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?

What made you decide to get involved in the way you have?
The first thing that caught my attention was the plan for the performing arts center. There was a [neighborhood] meeting held at the Omni in 1995 where they discussed four proposals. I just went and listened. This was a big event, and the first thing I thought was, Hey, why is it that nobody has questioned the validity of placing the performing arts center on this site?

In your view, what makes the site inappropriate?
Certain buildings in a city should stand out and kind of be great landmarks. For example, in the case of the Paris Opera House, you have this great boulevard [the Champs Elysees], and at the end is the opera house. Here you've got one building on one side of Biscayne and another building on another side. This is not really marking the building.

What do you mean by marking the building?
The opera house -- it's at the end of a broad vista and it tells you you've arrived, which is different from having a building on either side of the road as you pass by. You can really see this in places like London and Paris, where important buildings have important locations. The most obvious are in Latin America, where you have the church and all the government buildings around the plaza.

Your belief that the proposed sports arena should not be built on the waterfront led you to join Dan Paul in his petition drive. How did that affect your decision to create the Urban Environment League?

If there hadn't been a response [to the petition], I would have said forget it. But during the drive, it was just incredible. When you went out there with the petitions, you saw a whole bunch of people. That really created a good spirit in the community. Finally you began to see people in Miami getting involved in something. I was so excited to see how the whole thing eventually led to the petition being accepted by the county.

The signature drive succeeded, and polls showed overwhelming opposition to the Miami Heat's proposal prior to the election. But in the end voters endorsed the arena. To what do you credit this change of heart?

I'm absolutely sure why. I have to say it straightforwardly: Alex Penelas changed his position. He had signed our petition. I had voted for him. I thought, Here's a guy that's on our side. The next thing you know, he simply turned. Now he says, Hey, I was against the financing. But that wasn't clear to most of us. We backed him because we thought he was going to work with us on this.

Having lost the vote, why form an organization?
The fact that the arena was going to be built [on the waterfront] was not the only problem. What happens to the site as a whole? Where is the parking going to go? Where are the ships going to go? The port had a plan, a "maritime park" plan, that had buildings on the perimeter and on the slips. That would completely block off any access to Biscayne Bay. And then the whole issue of parking, which has never been addressed. We are going to need at least 6000, 7000 parking places. According to the Heat plan, there is only space for 3000 cars there.

But your mandate is much broader than simply issuing a critique of current construction proposals.

The most critical issue of all is that downtown Miami is a disaster area, and waterfront projects are the best resources for revitalizing areas like that. I don't see any evidence that the waterfront has been approached as a resource for doing that. It's designed almost like a mall, and that's pretty much what it will be. Cruise-ship customers will arrive at the airport. Rapid transit will bring them over to this place. Here there will be a mall, and then they will go right onto the ships. When they return, they go right back to the airport. This is the kind of thing that precisely denies the possibility of having the area along the west side of the boulevard come to life.

When he was nine years old, Espinel's parents stopped in Miami on their way to New York City. He still remembers his first impression of the blue sky and azure bay, both of which contrasted sharply with the constant cloud cover he had grown accustomed to in Bogota.

After attending New York public schools, he obtained his bachelor's in architecture and civil engineering from the City University of New York. His political education began after the Peace Corps assigned him to build schools in his native country in 1968.

A Colombian assistant introduced Espinel to Accion Comunidad, a community-development group that had learned to lobby local government leaders to achieve improvements in the lives of the poor. Espinel soon questioned the validity of simply building classrooms when children from remote mountain villages spent much of their day just trying to get to class. So he teamed up with a priest to build hostels for them.

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