Miami: See It Like a Visionary

No hulking concrete slab at water's edge? No arts center hidden by noisy expressways? No bombed-out corridors of desolation? A dream, right?

Architect Jorge Espinel has a number of visions for Miami's downtown waterfront. Or at least for what's left of it. As with all idealized visions, Espinel's pay little heed to obstacles -- political, financial, or otherwise. If they seem fanciful in that regard, they nonetheless strive to accomplish a very real goal: the integration of major public-works projects now being contemplated so they can coalesce into something cohesive, something grand and beautiful.

In one of Espinel's favored visions, three massive construction projects -- an expanded port, a new sports arena, and a performing arts complex -- would rise in an environment far different from that now being considered by politicians and planners. Bicentennial Park and the 29-acre parcel immediately south of it (known as the FEC tract, after the Florida East Coast Railway) would be transformed into two peninsulas enclosing a vast lagoon or basin. The land area would be occupied by parks, plazas, a performing arts center, museums, an aquarium, and a limited number of amenities. Three large cruise ships would dock along the eastern bulkheads, while a boat basin would accommodate smaller vessels.

Biscayne Boulevard between Sixth and Eleventh streets would become a broad concourse divided by a landscaped median. The proposed new sports arena would be constructed west of Biscayne, just north of the Freedom Tower. Dramatic glass lobbies would link the arena and the fabled tower, built in 1925 to house the Miami Daily News and later used as a processing center for thousands of Cuban refugees. The tower itself would be converted to an immigration museum. Unobstructed views from the tower and the glass lobbies would create a sweeping panorama across the civic complex and beyond to the bay.

To the north, I-395 would cease to exist as an elevated expressway. After its intersection with I-95, it would drop to street level and become another broad, landscaped roadway, lined with shops and businesses. Following its intersection with Biscayne Boulevard, the roadway would rise again toward the MacArthur Causeway.

This vision of downtown is not the only one Espinel has developed. Others are slightly less dramatic, slightly more practical. But all of them energize him. Just thinking about the possibilities for downtown's waterfront ignites his imagination. In fact, it's not just the waterfront that holds his attention. The general subject of urban planning and the creative process of designing innovative communities prompted him four months ago to found the Urban Environment League. He's been tirelessly recruiting like-minded souls ever since.

The league's mission, in addition to provoking a fundamental reassessment of Miami's waterfront and protecting Dade's open spaces and historical buildings, is to encourage political leaders throughout South Florida to create more compact, self-contained communities where residents can live within walking distance of most necessities, from shopping to social centers to public transportation. (This emphasis on the old-fashioned notion of a small town -- pedestrian-friendly and simply organized -- has come to be known as "new urbanism.")

Thus far Espinel's group can claim only about twenty members, supporters, and advisers. Some of those people, however, have already succeeded with ambitious initiatives to improve the manmade environment:

*Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture, is an internationally renowned architect and planner. She and her husband Andres Duany are credited with providing the intellectual foundation for and lending creative impetus to the "new urbanism."

*Lawyer and civic activist Dan Paul, principal author of Dade County's charter, organized a campaign in 1972 that led to the creation of Bicentennial Park. Because of his 1993 Save Our Parks initiative, a public vote is now required before commercial enterprises can operate in most county parks. Last year he led (and personally financed) the petition drive to let voters decide whether a sports arena and other structures should be built on the downtown waterfront.

*Dorothy Jenkins Fields founded and maintains the Black Archives, a museum that chronicles the history of Miami's black residents.

*Bill McMinn, the relatively new dean of Florida International University's School of Design, has recently arrived from Cornell University, where, as dean of the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, he participated in urban planning projects in upstate New York and Manhattan.

*Other supporters include local historians Greg Bush, director of the University of Miami's Institute of Public History; Arva Moore Parks McCabe; and Paul George.

Espinel persuaded these individuals to band together after voters rejected Paul's anti-arena initiative this past November. As far as he was concerned, county planners had not done their homework -- and still haven't. For example, how will fans arriving for or leaving a basketball game affect the flow of trucks and buses speeding along NE Sixth Street and Biscayne Boulevard on their way to the port? And why waste a prime waterfront view on a gargantuan sports stadium where the action lies inside, not outside? Furthermore, why had no one consulted the public -- or design experts -- during the initial discussions about the arena's possible location?

And regarding the proposed performing arts center farther north, Espinel asks, why build such a signature building in a location that is split in two pieces by busy Biscayne Boulevard? A location where views of downtown and the bay are blocked by I-395's elevated roadway? A location that borders a derelict neighborhood doomed to ruin -- in large part -- by the very construction of I-395?

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