Viva Flagler!

It's downtown's swirling kaleidoscope of sights and sounds and smells. Where the Latin mercado meets the American enterprise. Where commerce thrives and clerks cut deals. So why would urban planners want to kill it?

In 1965, in order to "improve downtown," the Miami City Commission formed the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), a semiautonomous city agency funded by downtown property tax revenues. In the fall of 1988, as Flagler merchants were beginning to see improvements from their financial straits of the early part of the decade, the agency used part of its budget (currently $1.6 million) to initiate a one-block, $250,000 demonstration project between Miami Avenue and East First Avenue, to show how a physical upgrade of Flagler might look. Eighteen black olive and palm trees were replaced with hybrid maypan palms. New telephone booths, trash receptacles, concrete flower pots, and light poles were installed. Sidewalks were repaired, concrete benches removed, street signs consolidated. Some landlords and merchants responded, taking advantage of a citywide program that pays 70 percent of facade improvements up to $2000, and making further improvements of their own. But for the most part, Flagler remains unchanged. "The demonstration project was supposed to be a catalyst for the property owners to step in and continue the improvements," says Clyde Judson, DDA's director of urban design. "That just hasn't happened."

The demonstration project was part of a blueprint for the revitalization of the Flagler area drafted by DDA, the city's planning department, and the Downtown Miami Business Association in November 1986, the nadir of the business crunch downtown. Titled the "Flagler Street Initiative," it laid out a four-year plan, proposing improvements for storefronts and streets and suggesting ways to ease traffic congestion. The initiative also urged that landlords and merchants establish a management district, tax themselves, and hire a professional team to coordinate everything. "Setting up the district is really a key part of the plan," says DDA's Judson. "It's something that would really make things come together and work."

Last fall Flagler's landlords and their tenants agreed to form the district, but not to the extent Judson and the DDA had hoped. "The idea with forming a special district was to give merchants and property owners the same level of development strategies as a shopping center," Judson explains. "They could hire a team to manage and promote Flagler Street in things like maintenance, security, signage, even tenant mix - so you don't get too many stores doing the same types of things. A manager could use special marketing schemes, like group advertising, and run special events and sales like a shopping mall might. There would be marketing of downtown, as opposed to individual marketing by store owners."

But instead of adopting the initiative in its entirety, property owners agreed to tax themselves only enough to pay street-cleaning crews and to hire an auxiliary law-enforcement group to patrol from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. "It's not that many merchants wouldn't like to hire a management team," says Maira Diaz, executive director of the 141-member Downtown Miami Business Association. "But you have to realize they are taxing themselves. A lot of them just can't afford it."

This past January DDA paid $3000 to Fort Lauderdale-based economic and development consultant Hammer, Siler, George Associates to prepare a major market study of the Flagler retail area. Although they presented various options for development, the consultants emphasized as their goal the attraction of "more affluent" consumers. To that end, they suggested that a second department store be sought to join Burdines, Flagler's long-time anchor. Or an "International Village" might be created, they wrote, "to provide a worldwide flavor to a segment of downtown Miami's retail core." Other strategies involved varying the mix of shops, or constructing an independent major mall downtown.

Such proposals and objectives raise the eyebrows of many merchants, including Miguel Brazlavsky, whose $10.95 Sierra Pacific shorts and $150 polyester-and-viscose Raffinati suits are probably not what the "more affluent" shopper has in mind. "A guy who goes to Bal Harbour or Mayfair has already made the decision of where he wants to go," says Brazlavsky. "I know if I offer the same shirt with a different label for half the price, he won't buy it. He wants the label."

"Downtown could certainly use some improvements," adds the business association's Maira Diaz. "But we're talking about cleaning the streets, filling potholes, improving the lights - not turning it into a mall. Downtown is a special place. You're talking about people who have been there for 30 years and have done things the same way for a long time. Most of them don't even advertise. Can you see them putting up those signs and blasting music in a mall? Forget it. They just don't have the same mindset as most store owners."

Brazlavsky, who helped found the Downtown Miami Business Association and who also sits on the 29-member appointed board of DDA, is especially wary of wholesale revisions. "Sometimes I look at what the planners at DDA want to do, and I tell them, `You're dreaming. It's all a dream,'" he says. "This is not a Mayfair in the Grove. This is not Bal Harbour. If they want to turn it into that, they might as well forget it. That's not what this place is about. It will never work. Not in my lifetime. People who go to those places do not come here."

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