’s Main Library.

The 17 acres up for grabs are mostly a down-at-the heels hodgepodge consisting of: parking lots and garages; a county gas station and fleet repair shop; cracked, stained sidewalks; scruffy, underused green areas; a couple of outdated county buildings, one so deteriorated that it’s already set to be demolished; and the lightly visited, fortress-like cultural center complex that houses the HistoryMiami museum and the county’s Main Library.

Except for the Clark tower, which would remain in place, the county says everything else can go. That includes the octagonal, UFO-like annex that houses the Miami-Dade commission chambers as well as the cultural center, barely 40 years old and designed by the famed late architect Philip Johnson. Developers would be required to provide new homes for the commission, HistoryMiami and the main library, among other institutions and agencies.

REPURPOSING ‘THE PEOPLE’S LAND’

To Miami-Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins, who has spearheaded the MetroCenter plan, the county’s extensive downtown holdings represent a huge lost opportunity at a time when local real estate is increasingly valuable, the supply of urban land available for development is shrinking, and there’s a desperate shortage of affordable and centrally located places for Miamians to live.

“A lot of it is wasted space,” Higgins, whose district includes the properties to be redeveloped, said in an interview. “This is the people’s land. We should use it to solve the people’s needs.”

The time is especially ripe for downtown’s redevelopment and transformation, Higgins said.

Brightline, the private passenger train service whose corporate parent built a massive, multiblock station complex abutting the county properties, is soon to start service to Orlando and next plans to extend its higher speed rail line to Tampa. Its parent company has also brought in a developer to erect two new residential towers next to its MiamiCentral Station, which already boasts a pair of leased-out apartment buildings and an office high-rise.

A finished extension of the public Tri-Rail commuter train line to MiamiCentral, meanwhile, also finally appears ready to begin operation after long delays.

And a new county civil courthouse is under construction just south of the MiamiCentral complex. It will replace the historic courthouse, which will be sold to be renovated for a new use, possibly as a hotel, though not as part of the MetroCenter initiative.

If it works, the county’s plan would radically reshape into a city neighborhood a government and civic nerve center devised in the 1970s and built in the early 1980s to revitalize downtown Miami, with at best partial success.

The old downtown district centered around Flagler Street was once the center of Miami’s business, shopping and entertainment life. But it went into a long, steep decline as Miami’s middle class decamped for the suburbs starting in the 1960s. The 1964 razing of industrialist and Miami co-founder Henry Flagler’s original FEC rail station, on the site of Brightline’s new MiamiCentral, was only one of the most notable milestones in downtown’s slide.

Construction of the county hall tower, the cultural center and downtown’s connection to neighborhoods and suburbs to the south, north and west via Metrorail were an effort to jolt life back into downtown. In the years since, Miami-Dade, the city of Miami and the state of Florida invested millions more in newer public buildings in downtown’s western end, including a police magnet high school and college abutting Miami police headquarters and an architecturally distinctive children’s courthouse.

But without people living there, the public institutions by themselves failed to spark new civic or commercial life in the area, especially after working hours and on weekends.

The addition of apartments, condos and local public schools, another element of the county plan that developers must provide, would give Miami what it’s always lacked, Higgins said — a true urban neighborhood with full transit options and a panoply of services and amenities where a car is not needed for daily life, but that’s also ideally suited for families. In planning lingo, it’s called a transit-oriented development, or TOD.

“In other cities, you can live in a high-rise district and raise a family. You can’t raise a family in downtown Miami,” Higgins said. “It defeats the purpose of a TOD, if your kids can’t walk to school.”

The financial return for participating developers is potentially huge, something the county is banking on. But so will the unusual and demanding public responsibilities that developers must accept to participate.

HOW IT WOULD WORK

Higgins has worked on the plan with Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and county officials for about two years, consulting with developers and land-use lawyers to make sure the idea is feasible.

“There’s absolutely interest,” Higgins said, referring to developers. “This can be a defining project for a development team. How often do you get to create a neighborhood that’s also the seat of government and the center of transit?”

In the past month, the county has released a draft conceptual brief outlining its plan and some 600 pages of specifications, also in draft form, that developers would have to follow. The guidelines cover everything from housing requirements to infrastructure improvements and a detailed needs list for the library.

“The county has done a ton of work. Every department has basically been involved,” Higgins said. “The library and HistoryMiami have done an excellent job, and they have a good idea of what they need.”

But that doesn’t mean the county has laid out precisely what would be built where or when. It would be up to participating developers to figure out the complex chessboard of projects, with one big caveat, Higgins said — there can be no interruption of public and library services or HistoryMiami operations.

The county is only at the start of what will be a long, arduous process to develop a detailed master plan for MetroCenter.

It’s just now embarking on a two-year effort to identify a master developer who would be tasked with drawing up the MetoCenter master plan, figuring out how to finance it, and overseeing its development under an agreement that would be negotiated with Miami-Dade officials.

The county is gathering public comment on the draft plans and will release a request for proposals from developers by mid-September, said Rita Silva, head of procurement on the project for Miami-Dade.

By the middle of next year, the county hopes to name up to five finalists who would be asked to develop more-specific proposals. The county would then issue a final request for proposals, and the mayor’s office would recommend a winner in 2024, Silva said.

After a detailed agreement is signed, that master developer would then recruit partners to design and build individual projects.

County officials emphasize that nothing is yet set in stone and details are subject to change as plans evolve to ensure their feasibility.

“This is very early stages,” Silva said. “There’s a lot of moving parts.”

TRANSIT HUB

A key element in the plan is a new hub for the numerous Metrobus routes that start and end on downtown streets around the government center, but provide little in the way of shelter or amenities for users. A multilevel station that could be built at the base of a new tower would consolidate the stops in a comfortable setting for both passengers and drivers.

The bus depot, the combined MiamiCentral and Tri-Rail station and the Government Center Metrorail and Metromover station would ideally all be connected so that transit passengers can move seamlessly from one to the other and be sheltered from sun and rain, county officials say.

Unlike the rest of the MetroCenter plan, county officials don’t expect developers to pay for the transit hub. That would come out of Miami-Dade’s share of the half-penny transportation sales tax. The county already has detailed specifications for the station drawn up by engineering giant AECOM. Higgins has said the station is one of the most complex elements in the MetroCenter plan.

AFFORDABLE HOUSING

The county properties included in the bid can accommodate a gargantuan 23 million square feet of total development because they’re already designated a Miami-Dade rapid-transit zone. That’s a high-density zoning category that applies to county-owned land abutting Metro stations even when those sit inside the boundaries of a municipality like the City of Miami. While some adjustments may be necessary, Higgins said that existing zoning should be sufficient to meet the county’s development goals.

That means developers should be able to fit between 6,000 and 8,500 apartments or condos on the available real estate, especially since the rapid-transit zoning allows for reduced parking requirements. The county will require developers to provide a third of any new apartments, or an expected minimum of 2,000 units, at rents that meet income and rent criteria for affordable or workforce housing. That will target a range of households making from under 80% of the area median income up to 140% of the benchmark, which now sits at $68,300. The income figure that applies will vary depending on when the housing is built.

The zoning technically permits unlimited height, but Federal Aviation Administration and county rules cap tall buildings downtown because they sit under flight paths to and from the Miami airport. Height determinations would be made for individual projects, but the rules effectively cap tower heights at 1,049 feet along the bayfront.

CIVIC AMENITIES

The plan calls for a public park of at least 2.5 acres at the center of the new development. The park could replace the commission chamber annex on the south entrance of the Clark tower, as well as a plaza and an adjacent underused, sunken green lawn on the building’s western flank.

A valuable and iconic sculpture on the plaza, “Dropped Bowl with Scattered Slices and Peels,” by renowned Pop artists Claes Oldenburg, who died recently, and his wife and artistic partner Coosje van Bruggen, would likely have to be moved to a location outside downtown because it takes up too much space, Higgins said. Other commissioners already have requested it for their districts, she said.

Developers would also have to provide new homes for HistoryMiami and the main library. The museum is a private, nonprofit institution that receives county support and operates two buildings at the cultural center, though it doesn’t have a formal lease or use agreement with Miami-Dade.

Higgins said a new building would allow the museum, which she described as “cramped” in its present quarters, to better showcase the city’s history and its spectacular and growing collection of objects and artifacts, and to significantly grow attendance, now hindered by its out-of-sight location.

The new main library would include a 300-seat public auditorium, a multiuse event space and an exhibition gallery to show the system’s extensive art collection, in addition to space for books and research materials, public computers, storage and other typical library functions.

Developers would also have to provide a new daycare center to replace an existing one in a one-story building on the government center grounds that would be demolished, as well as new school buildings for pre-kindergarten through high school.

COUNTY OFFICES AND PUBLIC SPACES

The plan also requires developers to provide new quarters for the county’s parks and recreation department and an innovative county program for troubled youth, the Juvenile Assessment Center. Both are now housed together in a cramped and outdated office building a block from the county hall tower.

Occupants of another county office building at 140 Flagler Street have already been moved out because of structural issues. The building is scheduled to be torn down.

Developers must also provide a replacement for a small county automobile and truck maintenance building, as well as a parking lot once a pair of aging garages that serve Miami-Dade employees and the cultural center are demolished to make way for towers.

Finally, developers would need to ante up a new 50,000-square-foot, 300-seat public assembly chambers for the county commission.

Like the planned transit hub, most of the civic and support buildings the county wants can be incorporated into individual projects as they’re built, Higgins said. That approach would allow the county to capitalize on underused land and valuable air space — the massive amount of unbuilt high-rise development allowed under existing zoning — while expanding and improving public services and securing a place for low- and middle-income families.

“We want to put this land to both economic use and good use,” Higgins said. “Could I get more revenue if we only built luxury condos? Probably. But we want this plan to be centered around affordability. At the end of the day, this plan pays for everything I’m asking for.”