MacArthur Causeway

As you head over the apex of the Intracoastal Waterway bridge on the MacArthur Causeway and swoop down across Watson Island in your rented Chrysler LeBaron convertible, top down and gleaming white, it no longer matters that you haven't slept a wink since leaving home in Birmingham, England, 21 hours ago. Or that the Yanks drive on the right-hand side of the road. Or that everyone promised you'd be bludgeoned within an inch of your life shortly after stepping from the plane. Because 75 degrees in December (compared to a miserable 33 and drizzle back home) has that wonderful ability - however temporary - to burn all those concerns away. You whiff the musty-sweet smells of the tropics, the fresh salty air washes over you, and you remember that you don't have to be back at your accounting job tomorrow.

Suddenly, an arc of foliage and color reaching high over the traffic appears down the road: an explosive medley of purple and red bougainvillea. You head through the florid gateway, and before you lies a long, lush boulevard of trees and flowering shrubs in bloom, surrounded by glistening ocean water. Long corridors of palm and shade trees proudly line the sides of the causeway and the wide median and branch out over the road.

Through a stand of buttonwood trees on your right, you see families strolling along a shaded promenade by the side of the channel, enthralled by an improbably huge cruise ship gliding toward the open sea. A quartet of fishermen and the downtown skyline are silhouetted against the opening acts of a pastel-color sunset. Further east along the causeway, the dramatic structures of the bustling port rise up out of the water: the containers, the freighters, and the massive cranes, which present a steel counterpart to the tall, majestic trunks of the royal palms adorning the road's median.

On the other side of the causeway, beyond the mangroves lining the north bank, you gaze at the residential islands and wonder at their opulence and exclusivity. The symphony of birds in the tree canopies overhead soars above the rumble of the traffic, and nearby a pelican plunges into the water in a successful bid for dinner. Off in the distance you catch glimpses of South Beach's Art Deco landmarks bathed in the surreal light of dusk, and amid this interplay of man and nature on the MacArthur Causeway, it becomes perfectly clear that you've finally arrived in Miami.

So goes a tourist's South Florida awakening, according to the composite imagination of several of Dade's leading landscape architects. They envision the MacArthur's current overhaul - a nineteen-month project scheduled for completion in May, 1993 - as a perfect opportunity to remake the causeway into one of the nation's most beautiful roadways.

The causeway, to them, offers tremendous potential for regional expression, where careful planning and landscaping can pull the essence of Miami into sharp focus. It's not just a simple stretch of asphalt connecting an island to a mainland. It's the gateway to Miami Beach - South Florida's architectural and entertainment jewel - providing spectacular views of the area's complicated interaction of commerce, residence, tourism, and the environment.

But unfortunately for anyone who has a modicum of aesthetic sensitivity and must travel the causeway, Dade's landscape designers did not draw up the plans for the construction project. Engineers did. MacArthur Causeway - officially called State Road A1A - falls under the auspices of the Florida Department of Transportation, which determined the specifications of the new roadway. Amid safety and cost considerations, aesthetics were virtually forgotten. As a result, say landscape designers who have seen the state's road plans, engineers haven't budgeted enough space to do a job that would realize the causeway's beauty. More worrisome, though, is that local and state governments say they don't have enough money to maintain anything more elaborate than grass along the corridor. "It could've been an opportunity to define the epitome of a roadway corridor," says landscape architect Raymond Jungles. "This is an example of how this city is striving to be a world-class city but doesn't know how."

The MacArthur Causeway itself has never particularly been a thing of beauty. It began as a pile of sludge pulled from the bottom of the bay in 1916 by the dredges that deepened the channel leading from Government Cut to the Miami River. At the time, vehicular traffic between Miami Beach and the mainland traveled only one route: the rickety, wooden Collins Bridge, built in 1913 across islands of swamps and mangrove jungles where the Venetian Causeway runs now. But the growing residential population on the Beach, and its rising popularity as a tourist spot, necessitated another bay crossing. Miami Beach pioneer developers J.N. Lummus and Carl Fisher realized the significance of the long, earthen mound forming in the bay and set about transforming it into a roadway leading onto Fifth Street. The road officially opened in February 1920 as the County Causeway, a name that remained until 1942, and island real estate investment took off.

The causeway gradually transformed over the ensuing decades, expanding from two lanes to six, and during the Twenties and Thirties, a trolley ran along its median. But until the current construction project, never have developers been presented with such an opportunity to overhaul the causeway so comprehensively, and, FDOT officials say, never have they needed to so badly. As the popularity of South Beach grew during the past decade, so did the traffic on the MacArthur, along with the attendant accidents and injuries. In the period from 1985 to 1989, FDOT recorded 1177 accidents with 1275 injuries, up from 631 accidents and 606 injuries during the previous five-year period. FDOT engineers claim the road's specifications didn't meet updated state safety standards, and in addition, the road surface had deteriorated considerably.

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