MacArthur Causeway

But even the best-laid landscaping may be uprooted soon after the turn of the century to make room for a mass-transit system. Officials at the Metro-Dade Transit Agency say the MacArthur Causeway is the likely corridor for a Miami Beach extension of Metrorail. "We've never thought of doing anything other than that," says Mario Garcia, chief of the agency's system development division. The Julia Tuttle Causeway has never been a viable alternative because of the inherent additional costs, Garcia says, adding that engineers roughly figure a mile of track costs about $60 million. "A lot of Miami Beach business is down at the south end, and that's where the ridership is," he says. "You have to put these things where they're needed, not where they're more convenient to build."

A mass-transit extension to the Beach would likely be a light-rail system similar to the Los Angeles-Long Beach line in Southern California and would run along the causeway median. (County transit engineers have assured FDOT that the twenty-foot median would provide enough room for a light-rail system.) Garcia says commuters and tree lovers can rest easy for a while, however: construction of an extension is unlikely within the next ten years.

Denis Hector, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Miami, says incomplete landscaping designs and overlapping projects point out governmental insensitivity to urban design in Florida. "It's part of a much larger question that we as a society need to solve," says Hector. "My concern is that we reinsert the civic aspect into civil engineering." Local governments, citizens' groups, and the state - if they had looked - could have found an example in the Brickell Avenue Bridge Gateway Committee, a multi-agency group assembled several years ago to study the replacement of the Brickell Bridge over the Miami River. "It was a true community group," says Hector, who was on the committee. "It seemed to represent the immediate community."

The group, organized by the Downtown Development Authority, included professional architects as well as representatives from downtown residential and business organizations, a Miami River interest group, and FDOT. Additional professional architects from Dade and out of town were invited to judge an open contest in 1990 for the best bridge design. "It worked very well, in that we had technical and artistic representation on the committee," says Clyde Judson, an urban design administrator for the Downtown Development Authority. "And by having a cross-section [of people from the community], fund-raising for the project was facilitated." Sixty-nine designs were submitted from all over the world, including Europe, China, and Mexico; a local team of architects won the bid.

While it's too late to stop the MacArthur project and redraw the road designs, a committee modeled on the Brickell Bridge group may be the only thing that can save the causeway's landscaping from ruin. The nucleus for such a committee exists in the Palm/Hibiscus/Star Island Homeowners Association, the only group that appears to be keeping the issue alive. And at least in theory, there appears to be an abundance of concern for the landscaping issue among Miami Beach civic groups.

"I think this city would be in a very sorry state if the mayor and commissioners couldn't find enough money to beautify one of the main entrances to the City of Miami Beach," says Bruce Singer, president of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce and a city commissioner from 1981 to 1991. "If I were sitting here as a commissioner, which I'm not, I would question how something like this fell through the cracks. Who's coordinating? Who's in charge?"

Beautification activists three decades ago experienced similar governmental penury in their struggle to landscape the Julia Tuttle Causeway at 36th Street, which opened in December 1959. As late as October 1959, four months after it began lobbying for landscaping, the Miami Beach Taxpayers Association had managed to secure a commitment - in principle only - from the City of Miami Beach to put money into the project. Miami and Metro-Dade claimed they didn't have the money but would try to get it, according to a Miami Herald article from October 12, 1959. "If landscaping isn't done," reads the article, quoting association chairman Jerome Greene, "`this could turn into as much of a sore thumb as the 79th Street Causeway. This project isn't only good business, it's a necessity.'" Greene and the community's beautification supporters relentlessly fought their campaign to landscape the Tuttle, and large-scale planting finally commenced several years later. With the inspiration of the old Miami Beach Taxpayers' Association, and some uncustomarily imaginative official leadership, a coordinated civic and governmental effort might yet save the MacArthur Causeway from becoming a world-class, six-lane, architectural embarrassment.

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