Accelerator Aims to Get West Ave Project "Unstuck"

Resiliency

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Accelerator Aims to Get West Ave Project "Unstuck":

Interdisciplinary team worked on ideas to move the delayed project forward

When Miami Beach hit “pause” on its resiliency strategy after the election in November, a few things got caught in the middle. Literally. The West Avenue neighborhood which had seen completion of the first phase of a project to replace aging stormwater infrastructure and elevating roads for sea level rise, found Phase Two put on hold while Commissioners studied the City’s plans to determine if it was on the right track. Not that everyone was upset about that. Many in the community expressed their displeasure over the lack of thought about what would happen above ground once the pipes were in place and the roads raised. 
 
In the meantime, City leaders and Staff have worked with a team from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) provided by 100 Resilient Cities, a network started by the Rockefeller Foundation and which Miami Beach is a part of. 100RC is designed to help cities become more resilient (which goes beyond climate to include physical, economic, and social issues). While a final report is pending, the group’s initial assessment praised the City for taking decisive action while encouraging it to take a more integrated approach to grey and green infrastructure and communicating better with community stakeholders.

This week, a multidisciplinary team from Miami Beach joined experts from 100RC and Columbia University for the Southeast Florida Resilience Accelerator, funded through a $3.7m grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The West Avenue Project was put through the Accelerator’s intensive three-day workshop which had as its premise kickstarting projects from design to action.
 
In the end, the City’s team presented the framework for a more inspired public space and a new communications tool for improving transparency and information sharing both internally and externally with the community. 

Underscoring the importance of the workshop, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber and City Manager Jimmy Morales both gave opening remarks and were in attendance for the final presentation. Gelber said, “We’re just trying to get this done right… if there was a template that you could repeat over and over again, we wouldn’t have to do this” examination of our process. “My City wants to do it right, figure out how to do it, and inform our decision making.”
 
“We’re very happy to be the canary in the mineshaft,” he said, “but please don’t kill the canary.” Noting the area is “ground zero for sea level rise," he said "We have a very ambitious program… When you’re out in front, you want to make sure you don’t just get it done quick but you get it done right.”
 
Morales said the challenge is how you implement resiliency projects in a way that “still makes a place that people want to live in.”
 
“We’ve been the poster child for this,” he said, “often moving faster… and that’s challenging. We’re writing the playbook.”
 
Explaining the importance of the West Avenue project, Morales said, “It’s one of the lowest areas of the City. It’s an escape route connecting two of our causeways.” He said the Accelerator program is a unique opportunity to “show us how you can take a project that you’re in the middle of and really make it better.”
 
Elizabeth Wheaton, Miami Beach Director of Environment and Sustainability, laid out the City’s challenge. Following the approval of the 2013 Stormwater Management Master Plan, the City updated its design criteria and overall capacity, going from a gravity-based system to pump based system to combat rising seas and increased rainfall events.
 
A major issue for the neighborhood is that it is experiencing “construction fatigue” following the FDOT project on Alton Road. But the need is clear, she said. “The area currently floods during extreme high tides and rain events because of lack of capacity of the system."
 
She noted the City has begun to raise roads and is now asking, “Is the decision to raise roads the right one, are we using the right design criteria?” As part of the ULI process and the Accelerator, she said, the City wanted to challenge “how we’re thinking and designing projects. Are we going down the right path? And we want to challenge that concept.”
 
Section of road elevation and example of property harmonization on West Avenue


The goal for the Accelerator was to “obtain a change order as part of this process” to make adjustments “so we move forward with construction and not have to go out to bid [again] which is extremely costly.” Wheaton said consideration during the workshop would be given to mobility (“transit, trolleys, cars, pedestrians and bicycles moving through this neighborhood safely”); green infrastructure, “how the natural environment can be part of solutions and design”; “transitions so they don’t destroy the urban fabric (plan for the future, live today)”; and “how to phase or move forward with different segments so we have minimal impact… on residents and businesses.”
 
The integrated approach included teams from the City’s Emergency Management, Transportation, Public Works, Capital Improvement Projects, Planning, Parking, and Fire Departments as well as the contractor working on the job and landscape architects. “This is not just a public works project,” Wheaton said. “It’s going to take all of our disciplines to come together and think about this issue.”
 
During the intense group work sessions, Mike Fisher, COO of Ric-Man Construction, the contractor for the project, expressed concerns about the division in the community and amongst Commissioners about raising roads. The construction has been stopped at the 60% design phase for eight months, he said. “The challenge is getting unified with the local constituents.”
 
Wheaton responded, “Our goal is to get this project unstuck. We realize we have competing interests.” A project of this magnitude, “impacts daily commutes, people’s lives, and livelihoods,” she said.
 
After identifying the many challenges of the project for each department, the priorities identified with the “highest occurrence, highest consequences” were sea level rise and the conflict between cars, bikes, and pedestrians. Chief Resiliency Officer and Assistant City Manager Susy Torriente said the priorities underscore the need for more integrated planning. The Transportation Master Plan, which prioritizes pedestrians and bicycles, “should be informing design criteria,” she said.
 
Wheaton noted the City has many “plans on a shelf. We need to make sure they’re integrated” into the design process for each project.
 
Acknowledging a lack of community consensus, Wheaton said, that is the City’s challenge, but the reality is the project is under contract. Gaining community consensus was identified as the most critical issue for prioritization and the team set about its work for the next few days.
 
Plan for moving forward: What emerged was a plan that contained ideas for a more “inspired public realm” through above-ground aesthetics and more transparent and informative public dialogue. The working group developed a “tool” to be used internally by the interdisciplinary team and the public to more visibly consider and show the “sound science”, the scope and design of individual projects including street elevation, pipe capacity, pumps, green infrastructure options, alternatives such as deep water injection and costs, along with co-benefits such as green space, bike lanes, and open street ends.
 
The tool will help the City to create more “engaging public spaces”, Wheaton said, while sharing the internal process of “weighing the options with the costs and the protection that provides” with the general public “to illustrate how we came up with the design and how many years this is going to take us into the future.”
 
As part of the road elevation process, Wheaton noted that “over 100 properties need to be harmonized” with the raised roadway. Part of the plan to get West Avenue “unstuck” includes “developing typologies of what harmonization is going to look like,” she said. The City will meet with the individual property owners to help them get a better understanding of how the project will impact them, in particular.
 
Susy Torriente, Tom Mooney, and Elizabeth Wheaton discuss the West Avenue Project


Planning Director Tom Mooney discussed how the group envisioned a more inspired West Avenue public space. Currently, he said, there is a 70 foot right of way with 40 feet dedicated to vehicles and 30 to “pedestrian movement, bicycle lanes, sidewalks, streetscapes and landscapes.” The team proposes to reverse that with 30 feet for vehicles and 40 for pedestrians, bikes, sidewalks, etc. The group’s plan would maintain vehicle lanes and center turn lanes while eliminating on-street parking from 8th to 14th. Parking would remain on side streets.
 
Mooney said the group also wants to address what has been “a missed opportunity to take advantage of what limited areas we have for public access to the Bayfront.” He used the 10th Street end as an example of an “uninspired maze of off-street parking, a concrete maze, utility structures.” On the street ends where pumps have been installed, at 10th, 14th, and Lincoln Road, he said reimagining the project provides an opportunity for “improved connectivity to what is public waterfront area, placemaking with expanded pedestrian walkways and green space.” 
 
“It’s an opportunity to create spaces that are very significant, to create sculptures out of existing and future above ground infrastructure” he said referencing the pumps that have been installed in those areas.
 
Wheaton said the team also responded to 100RC’s challenge to think big, coming up with the idea of a “floating road” that, as groundwater increased, would float on top. “It’s a concept to inspire where we need to go next,” she said.
 
The City must continue to adapt and implement its “short term, mid-term, and aspirational goals of where we’re going… the idea we need to keep pushing the envelope… how our City could potentially adapt to the challenges ahead,” Wheaton said.
 
Next steps: Further refine the concepts internally, engage with the community in September, present to the Commission’s Sustainability and Resiliency Committee on September 25, all with a goal of taking a change order to the City Commission in October. Once approved, it would be submitted to the contractor to price out.
 
At the end of the workshop, Torriente summed up the City’s efforts to date: “We have had our ups and downs and our good days and bad days and that happens a lot when you’re going first. It was a very aggressive engineering approach and it’s been successful. The pumps work but they haven’t been without their controversies… they don’t work when the power doesn’t work, they don’t work when it’s a construction site.” 
 
The City has learned a lot through its own efforts and the ULI review, she said, about the need for more meaningful public engagement and a more inclusive, interdisciplinary approach among the City departments. “Our engineers have been working hard and very sincerely and have been vetting [projects] very sincerely and looking through everything,” she said. “We need to do a better job as a team of communicating” their efforts. “The integrated process and the strategic communication is key to the success of what we need to do.”
 
Mike Fisher, the COO for contractor Ric-Man, said, “It was very informative. I think we accomplished a lot in trying to meet mutually agreeable goals on how to move the West Avenue project forward. As the design builder, we’re construction people, we want to move forward with speed and efficiency and I think we took some giant leaps over the past three days.”
 
He described the integrated process. “It’s totally different now. Now the realization of getting homeowner participation, comments on our design, being open about what our plans are, why we’re doing things, sharing the engineering data is very important and I think we made great strides in moving that forward.”
 
Morales said, “The process was phenomenal. You had our staff come together with consultants both from Columbia and 100RC and really took theoretical concepts and tried to figure how to apply them to a very specific project and contracts. You can tell they’re all exhausted after two and a half days so I think it worked!”
 
While the City is moving toward the more integrated approach, Morales said this was the first time they’ve had a chance to work together on a project. “This will be the model, we believe, going forward.”
 
“This is how you get to what is called the integrated Stormwater Management Plan,” he added. “It’s not just the engineering solution of pumps and pipes and elevation but it’s the green infrastructure, it’s the aesthetics, the placemaking, and that all comes when you put everybody in the room.”
 
100 Resilient Cities Support: The City’s efforts got another boost of support from the team at 100RC when they visited them on their own turf the day after the workshop. 
 
100RC President Michael Berkowitz met with City Manager Jimmy Morales, Department heads, and the chairs of two Commission Committees at the forefront of the resiliency efforts: Commissioner John Alemán, Chair of the Land Use and Development Committee, and Commissioner Micky Steinberg, Chair of the Sustainability and Resiliency Committee, which will consider the West Avenue Accelerator Project next month.
 
Berkowitz said 100RC’s mission is to ask “how can we up the resiliency value, how can we make our cities stronger?” How can a project such as a seawall become more, such as a park and then a meeting place? “What are the other opportunities in that one envelope to strengthen the City in multiple ways?” he asked.
 
That type of thought process requires new ways of working across departmental and other lines. “The better conversations happen” when that cross pollination occurs. “It may feel less efficient but in the long-term we get a lot more out of each intervention if we have that integrated conversation.”
 
But, it’s more than planning, Berkowitz said. “Strategy planning is great, but the way cities inspire their positions and the environment in their cities is if they execute.” 100RC wants to help when “cities get stuck.”
 
“There is amazing talent and innovative product that is going on here now” and Berkowitz said his aim is to “help you and to leverage the learning” for others. “The question we get all the time is ‘how’s Miami doing?’”
 
Torriente said the Accelerator was the City’s first opportunity “to take the concepts ULI shared in April and actually put it to work.” She said she is looking forward to getting the project started again “in a more integrated fashion.” 
 
“We took the ULI comments and started drawing it, making it happen” this week. “I think we’re going to be able to tell a better story,” she said. “We do good work but we need to be able to tell our story better.”
 
100RC Associate Director Eric Wilson said, “Change is hard” and he asked Alemán and Steinberg for feedback on “how can we help you talk with your constituents about these issues?” He said he understood there needed to be stronger communication, “but how do we tell the story better and help you deliver the message?”
 
Alemán responded that we “have to understand the risk of doing nothing.”
 
“Cities have an obligation to replace their infrastructure, replacing for the future,” Torriente said. “We can do it the old-fashioned way or for the city of tomorrow. We love Miami Beach and we have to continue building here. Doing nothing is not an option.”
 
Steinberg said, for her it’s determining “which solution works best for our City at this time and which one works for the future. How do we get there? We need to define that goal and communicate that as clearly as possible.”
 
“There are some tough decisions that need to be made and supported,” Berkowitz said. “Some of it is for today and some of it is future proofing.” He said that can be “hard” as “We want to see benefits today but don’t want disruption for the future [proofing].”
 
Morales said he looks at it as “strategy informs logic but logic informs strategy.” The City is doing and learning as it goes along which makes the plan better moving forward. “We have to get it as good as you can but you’re going to learn,” he said. Given the public scrutiny, he said, “We don’t get a lot of room for error… but you can’t not do it because you’re going to make a mistake.”
 
Wilson said, “Miami Beach has the most passionate residents. People care about the community in ways that is amazing. Sometimes that passion and that attachment to the place sometimes make change that much harder.” That passion, he said, is the City’s “strength and challenge.”
 
“How do we leverage that passion and turn it into something that enables change in a positive way and that’s going to protect the community for a long time?” Wilson asked.
 
“Building trust in the process is almost as important as the outcome,” Berkowitz said.
 
“Of the five case studies [in the Accelerator this week], this was the team that really wrestled with it in the most real way,” Berkowitz said of the Miami Beach team. “The others kind of played with house money” in proposing projects but with the City’s West Avenue Project team, he said, “They’re on the line. That was really cool and inspiring” to watch.
 
Peter Jenkins, Senior Program Manager for 100RC, said, “Ultimately, it’s about values” and not a project itself. Ask “how it’s advancing the community’s values, identify those values, and communicate how they link to a project.”
 
Berkowitz closed by saying “It feels like there’s good momentum. There’s good progress… probably not at the pace that it needs to be and that’s what we’re hoping to give a push to.”  
 
The Project: 
Phase one completed including pumps at 6th, 10th,14th, and 17th Streets 
Infrastructure and road work from Lincoln to 17th inclusive of 17th, Alton to the Venetian Bridge
Cross streets of 6th, 10th and 14thand West Avenue from 5th to 8th
 
Phase Two is at 60% design and will be done in two pieces (via the same contractor)
It includes 8th to 14th Streets on West Avenue and 14th to Lincoln on West
According to Assistant City Manager Eric Carpenter, the cost is $55m with contingencies
 
 

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