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?

Clutching maps and blueprints, Espinel stations himself on the seawall at the southeast corner of the FEC tract. Beside him is the bridge that connects the Port of Miami to the mainland. The architect assesses the Heat's most recent proposal for a bayfront design. "You'd have the cars coming in from underneath [the bridge]," he explains. Espinel questions whether the height of the bridge will allow cars to fit under it. "When I first saw this, I asked myself, Are they out of their minds? Sometimes these schemes are just to kind of convince the public -- I don't know if [the proposed arena entrance route] would really work."

Espinel expects traffic from the future sports arena, the port, and Bayside Marketplace to pile up along NE Sixth Street and again near the I-395 on-ramps. "What you are going to do is basically create this traffic jam," he predicts, "which will inevitably affect how well the port is going to do in the future."

You've developed two plans for this waterfront area. One represents your vision of how the waterfront could look in an ideal world. The other is more pragmatic. Describe your ideal.

I would have brought the water into the site. You can have buildings on either side of the water, creating a very spectacular kind of area. This design, by the way, is not original. We always pick on things we've looked at. This design came from the Columbia Exposition Center [at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 -- a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Italian explorer's journey]. There would be all these great walkways -- an island with lights and fireworks and people in paddle boats.

Where would the performing arts center be?
It would be flanking the water and would really create a monumental kind of relationship to the water. You'd have a wonderful beacon. The new arena would be on the other side of the boulevard.

According to your plan, arena patrons would enter the building through a series of one-story lobbies. These would be contiguous to and use design motifs similar to the Freedom Tower. The arena would be behind these lobbies, west of Biscayne Boulevard. What are the advantages of building the arena there?

Number one, this huge, bulky building would not block the view of the water. I would create a mall that goes from the arena southwest to the Metrorail station at Government Center. That would give you a much less intrusive building there and it would still have a view. What really matters are the lobby areas of the arena, and that they would open up and integrate the Freedom Tower. This would be a majestic kind of thing, and you would still have the wonderful open space. The ships would come in, and when you got out of the arena you would actually see the ships right in front of you. That would preserve Bicentennial Park and it would provide the Heat much more exposure.

You see an arena west of Biscayne as being a more attractive location from the Heat's point of view?

What more prestigious thing than to have your arena related to the Freedom Tower, which has always been a great landmark in Miami? But what [the Heat] prefer to do is just plop the arena in front, where it basically blocks out the tower. This is the crass attitude. You can do things subtly and you can get a lot more mileage out of it. But being bombastic is what Miami is all about.

What can the Urban Environment League do to change such attitudes?
We have to raise the level of awareness of what a good city is about. We are talking about an informed and educated community making decisions about their neighborhoods. It's not a question of having crises about certain things like the arena. You need to have a public education campaign. One of the things we hope to create is a school program. You need an advocacy component to scrutinize what is being done. We want to go one step further. We want to be like a think tank that can provide alternative solutions, alternative ideas for a better Miami.

But how can you make a difference in a climate where powerful, monied interests seem to rule?

This is why the Municipal Art Society of New York was a vital element in terms of telling people what the Urban Environment League is. The society developed more than 100 years ago, in a very crass economic period. They worked to draw in the politicians and the people who had money and the people who had the power, and educate them -- and show them that hey, you can have your cake but you can also do something wonderful for the city. The society benefited people as a whole, but it also benefited those who owned the city, who had the power. For example, [in its fight to preserve land for Central Park], the society said, Well, look, if you allow a park here, you can build some wonderful buildings facing the park that will be much more valuable than if the spaces were filled in by other structures.

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