As you head over the apex of the Intracoastal Waterway bridge on the MacArthur Causeway and swoop down across Watson Island in your rented Chrysler LeBaron convertible, top down and gleaming white, it no longer matters that you haven't slept a wink since leaving home in Birmingham, England, 21 hours ago. Or that the Yanks drive on the right-hand side of the road. Or that everyone promised you'd be bludgeoned within an inch of your life shortly after stepping from the plane. Because 75 degrees in December (compared to a miserable 33 and drizzle back home) has that wonderful ability - however temporary - to burn all those concerns away. You whiff the musty-sweet smells of the tropics, the fresh salty air washes over you, and you remember that you don't have to be back at your accounting job tomorrow.
Suddenly, an arc of foliage and color reaching high over the traffic appears down the road: an explosive medley of purple and red bougainvillea. You head through the florid gateway, and before you lies a long, lush boulevard of trees and flowering shrubs in bloom, surrounded by glistening ocean water. Long corridors of palm and shade trees proudly line the sides of the causeway and the wide median and branch out over the road.
Through a stand of buttonwood trees on your right, you see families strolling along a shaded promenade by the side of the channel, enthralled by an improbably huge cruise ship gliding toward the open sea. A quartet of fishermen and the downtown skyline are silhouetted against the opening acts of a pastel-color sunset. Further east along the causeway, the dramatic structures of the bustling port rise up out of the water: the containers, the freighters, and the massive cranes, which present a steel counterpart to the tall, majestic trunks of the royal palms adorning the road's median.
On the other side of the causeway, beyond the mangroves lining the north bank, you gaze at the residential islands and wonder at their opulence and exclusivity. The symphony of birds in the tree canopies overhead soars above the rumble of the traffic, and nearby a pelican plunges into the water in a successful bid for dinner. Off in the distance you catch glimpses of South Beach's Art Deco landmarks bathed in the surreal light of dusk, and amid this interplay of man and nature on the MacArthur Causeway, it becomes perfectly clear that you've finally arrived in Miami.
So goes a tourist's South Florida awakening, according to the composite imagination of several of Dade's leading landscape architects. They envision the MacArthur's current overhaul - a nineteen-month project scheduled for completion in May, 1993 - as a perfect opportunity to remake the causeway into one of the nation's most beautiful roadways.
The causeway, to them, offers tremendous potential for regional expression, where careful planning and landscaping can pull the essence of Miami into sharp focus. It's not just a simple stretch of asphalt connecting an island to a mainland. It's the gateway to Miami Beach - South Florida's architectural and entertainment jewel - providing spectacular views of the area's complicated interaction of commerce, residence, tourism, and the environment.
But unfortunately for anyone who has a modicum of aesthetic sensitivity and must travel the causeway, Dade's landscape designers did not draw up the plans for the construction project. Engineers did. MacArthur Causeway - officially called State Road A1A - falls under the auspices of the Florida Department of Transportation, which determined the specifications of the new roadway. Amid safety and cost considerations, aesthetics were virtually forgotten. As a result, say landscape designers who have seen the state's road plans, engineers haven't budgeted enough space to do a job that would realize the causeway's beauty. More worrisome, though, is that local and state governments say they don't have enough money to maintain anything more elaborate than grass along the corridor. "It could've been an opportunity to define the epitome of a roadway corridor," says landscape architect Raymond Jungles. "This is an example of how this city is striving to be a world-class city but doesn't know how."
The MacArthur Causeway itself has never particularly been a thing of beauty. It began as a pile of sludge pulled from the bottom of the bay in 1916 by the dredges that deepened the channel leading from Government Cut to the Miami River. At the time, vehicular traffic between Miami Beach and the mainland traveled only one route: the rickety, wooden Collins Bridge, built in 1913 across islands of swamps and mangrove jungles where the Venetian Causeway runs now. But the growing residential population on the Beach, and its rising popularity as a tourist spot, necessitated another bay crossing. Miami Beach pioneer developers J.N. Lummus and Carl Fisher realized the significance of the long, earthen mound forming in the bay and set about transforming it into a roadway leading onto Fifth Street. The road officially opened in February 1920 as the County Causeway, a name that remained until 1942, and island real estate investment took off.
The causeway gradually transformed over the ensuing decades, expanding from two lanes to six, and during the Twenties and Thirties, a trolley ran along its median. But until the current construction project, never have developers been presented with such an opportunity to overhaul the causeway so comprehensively, and, FDOT officials say, never have they needed to so badly. As the popularity of South Beach grew during the past decade, so did the traffic on the MacArthur, along with the attendant accidents and injuries. In the period from 1985 to 1989, FDOT recorded 1177 accidents with 1275 injuries, up from 631 accidents and 606 injuries during the previous five-year period. FDOT engineers claim the road's specifications didn't meet updated state safety standards, and in addition, the road surface had deteriorated considerably.
At the urging of the Dade County Metropolitan Planning Organization, the area's lead transportation-planning agency, the FDOT targeted the MacArthur as a priority project, in 1984 began the preliminary engineering, and last year took bids on the $11.8 million project. (Federal sources fund about 70 percent of the project, the state covers the remaining 30 percent.) The resulting design for the 1.9-mile road emphasizes speed and safety, not aesthetics. In general the revamped causeway will be much wider than before. Instead of three eleven-foot-wide lanes running in both directions, each side of the revamped MacArthur will boast two twelve-foot lanes, a fourteen-foot lane, and an eight-foot "refuge lane" that will accommodate bicycles.
Amid all this asphalt, though, a ridiculously meager amount of real estate remains for foliage. The construction plans call for a median averaging about twenty feet wide along most of the roadway; beside that, there will be virtually nothing. On the north bank, beyond a metal guardrail, landscapers will have about a foot and a half to work with before the ground gives way to riprap (a bank of boulders that provide a foundation and protection for the roadway). On the south side, there will be an unsightly 32-inch cement wall - known as a Jersey barrier - and no soil. Geoffrey Ferrell, a town planner for the Miami architecture firm Duany & Plater-Zyberk, says the design leaves a landscaping task akin to "decorating a concrete pillbox."
FDOT officials are full of explanations for skimping on the turf. To begin with, they say, state safety regulations govern road specifications such as barriers, and lane and median widths. The barriers prevent errant cars from plunging into the bay, and the twenty-foot-wide median allows for a "clear recovery zone," in which cars knocked from the road can regain control and, theoretically, re-enter the flow of traffic. "What was there before provided very little clear-recovery zone in the median, and nothing on the shoulder," says FDOT spokesman David Fierro. "Our whole motivation today is to bring in current safety standards."
Several landscape architects criticize the inclusion of a twenty-foot median at the expense of landscaping on the shoulders. But John Martinez, FDOT district consultant management engineer, says minimum FDOT safety standards require at least a 19.5-foot median for a roadway with the traffic speed and volume of the MacArthur. If FDOT decided to lower the speed limit from the planned 45 mph to, say 35 or 40 mph, then state formulas would allow for a narrower causeway.
In addition, DOT officials explain, high costs and environmental concerns prevented engineers from widening the causeway any further. To the south of the causeway, the water depth in the shipping channel quickly drops to about 30 feet. So for every two-foot expansion, builders must add hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of soil, at extraordinary costs. To the north lie fragile sea grass beds. "Widening the roadway requires permits and a lot of negotiations with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation, local DERM [Department of Environmental Resources Management], the National Marine Fisheries Service," groans Joe Gomez, FDOT district construction engineer. "You have to minimize the encroachment into the waterway, and we have encroached as far as we can go while minimizing the environmental impact."
Regardless of how much area remains for landscaping, plans for the causeway foliage are alarmingly undeveloped. FDOT waited until after a private contractor had drawn the roadway plans before seeking any landscape expertise. FDOT spokesman Fierro says the department rarely, if ever, consults landscape architects until after engineers have completed a roadway's design. If so, he says, it is "only if we envision that landscaping is a considerable part of the project, that it would be a major part of the work."
In the case of the MacArthur design, road planners didn't even consult with a full-time professional landscape architect. They dumped the plans on the desk of a Miami FDOT environmental specialist who also had some training in landscape design. The specialist, Scott Neitzel, drew a draft of a possible landscaping scheme, suggesting several tree and plant species. "It's tentative," says David Fierro. "It's a conceptual plan that we developed as a pretty standard course. We're at a point where we can put aside the plan that we have and see if we can incorporate [other ideas] into the final plan."
Neitzel resigned from FDOT this past October and moved to Houston, Texas, leaving no one on staff with professional landscape training. And since Neitzel's departure, FDOT has done nothing to advance the landscaping designs. Fierro, though, says the department is planning to advertise for a landscape consultant who would work on the MacArthur Causeway and succeeding FDOT projects.
FDOT has tentatively budgeted $386,000 for replanting the causeway but has only committed $12,000 per year to maintaining the landscape. In recent years, the state has paid Metro-Dade to maintain the causeway, but annual maintenance costs haven't exceeded $12,000 and have covered little more than periodic mowing and occasional trash pickup, Fierro says. An elaborate landscaping design would require a more regular and intensive schedule of mowing, trimming, weeding, and litter removal. "You run into a situation where you have to tell somebody in Hialeah that you can't fix a pothole because you had to prune a coconut palm instead," Fierro says. Hence, FDOT has sought financial support from the City of Miami Beach and Metro-Dade.
Both Metro-Dade and the City of Miami Beach plead poverty. Although he's not aware of any state requests for assistance, the chief of property management and acquisition for the Dade County Parks and Recreation Department says he's not prepared to open his coffers for the causeway project. "We're not going to do it for nothing," says Marty Washington. "We don't have the money. At some park sites, we've had to reduce the cutting cycles to seven times a year. Imagine cutting your lawn only seven times a year! When we have to make a choice between maintaining our parks or a state road, the choice is pretty clear." As for Miami Beach, since-departed city manager Rob Parkins decided in 1990 that the city couldn't contribute to the causeway's maintenance, and the new city administration has ignored the subject. "Our situation regarding [financial] resources has not changed," Miami Beach Parks and Recreation director William Irvine says today. "The prospect of getting additional resources to maintain it looks very bleak." Assuming Miami Beach or Metro-Dade can't cough up more money, the state's $12,000 for upkeep will cover little more than the cost of grass mowing. "To give you a worst-case scenario," speculates FDOT's Fierro, "if we can't get any type of a commitment [from Miami Beach or Metro-Dade], that would pretty much force us to fall back onto a minimum amount of landscaping." Namely, Bahia sod and a few trees.
Maintenance aside, the state's $386,000 for landscaping severely limits its options. The money amounts to no more than $1.80 per square foot of available landscaping, a sum that Dade's landscape architects laugh at. "Three to four dollars per square foot would be a classy job, and that's what this deserves," says Ted Baker, a landscape architect and lecturer at Florida International University. To estimate costs of landscaping roadway medians, Juan Antonio Bueno, assistant professor of landscape architecture at FIU, begins with a minimum of three dollars per square foot. He spent about eleven dollars per square foot to landscape a five-mile stretch of State Road 826 between I-95 and the Intracoastal Waterway, a project involving Dade County, North Miami Beach, and the state. At three dollars per square foot, landscaping the MacArthur would cost at least $636,400. An average of eleven dollars per square foot would push costs over $2,333,000 and, landscape architects say, would make the causeway the showpiece it should be.
The lack of a landscaping blueprint in the state's plans comes as no surprise to Dade's leading landscape designers and architects. "The DOTs of this country have destroyed more landscapes and more cities than any other agencies of man, public or private," rails internationally renowned town planner Andres Duany. "Aesthetic considerations such as views and landscaping are their lowest priority. They're committed only to the unimpeded flow of traffic, virtually always at high speed. They've completely lost the tradition of parkway design from the Twenties and Thirties." Adds Douglas Duany, Andres's brother and a lecturer in the School of Architecture at the University of Miami: "The idea is to capture an expressway and make it into a boulevard. The highway that they're doing could be in Alaska."
"This is pretty typical of the state road department," agrees landscape architect William Rosenberg. "They think of the landscape architect's role as something that comes afterward. Other states, particularly the mountainous states out West, have landscape architects in on the road-building projects from the beginning."
Proper roadway landscaping, architects say, involves more than plunking down a few trees for motorists to look at. It involves responding to the aesthetics of the surrounding environment - natural and manmade - and using flora to enhance the existing beauty and accentuate the views. "It adds a dimensional quality," Ted Baker explains. "It establishes boundaries. You can enframe the cruise ships and maybe close off some other views. The question is: How do you represent in the landscape the best that South Florida has to offer?" Causeway landscaping would also serve functional purposes, landscapers say, such as stabilizing soil, filtering air, providing shade, blocking wind, and providing habitats for small mammals and birds. Beyond its inherent aesthetic and ecological benefits, well-designed causeway landscaping would provide a psychological asset to drivers. "You can work with shade patterns on the road to create a rhythm with the tree trunks to psychologically massage you," Raymond Jungles explains, pointing to South Miami Avenue and Coral Way as examples.
Despite FDOT's bureaucratic myopia, Dade's landscape architects still harbor some hope that careful design may avert a total aesthetic disaster. For the median, the architects agree that densely packed trees should be avoided and the arrangement of flora should allow drivers to see views on both sides of the causeway. The architects also agree that the trees and bushes used on the median, as on the rest of the causeway, should be low-maintenance, native plant species that can resist wind, salt water, salt air, and drought. However, the architects diverge in their opinions about the species of trees and their arrangement. Albert Perez, the landscape architect who designed the widely praised median along South Dixie Highway between Douglas and Red roads, suggests an evenly spaced row of palm trees. "It would be a preface to Miami Beach," he says. "A very simple matter. A sharp kind of thing. No clusters. It shouldn't be something that would block the view. It would bring romance." As a reference point, Perez mentions the tree-lined boulevards of Paris, or Miami in the 1920s and 1930s.
In an ideal world, Douglas Duany would plant rows of royal palm trees running the length of the causeway along the median and the sides. But in the absence of adequate sod along the banks, he suggests a single row of royals down the middle. "You have to engage the aesthetics of South Beach as soon as possible, the whole romance," he explains. "Royal palms would capture the tropical feeling of South Beach in the approach."
Architect Kenneth Treister, who designed the Mayfair House Hotel in Coconut Grove, advocates an even more minimalist approach. "In both the Julia Tuttle and the MacArthur, they started with landscaping and let the pines grow," he complains. "It ends up being a tunnel, and you could be in Wisconsin or Syracuse, New York, for all you know. On MacArthur they should have grass, and occasionally shade or palm trees that have a clear trunk. But no bushes."
While seeking the same sort of regional identity through species and views, another group of landscape architects suggests designs with more variety. "All palms is too sterile," says Raymond Jungles. "You want to have a variety of things." He suggests using several different species of palm, including coconut, Senegal date, sabal, and Washington. Other suitable trees would be geiger (a medium-size tree with a dense round head atop a crooked trunk), silver buttonwood (a large tree, broader than it is tall, with silver-color leaves and an irregular crown), and perhaps yellow tabebuia (a flowering tree with trumpet-shape flowers). Plant the trees in stands of each species, at least eleven per stand, says Jungles, and space them according to their type: sabal palms would be six feet apart, Senegal date palms twenty feet apart, coconut palms in informal groupings, Washington palms staggered, geigers in sparse groupings. Jungles also suggests a ground cover of bougainvillea, sea oats, railroad vine, saw palmetto, gilardia, spider lily, or coontie.
For the two-foot strip on the north bank of the causeway, many of the landscape architects recommended planting mangroves, which would provide excellent soil stability and a regional counterpart to palm trees. The mangroves, suggests Jungles, should be planted in 50-foot-long stretches and "limbed up" to allow a view of the bay islands. Between the pockets, landscapers could plant lower-lying plants, such as sea oxeye daisy or dwarf bougainvillea, which would soften the guardrail but not get too rambunctious. A major drawback to the mangrove, though, would be its classification as a protected species. "One of the problems of introducing mangroves as a landscape plan is that once you plant it, it's on its own," warns landscape architect William Rosenberg. "God forbid if you try to cut it or thin it, because it's a sacred cow."
Landscaping on the causeway's north side is of particular interest to many homeowners on Palm, Hibiscus, and Star islands. The residents, represented by the MacArthur Committee of the Palm/Hibiscus/Star Island Homeowners Association, has for the past year and a half met with FDOT and City of Miami Beach officials to discuss landscaping for the causeway. "What we did was recognize that the City of Miami Beach wasn't aggressively interacting with the FDOT with regards to representing what we felt should be the interests of the citizens of Miami Beach," says committee chairman Donald Kipnis. But despite the group's repeated requests since last December, the Miami Beach City Commission has failed to place the landscaping issue on its agenda.
The group campaigned particularly hard for a row of scaevola - a dense, fast-growing shrub - to be planted between the guardrail and the water. According to Kipnis, scaevola would provide a visual and aural barrier between the islands and the traffic, and would prevent fishermen from illegally gaining access to the water's edge. "It will look a lot better for the island residents on the south side of Palm Island to look out and see a green band than to look out and see a metal guardrail and fishermen standing there," he says.
Several landscape architects criticize the exclusive use of scaevola because it can grow to a height of five feet, blocking views of the water from the causeway. "The scaevola is self-serving," grumbles Jungles. "Yes, it's easy to maintain, it grows fast, it's green, but I think the view's more important. I would just as soon plant trees for shade for the fishermen. Waterways should have interaction, and people shouldn't be denied views of the bay."
On the south side of the causeway, the concrete Jersey barriers (described by architect Geoffrey Ferrell as "the last word on ugliness") will reduce the bank to an unmitigated eyesore. "The main charm of a causeway in Miami is the visual relation between the car and the water, the whole twenty-minute experience of being in contact with the sky and the bay," says Douglas Duany. "A Jersey barrier hurts that immensely." Architect Kenneth Treister proposes a competition to design a barrier that would allow drivers to see the water but would fall within the safety specifications of FDOT.
Indeed, imagination might be the aesthetic savior of the roadway. In a burst of creative fury, Ted Baker proposes running bougainvillea up tall aluminum shafts with three-foot diameters, creating "twenty-foot color columns." Or a series of archways, 25 feet high, covered with bougainvillea. "Think what it'd be like, if you're a German tourist and you've never seen bougainvillea before," he speculates, his eyes widening. "It would knock your socks off!"
But even the best-laid landscaping may be uprooted soon after the turn of the century to make room for a mass-transit system. Officials at the Metro-Dade Transit Agency say the MacArthur Causeway is the likely corridor for a Miami Beach extension of Metrorail. "We've never thought of doing anything other than that," says Mario Garcia, chief of the agency's system development division. The Julia Tuttle Causeway has never been a viable alternative because of the inherent additional costs, Garcia says, adding that engineers roughly figure a mile of track costs about $60 million. "A lot of Miami Beach business is down at the south end, and that's where the ridership is," he says. "You have to put these things where they're needed, not where they're more convenient to build."
A mass-transit extension to the Beach would likely be a light-rail system similar to the Los Angeles-Long Beach line in Southern California and would run along the causeway median. (County transit engineers have assured FDOT that the twenty-foot median would provide enough room for a light-rail system.) Garcia says commuters and tree lovers can rest easy for a while, however: construction of an extension is unlikely within the next ten years.
Denis Hector, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Miami, says incomplete landscaping designs and overlapping projects point out governmental insensitivity to urban design in Florida. "It's part of a much larger question that we as a society need to solve," says Hector. "My concern is that we reinsert the civic aspect into civil engineering." Local governments, citizens' groups, and the state - if they had looked - could have found an example in the Brickell Avenue Bridge Gateway Committee, a multi-agency group assembled several years ago to study the replacement of the Brickell Bridge over the Miami River. "It was a true community group," says Hector, who was on the committee. "It seemed to represent the immediate community."
The group, organized by the Downtown Development Authority, included professional architects as well as representatives from downtown residential and business organizations, a Miami River interest group, and FDOT. Additional professional architects from Dade and out of town were invited to judge an open contest in 1990 for the best bridge design. "It worked very well, in that we had technical and artistic representation on the committee," says Clyde Judson, an urban design administrator for the Downtown Development Authority. "And by having a cross-section [of people from the community], fund-raising for the project was facilitated." Sixty-nine designs were submitted from all over the world, including Europe, China, and Mexico; a local team of architects won the bid.
While it's too late to stop the MacArthur project and redraw the road designs, a committee modeled on the Brickell Bridge group may be the only thing that can save the causeway's landscaping from ruin. The nucleus for such a committee exists in the Palm/Hibiscus/Star Island Homeowners Association, the only group that appears to be keeping the issue alive. And at least in theory, there appears to be an abundance of concern for the landscaping issue among Miami Beach civic groups.
"I think this city would be in a very sorry state if the mayor and commissioners couldn't find enough money to beautify one of the main entrances to the City of Miami Beach," says Bruce Singer, president of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce and a city commissioner from 1981 to 1991. "If I were sitting here as a commissioner, which I'm not, I would question how something like this fell through the cracks. Who's coordinating? Who's in charge?"
Beautification activists three decades ago experienced similar governmental penury in their struggle to landscape the Julia Tuttle Causeway at 36th Street, which opened in December 1959. As late as October 1959, four months after it began lobbying for landscaping, the Miami Beach Taxpayers Association had managed to secure a commitment - in principle only - from the City of Miami Beach to put money into the project. Miami and Metro-Dade claimed they didn't have the money but would try to get it, according to a Miami Herald article from October 12, 1959. "If landscaping isn't done," reads the article, quoting association chairman Jerome Greene, "`this could turn into as much of a sore thumb as the 79th Street Causeway. This project isn't only good business, it's a necessity.'" Greene and the community's beautification supporters relentlessly fought their campaign to landscape the Tuttle, and large-scale planting finally commenced several years later. With the inspiration of the old Miami Beach Taxpayers' Association, and some uncustomarily imaginative official leadership, a coordinated civic and governmental effort might yet save the MacArthur Causeway from becoming a world-class, six-lane, architectural embarrassment.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.