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?

The league wants to put end to such helter-skelter planning. As Dan Paul observes: "Miami is a turn-the-dirt community -- come in with a shovel and offer to give it a free ride, and you get what you want without any planning." Espinel and his cohorts take their inspiration from New York City, where a formidable group called the Municipal Art Society has weighed in on nearly every important construction project during the last 100 years.

In 1916 the society helped pass the nation's first zoning codes. Over several decades it assisted in fending off threats to the integrity of Central Park. In the Seventies it rescued Grand Central Station from demolition. Now society members are holding vigil over the fate of Columbus Circle, at the southwest corner of Central Park, portions of which are in the process of being sold by the city to private developers.

"A lot of the cities we admire have civic groups that act as guides to their physical development," notes Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. "They also serve as watchdogs to make sure only the best things happen. It isn't unusual. Miami may be a little behind. I don't think anyone should be afraid of it."

Like the Municipal Art Society, the Urban Environment League expects to act as a kind of review board for major construction projects, lobby to create favorable legislation, and file lawsuits when county or state governments circumvent regulations or break laws in an effort to appease developers.

In early March Espinel obtained a grant from the Dade Community Foundation to pay for a daylong workshop run by Brendan Sexton, president of the Municipal Art Society. Sexton presented a history of the society and gave league members advice about operating their own organization.

A native of Colombia who was raised in Manhattan and who witnessed the Municipal Art Society's successes and failures during the last three decades, Espinel holds a master's degree in architecture and has taught the subject for almost 30 years. His design projects include several hospitals and participation in creating the layout of the Dallas Zoo. He has also worked for community development groups in both Colombia and the United States.

An assiduous if soft-spoken advocate and networker, the 53-year-old Espinel has already won support from unlikely allies, among them Jonathan Barnett. A widely known urban planner based in Washington, D.C., Barnett has been hired by Dade County to develop a plan that might bring the performing arts center into better harmony with other downtown construction projects. He supports the league's objectives. "I think it's very constructive that some of the good-government people in the community are organizing so they can be more visible and audible," Barnett says. "I think that Jorge's approach to put on the table alternatives based on what he knows is a good approach that's perfectly reasonable."

During a recent tour of downtown, Espinel spoke with New Times about urban design (or the lack of it) and his hopes for the league's future role.

Planning decisions are essentially political -- elected officials must vote on them. How has the political climate in Miami affected the appearance and quality of the city's manmade environment?

There is this question of negligence -- and there being too few critical eyes examining a plan. That doesn't happen in other cities. You have planning departments set up to evaluate these things and they are relatively independent, so that if you're a planner and you flag something, you don't get fired. In Miami, in my opinion, it's a highly politicized system whereby planners are very dependent on who is in office. They don't want to upset the people in power. So right there you have a problem. The people who should notice these things aren't willing to flag them for fear of losing their jobs.

The other part that's very important is relationships in Miami -- the friends network. You wouldn't do anything to put yourself at odds with anyone in the network of powerful friends.

What other factors here obstruct the creation of a better city?
Another factor is that economics is the driving force in almost every decision affecting this city. Every decision has been made on purely economic terms -- economic development is the fundamental priority. But what people don't understand is that economic development on its own isn't effective. Just because someone is going to offer a plot of land to save you money doesn't mean that's what's going to make a good city plan.

Aren't planning decisions in South Florida and elsewhere already painfully slow because of governmental attempts to give people an opportunity to comment on issues? Developers complain about the number of permits, the number of public hearings required before a plan can be approved.

The city and county continue to resolve things in back-room deals. These two projects -- the port and the arena -- are being handled without any input. Two or three people are negotiating with the Heat. Somehow that's considered really great, if someone can go in a back room, negotiate a deal, and present it to the public. This is a paternalistic system where things go from the top down and the public doesn't know any better.

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.

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.

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.

Espinel returns to his condominium in Plaza Venetia as rush-hour traffic clogs Biscayne Boulevard and the homeless window washers take out their rags and spray bottles to prepare for the arrival of potential customers. He has many obligations in the weeks ahead: He will speak personally with each Dade County commissioner about a league-proposed ordinance that would require developers to give the public an opportunity to help plan both the location and appearance of major buildings. He will try to organize league members to speak at an April 8 county commission meeting on the arena proposal. And he'll be offering the league's technical support to Coral Gables residents and city commission members, who will soon vote on the construction of a new supermall.

Not everyone welcomes the league's participation. Espinel invited Miami Heat president Jay Cross and port director Carmen Lunetta to the Municipal Art Society workshop. Neither attended. Architect Roberto Espejo, an associate of Cesar Pelli, the acclaimed architect who heads the performing arts center design team, worries that allowing another party such as the league into deliberations about planning the various projects will delay their eventual construction. "Miami is made up of a lot of self-appointed kind of groups and people who get involved," he says. "We think it's great. Often, though, these groups work independently of what other groups are doing. It gets nutty."

Espejo may have reason to bristle at the possibility of further public intervention. For more than a decade the Performing Arts Center Trust has sought community input about the location, objectives, and design of its performance halls. Pelli was selected only after an exhausting seven-day charrette in which four groups of architects met with musicians, dancers, singers, arts administrators, and neighbors.

Espinel also attended those sessions and believes they could be models for designing future projects. But before the Urban Environment League can hope to influence such complex procedures, it clearly needs a broader base of support, many more members who, like Espinel, believe there is still hope for Miami. "The group needs participation, it needs people," Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk says. "In order to be effective, the group needs to be really diverse. It especially needs people who think they are not experts."

Thus far Espinel has been successful in recruiting members who already have been vocal advocates for public parks and sensible development. Now, he realizes, he must broaden his reach to attract support from the ordinary citizens whose quality of life will forever be affected by the way government bureaucrats plan and develop their surroundings.

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