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7/7/03 - Miami Herald

Plan to raze I-395, build anew gains momentum
High-powered committee seems on verge of first step

By Andres Viglucci

No one likes Interstate 395, the elevated roadway that darkens acres of prime real estate in downtown Miami.

Not Overtown residents, who say it wrecked their neighborhood.

Not Miami planners and elected officials, who say it's an obstacle to urban revitalization.

Not state highway officials, who say it's outdated, overburdened and ill-designed.

All agree on this: It's ugly, it's a source of blight, and it needs to go.

Now, after years of talk and stalled reconstruction plans, it seems increasingly likely that the I-395 so many have come to loathe will indeed go.

This week, a high-powered committee co-chaired by Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and Miami-Dade County Commission Chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler will decide whether to move forward with the idea of tearing down I-395, and may recommend how to do it.

Diaz, Carey-Shuler and other public officials are leaning in favor of an ambitious proposal -- replacing I-395 with a below-ground, open-air expressway that would reconnect the urban street grid sundered by the old highway's construction in the 1960s.

Razing the existing roadway, planners say, would free 40 acres of valuable public land for apartments, shops and park space, and unleash a wave of redevelopment extending as far north as Interstate 195.

Bridges over the new expressway would connect north-south streets. Sections of the cut could be covered, providing space for greenery and pedestrian pathways.

The estimated cost is about $525 million. The state has earmarked $100 million for the roadway. And Kimley-Horn and Associates, the consultant that developed the plan, says property taxes from new development and rising values would cover the balance -- with millions of dollars left for new housing and other improvements in Overtown and adjacent neighborhoods.

''The mayor wants to come up with a solution that actually gets built, and he likes the Kimley-Horn idea,'' said Otto Boudet-Murias, Diaz's senior advisor for economic development. ``The cost appears to be achievable. It eliminates the elevated highway, the visual barrier, and it reconnects a lot of these areas.''


The Florida Department of Transportation is working on an alternative that it says can accomplish similar goals more cheaply and simply -- a sleek, graceful elevated span, twice the height of the existing highway, that would allow sunlight to shine on the streets beneath it.

FDOT planners say their proposal -- there is no cost estimate yet -- would remove the earthen embankments and pare down the forest of support columns that now block streets and create a wasteland in Overtown as I-395 wends its way from Interstate 95 to the MacArthur Causeway and to Miami Beach. They contend that their alternative would be less of a physical barrier than a depressed, open-cut expressway.

''If you invert 395 and make it an open cut, you still have the issues of cutting the city,'' said Javier Rodriguez, an FDOT environmental management engineer.

Either way, the idea of tearing down I-395 -- something many regarded as far-fetched just a year ago -- now appears poised to clear its first formal hurdle. On Wednesday, the I-395 committee is expected to refer the Kimley-Horn plan for further analysis to the Metropolitan Planning Organization, a county agency that would make the final decision. The FDOT has yet to formally present its alternative, but the planning agency could consider it as well.


The next step would be a detailed engineering study to determine technical feasibility and map out a precise route for a new roadway.

To be sure, the tear-down proposal faces substantial questions and is at best years from becoming reality. It could be derailed at any time by technical, financial or political issues.

Supporters must allay skepticism from residents of Overtown and the adjacent Omni-Edgewater district who fear that the massive project would mean years of disruption.

One persistent critic of the FDOT's plans and the Kimley-Horn alternative is architect and activist Jorge Espinel, who co-developed a conceptual plan that persuaded many, including Diaz, to seriously consider razing I-395. Espinel's plan would have created a grand boulevard atop a buried expressway, but preliminary estimates, which he disputes, suggest that it would cost $900 million.

Espinel contends that the Kimley-Horn plan, unlike his, would entail considerable property takings and disrupt surrounding neighborhoods for a decade.

''This would have tremendous impact on this area,'' he said.


One especially touchy issue: Tearing down the expressway is meant to repair damage done to Overtown when I-395 cut through its heart decades ago, forcing the relocation of thousands of residents, most of them black. But the open-cut expressway plan requires that the new road be built slightly north of the existing I-395 so that the existing roadway can remain open until its replacement is ready.

But that means homes and buildings abutting the north side of the expressway, including the 30-year-old Town Park Village co-op apartments, a city-owned shopping mall and several privately owned warehouses and businesses, might have to come down.

At a community presentation of the Kimley-Horn plan late last month, Town Park Village resident Annie Smith was infuriated by the prospect.

''You destroyed it one time,'' Smith told Kimley-Horn Vice President Paul Cherry, who bore the brunt of some Overtown residents' frustration even though his firm was not involved in the construction of the current expressway. ``Now you're coming back.''

Smith was mollified, at least for now, by promises that the proposal's long-term benefits might outweigh short-term costs.

One element of the Kimley-Horn plan, modeled after an ongoing project in the majority-black city of Riviera Beach in Palm Beach County, contemplates building new homes for current Overtown homeowners, including those who may be displaced, with mortgage payments no greater than those they are carrying now.

If that's true, said Overtown activist Irby McKnight, who organized the community meeting, local residents would support the plan.

A delegation will visit Riviera Beach next month to learn more, McKnight said in an interview.


Others, too, have qualms. Backers of the Performing Arts Center now under construction just north of I-395 worry that the proposed open-cut roadway's proximity to the complex would make access to loading docks impossible and create acoustical problems.

And entrepreneurs who have invested in land and businesses north of the expressway, in a burgeoning entertainment district west of the arts center, complain that the uncertainty surrounding it has made it impossible for them to plan or build.

''Everything is hanging in this area,'' property owner George Sanchez said.

But Cherry and city officials note that the FDOT's original 1996 improvement plan for the expressway -- expanding the existing elevated I-395 by adding lanes to it -- would also have required land-taking. That expansion plan, killed by neighborhood opposition, would have worsened the roadway's effects on adjoining neighborhoods, they say.


Kimley-Horn's proposal, by contrast, is as much an economic development plan as a road plan.

An economic analysis that the firm commissioned shows that property values in downtown Miami, south of the expressway, are far lower than in the mostly poor districts north of it, suggesting that the highway has indeed acted as a barrier to economic improvement in a broad swath of the city's urban core, Kimley-Horn officials say