Preserving the Environment

Forget South Beach. This Urban Park Is Going to Be Miami’s Top Spot to Get Fresh Air

June 23, 2015
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Forget South Beach. This Urban Park Is Going to Be Miami’s Top Spot to Get Fresh Air
A rendering of proposed plans for "The Underline" in Miami. Courtesy Friends of The Underline
An unfortunate bike accident led to the creation of this green space.

South Florida will soon have its very own version of New York City’s famed High Line. The southern counterpart’s co-creators are calling their idea “The Underline,” a stretch of urban parkland underneath an elevated train’s railway in Miami.

Led by Meg Daly, a businesswoman who first reimagined the transit corridor’s possibilities after a debilitating accident, The Underline will transform a barren swath of land into safer paths for pedestrians and bicyclists — from the Miami River in the north to the city’s South Station. James Corner Field Operations, the same New York City-based firm behind the High Line, is sketching early blueprints and expects to present plans this September.

The genesis for this huge public works project occurred when Daly was out for a bike ride with her adult daughter. The pair collided, and Daly hit the asphalt elbows first and broke both bones. (The pain was “terrible,” she says, “but I’ve been through childbirth, so whatever.”) For all practical purposes, Daly was incapacitated — unable to drive for three months while both arms healed. So she started traveling on the city’s Metrorail, an elevated train.
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“I took it from one stop to another, and on the final stretch, I’d walk under under the train tracks to grab some shade because June and July in Miami are really hot. It was at that moment I realized there’s so much land here, and there’s really not a whole lot being done with it. This should be like the High Line in New York,” she recalls. “That’s really where the idea came from. It was a crazy idea, and I started telling my friends and family. My background’s in marketing, so I’m used to hearing a lot more ‘no’ than ‘yes,’ but they all agreed it should be a park.”

From end to end, the park will stretch 10 linear miles. Under the tracks, the corridor exceeds 110 feet in width in some spots. (Compare that to 30 feet on the High Line.) One side parallels U.S. Route 1; the other faces building facades.

Today, there’s a crude, narrow path that some frequent, but mostly the space looks how you’d expect a rail yard to appear — utility poles, maintenance ladders, fences (and holes to sneak in) and encroachments from adjacent property owners. “There’s really bad signaling, and it doesn’t have lighting at night. Not a lot of people use it,” says Isabel Castilla, senior associate at James Corner Field Operations.

Although it’s underdeveloped, the passage still radiates potential. Its shade provides a refuge from the Florida humidity, and the patterns of light through the rails roughly three stories above create a dazzling chiaroscuro display — an effect that’s accentuated by pedaling on a bike at a constant rhythm.

This fall, James Corner’s team will present initial renderings for pilot projects downtown and near the University of Miami — two locations where people are “clamoring” for open space, Daly says. At one end of the line, construction of high rises in the central business district is encroaching on limited greenery; at the other, college students can feel disconnected from the town across the train tracks and are actively looking for new recreation opportunities. Neighbors abutting the line are planning out their own use for the space, too. South Miami Hospital, for example, is planning to pull back the pavement on a parking lot and introduce a meditation garden for patients.

Like Gotham’s version, the artery will connect disparate neighborhoods. Designers from James Corner Field Operations will unite the entire passage with native flora and tailor each block to residents’ needs. Columns supporting the tracks above, for example, might become a canvas for local artists in West Grove, a bohemian neighborhood, Castilla says.

But for all its specificity, the most important idea is that the line will be available to everyone, regardless of socioeconomics. “Anyone who lives along a transit line will now be able to come here and walk this, then go back home and never need a car,” Daly says.
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Compared to New York’s undertaking, Miami’s project must also fit more practical needs. “We’re the fourth most dangerous place in the country for pedestrians, and [one of] the most dangerous in the state for bicyclists. We don’t have protected infrastructure,” Daly says. The Underline will function as an “off-road safe haven” running parallel to the region’s busiest highway: U.S. Route 1, she adds. The project’s architects believe the new transit infrastructure won’t only protect pedestrians; they hope the newly landscaped paths, in sight of disgruntled motorists in gridlock, will be a “catalyst” for encouraging alternative modes of transit.

“Everyone hits their head and says, ‘Why didn’t I think of this?’” Daly says. “When I was forced to not drive and walk where I wanted to go, I had this new lens… It’s big, it’s shady. There’s an opportunity here. It’s all because I had never walked underneath it before.”

Many grassroots revitalization efforts have started with an ingenious idea like Daly’s, only to languish in the bureaucracy of City Hall. To the visionary, permits, zoning ordinances and public meetings can be a slow and painful death. A “champion” in Miami-Dade County’s Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces department, Maria Nardi, chief of planning, “a bureaucrat who thinks like an entrepreneur,” propelled the idea forward as the “glue that held future trails together,” Daly says.

No small force to be discounted herself, Daly often talks about bringing private sector speed to government. She sets ambitious goals for The Underline’s construction, but knows she’ll meet them. Overtures made to three municipalities and four nonprofits produced an “unusual collaboration”; altogether, they contributed $500,000 to get planning underway. Again, valuing speed, Friends of the Underline’s planning committee chose James Corner as the lead design team. “The way we’re railroading this thing” — pun intended — “we didn’t have the time to have anybody go through a learning curve. [James Corner] brought that expertise.”

There’s still some practical elements for the firm to work out — designing safe passageways at intersections, getting approval from the Federal Transit Authority, finding the money to make everything possible — but Daly seems positive that the entire line will be completed in six years.

“You know what motivates me? That it can be done; it just isn’t being done. The way the public sector moves needs to be challenged. Development is moving much faster than infrastructure to match it,” Daly says. “The people who live here deserve this. And I want to be sure to use this before I’m in a wheelchair.”
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