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?

In 1971 the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana in Medellin hired him to teach architecture. He also built simple shelters for slum dwellers, and taught them how to construct their own living quarters. "I was always thinking about making the connection between what was going on in school and what was going on in the community," he recalls. "I got very involved in these squatter settlement projects around Medellin. They didn't have homes. They didn't have running water or sewers. They didn't have anything."

For the next two decades Espinel traveled, taught, and studied, taking more than a dozen different positions -- some full-time, others part-time -- at five different universities in Colombia, Venezuela, and the United States. He earned a master's degree in design education from London's Royal College of Art in 1983, and taught both at Bennington College in Vermont and the City University of New York. While in New York, under the tutelage of Mario Salvadori, a prominent architect, he organized educational tours of the city's historic buildings and parks for elementary school students. Since moving to South Florida in 1991 to take advantage of the temperate climate, he has taught at Miami-Dade Community College and, under the auspices of FIU, at the Design and Architecture Senior High School. Now a U.S. citizen, he and his wife Lucy share a condominium in Plaza Venetia, overlooking the bay he visited as a child.

As part of a downtown tour, Espinel stops at Thirteenth Street and Biscayne Boulevard, near the planned site of the performing arts center. Nearby, garbage collects among the concrete columns that support the I-395 overpass. Though the doors of his Ford Escort are locked and the windows rolled up, Espinel gazes around warily. A few disheveled-looking homeless men pass by harmlessly, but they worry him. "I'm not sure we should go that far," he warns as he drives toward a shadowy area west of North Miami Avenue, where railroad tracks pass under I-395. "You see what's happening over there?" he says. "It's a little dangerous."

Espinel believes that this elevated six-lane expressway has intensified the deterioration of the Overtown neighborhoods surrounding it. His solution: Tear it down and replace it with a broad boulevard. "It's not just a question of blocking the views. It's absolutely horrific what you have here. I-395 creates all of these areas that are adjacent to its footprint that are absolutely horrendous -- garbage piling up, places where people can mug people. Anything along that footprint is dead. How is it possible that you can build a performing arts center in the middle of a slum without doing something about the whole area?"

Dismantling an elevated interstate highway -- even a portion of it, as Espinel proposes -- would precipitate a mind-boggling array of other changes as well, including alterations to the entire road grid system developed by state and federal departments of transportation. According to Jonathan Barnett, the planner hired by Metro-Dade, it's simply too complicated. And so that part of Espinel's idea may not be practical, he says. Still, Barnett believes that tearing down the expressway would improve not only the vista from the performing arts center but also the outlook for the entire neighborhood. As part of his project to develop a downtown plan, Barnett intends to ask the Florida Department of Transportation to consider several possible alternatives to I-395, including Espinel's radical notion to replace it with a ground-level boulevard.

Do you think that conditions along I-395 and the surrounding neighborhood would discourage people from attending performances at a new concert hall or opera house?

I guess people would come, but it would be very forbidding.

Espinel heads for the proposed site of the future Miami Heat arena, a 29-acre parcel the City of Miami purchased from the Florida East Coast Railway for $23 million in 1972 -- specifically to build a park, which was never done. A large manmade inlet separates this no man's land from Bicentennial Park, another casualty of miscalculation and poor planning from the day it opened in 1976. High berms that buffer Biscayne Boulevard noise also turned the park into an isolated zone where only the homeless or the foolhardy dare venture.

Through neglect, this part of downtown's waterfront fell into such disrepair that in 1985, when Ralph Sanchez moved his grand prix onto the site, the city not only endorsed the project but subsidized it to the tune of more than $500,000 per year.

As early as 1982 the Miami City Commission passed an ordinance prohibiting the construction of a performing arts center in Bicentennial Park. Still, in 1988, Performing Arts Center Trust member Alvah Chapman (former chairman of Knight-Ridder, Inc.) fastened on the idea of building it there. Planning consultants, however, criticized the idea, arguing that the park was too far removed from the main downtown area and that the hall would block bay views. In 1992 seaport director Carmen Lunetta announced his intention to expand the port by building four cruise-ship slips and terminals at the FEC tract and the park, though he shelved it for a time. But last November's vote to allow the Miami Heat to build a new arena on the FEC property also cleared the way for eventual port expansion.

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