Restoring and Reinvigorating Lincoln Road

Lincoln Road

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Restoring and Reinvigorating Lincoln Road:

Who pays and how to keep businesses in business during construction

The Lincoln Road master plan, a proposed $77 million restoration and reinvigoration of the iconic street, has been more than four years in the making. Now, the City of Miami Beach and Lincoln Road stakeholders are discussing the details of how to get it done with an emphasis on funding, community benefit, and how to keep the street’s businesses from going out of business during the five-year project.
 
This week, City Commissioners and Mayor Dan Gelber sat down with landscape architect and urban designer James Corner, property owners, business operators, and City staff for a workshop that was a little bit briefing, a little bit brainstorming, and a little bit negotiating session.
 
Gelber acknowledged many members of the current Commission did not have a history with the project, having been elected after it started. In addition, he said, there are a lot of things happening now that weren’t on the radar screen during much of the master plan process, including the G.O. Bond which will involve “57 important projects” and the planned Convention Center hotel. 
 
As he did at the reopening of the Convention Center, Gelber emphasized the district around it which includes the New World Symphony, Soundscape Park, Lincoln Road, the Bass, and Collins Park and creating connections between all of the cultural institutions and area dining and shopping. “This district is pretty important and Lincoln Road is vital to that so it’s important we get it right,” he said. “We want to leave here with a critical path as to what we’re going to do and when we’re going to do it."
 
The scope and cost of the plan has grown as the vision expanded. City Manager Jimmy Morales said it was now decision time. Does the City “design to the budget we have or design to the greater vision.” And, if the choice is the greater vision, the next step is to “figure out with all the stakeholders how to pay for it.”
 
The boundaries of the plan now extend beyond the Lincoln Road mall which starts at Washington Avenue to include the 200-300 blocks to provide continuity and visibility to an artistic shade trellis at the entrance to the pedestrian mall (photo above). While the original proposal included parts of the side streets, the expanded vision includes connectors on Drexel and Meridian Avenues from Lincoln Road to the Convention Center and New World Symphony and Soundscape Park.
 
Current view from Lincoln Road looking north on Drexel Avenue

 
Proposed plan for Drexel Avenue between Lincoln Road and Soundscape Park

 
Current view looking north on Meridian Avenue from Lincoln Road

 
Proposed plan for Meridian Avenue connecting Lincoln Road to the Convention Center


The plan includes everything from design guidelines to new lighting, pedestrian surfaces, and street furniture and even operational items such as loading times and trash collection.
 
James Corner, whose James Corner Field Operations specializes in the design of public spaces and is best known for New York City’s High Line, said, “We know how complicated these projects can be” with “a lot of opinions and issues.” Ultimately, he said, “Public money needs to be rationally disbursed.”
 
He added, “This is one of the most culturally and historically significant projects that we’ve worked on.”
 
The plan, he said, is “respectful and understanding of the [Morris Lapidus] follies” while also creating a “more walkable, less cluttered” environment. Another benefit will be lower maintenance costs with precast concrete pavers and planters that will not require constant painting. It also includes more and better drainage to address “large puddling problems.”
 
 
The black and white "piano keys" on Lincoln Road require frequent painting

 
Cement pavers would reduce the maintenance costs and eliminate the need to paint the concrete


Functionality is another big issue. “There’s a sense of it being cluttered and disorganized” now, Corner said. At the same time, the street is experiencing “more visitation than it’s ever had which also puts a lot of pressure on how the place functions." Eleven million people visit Lincoln Road annually, an average of 41,000 per day.
 
In addition to tables hiding the historic Lapidus follies in the center, there is “very little crossover” from one side of Lincoln Road to the other. “On a retail street, it’s good to have some crossover points where you can get to the other side,” Corner said.
 
The plan calls for a clear pedestrian area in front of the storefronts, an area of seating and then a “refurbished” publicly accessible central area with plantings, water features, and the follies.
 
 
Current condition of central area of Lincoln Road

 
Open, accessible center area proposed in Lincoln Road master plan


The vision isn’t the issue… all the players in the room supported it. The rub: who will pay for it and how do you minimize disruption to the businesses.
 
Corner said he and his team had worked out a sequence that runs block by block, first tearing up the “utility corridor” which is generally located where the sidewalk café tables are now, leaving an area in front of the storefronts open and moving the tables to the center. Once that section is taken care of, the repaving in front of the stores “should happen relatively quickly.” Under this scenario, he said, “Storefronts and restaurants are still open and functioning.”
 
He used another of his firm’s projects – the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis – as an example. He said they used a “similar technique” and it worked well.

Commissioner Mark Samuelian said he appreciated the thought given to the various connection points in the 200-300 blocks at the entrance to the east and the side streets guiding traffic north to the convention center and cultural institutions, but he urged another connection point be added to the west, extending from Alton Road to West Avenue. As the City looks to complete its Baywalk, he said it should think about completing the “Bay to beach” connection. 
 
The master plan as drafted, Samuelian said, left “two blocks in the middle” between Lincoln Road and the Baywalk where “you’re lost.” 
 
“We’re talking about holistic connectivity,” he said. "The 2-300 block is serving hotels and tourists. Residents coming from the other end would like to see something beautiful.”
 
Morales said as the West Avenue Accelerator project includes the street end, that would leave only one block between Alton and West to address.
 
Then it was on to the cost. Between a County contribution of Redevelopment Agency (RDA) money, G.O. Bond money, and dedicated infrastructure funding, Morales said there is a shortfall of $17.87 million. He said the City looked at items that could be considered “non essentials… but probably a shame not to do.”
 
As of now, he said the Lincoln Road property owners were probably willing to kick in $6 million for the trellis and $2 million for public art.
 
Proposed trellis at main entrance to Lincoln Road at Washington Avenue


That wasn’t good enough for Commissioner Ricky Arriola who noted the $1.9 billion in assessed property value on Lincoln Road. He said he wants to “do it right, go for the full-blown plan. It’s a brilliant plan. Miami Beach deserves the best.” But, he added, “This is a lot of money, public money, for what is largely a commercial operation.” 
 
“We do have other uses for the money that are priorities as well,” Arriola said. “My ask … at least $20 million” from the property owners, "1% on assessed values." He said it was “not an unreasonable ask.”
 
The owners, he said, have “a lot of abandoned stores” and “they’re asking us to bail them out” by paying to upgrade the street. Citing high rents that have “priced mom and pops out… now they’re saying ‘hey, come bail us out.’” He said the owners will benefit from the improvements and he wants to see them contribute more and come up with “a plan for bringing back mom and pops, a plan for bringing back art and culture.”
 
Commissioner Michael Góngora said he was “in favor of the whole plan including connecting to West Avenue.” Because he thinks the property owners will get “quite an upgrade in values and rents will go up,” he said, “I do think it would be fair for them to participate as partners with us.”
 
Assistant City Attorney Nick Kallergis said a new special assessment district could be created to facilitate that. 
 
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Eileen Higgins referenced recent upgrades to Flagler Street in Miami. “The businesses are participating in that project as well so it does seem fair that the businesses participate.” In addition to representing the area, Higgins is also on the RDA’s Board which will commit about $50 million of the project’s cost.
 
Concerned about how the businesses will fare during construction, Gelber said, “If we killed the patient but end up with a beautiful operating room, we’ve done something wrong.” He emphasized the need for a plan for “what will happen to the businesses while this is going on. Even with the best laid plans, it may be very difficult for them,” he said.
 
David Martinez, Miami Beach Director of Capital Improvement Projects, said keeping the sidewalk cafés open involves a five-year project though he said the City can “shave about a year off but you cannot maintain café operations.” Under the four-year scenario, each block’s café operations would be closed an average of six months on both sides. Businesses would remain open but the lucrative café seating, which often accounts for the majority of a restaurant’s revenue, would be closed.
 
That idea caught the property owners and business operators in attendance by surprise.
 
Gelber responded, “Closing a block for six months could hurt a business at that level. That is unthinkable… We can’t the destroy the businesses on Lincoln Road block by block. I’d rather have five years [of construction] if the businesses survive.”
 
Commissioner John Alemán reminded those in the room of the painful Alton Road project that “hurt a lot of businesses.” In addition to the impact on the City if businesses on Lincoln Road failed, she said, “These are our people that own these businesses. I’d rather we take more time and be more thoughtful about preserving these businesses.”
 
Gelber asked if it was possible for owners to abate rate or relocate tenants temporarily.
 
Lincoln Road Business Improvement District Executive Director Tim Schmand said, “Each block is unique and is going to require a plan.” He said the BID would have “specific conversations with property owners and businesses” regarding development of block by block plans.
 
Gelber said, “I’d hate to see the ‘going out of business’ signs because we didn’t think about it in advance.”
 
Higgins said “My support goes away if you’re shutting down the entire street and businesses are closing.”
 
Stephen Bittel, Founder and Chairman of Terranova, one of the largest property owners on Lincoln Road, said the “robust café life” is “truly the engine that drives traffic to Lincoln Road.” If they were to close “even for a day, it would be devastating to the cafés, the retailers, the property tax base. We would all lose.” It was his understanding, he said, that half blocks would be closed, while the other half remained active. 
 
Referencing the recently completed Coral Gables Miracle Mile project, Bittel said he gets it. “There has to be some disruption. You have to break eggs to make cake.” In the case of Coral Gables, he said, the result is that “Traffic exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations. It’s still packed and the umbrellas are long gone,” a nod to the temporary exhibit that created a sensation on social media.
 
“It took 14 years to get Coral Gables to do that. It was an expensive public project,” Bittel said. “The result and the return to the community in terms of activity and to the City in terms of tax revenues to the coffers, is meaningful and direct.”
 
To minimize disruption, he said work was allowed at night but he said that was not a part of the plan at the beginning and Coral Gables had to pay for an expensive change order to accomplish that.
 
Gelber reiterated “I’d like to know the plan” for working with the businesses. “It shouldn’t be an afterthought.”
 
When Góngora asked how much the property owners contributed to the Coral Gables project, Bittel said 50% but the cost was spread over a much broader area as other businesses on the surrounding streets also benefited. In addition, he said, the assessment is “paid over years” and is financed by the City but he also noted the costs are a pass through to tenants. “It’s not the property owner, the tenants are going to pay,” he said.
 
Lyle Stern, President of Koniver Stern, a retail leasing and consulting company, said the City will experience a “tremendous public windfall” from a revitalized Lincoln Road including higher real estate taxes. Echoing Bittel’s comments that the cost would be passed through to tenants, he said, property owners “can’t keep tenants today, how will they keep them with more” costs?
 
“The City has had tremendous value from Lincoln Road,” Stern said. The property owners “don’t own the street. The City owns the street. The citizens and the tourists enjoy the street.”
 
Samuelian said before he would vote on such a significant public expenditure he wants to understand the “community benefit, why the community should feel good about this.”
 
Arriola reupped his call for helping mom and pops and added art galleries to his list. He said he didn’t want “to see more national retailers… on a half-empty pedestrian mall that looks like Bayside.”
 
Gelber asked for a “business disruption plan, block by block”; a list of community benefits; and a rough estimate on adding the Alton to West Avenue block. He emphasized, “I’d Like it to start soon” and asked for discussions at either the Commission meeting next week or January 23rd.
 
Martinez said, “best case scenario” it would be 7.5 to 8 months before construction would start on the first block. 
 
Regarding the large number of vacancies, Commissioner Micky Steinberg said, “There’s a lot of insecurity in the market when we don’t have a plan. People may be holding out because they don’t have tenants and they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
 
Jamil Dib, a partner with VE Restaurant Group which operates Havana 1957 and the recently opened La Cerveceria on Lincoln Road, experienced the recent construction on Española Way where the group has two restaurants, Oh Mexico and Mercato. “The Española Way construction, it was really difficult. We lost a lot of money,” Dib said.
 
He likes the design for Lincoln Road but he wants more discussion of what’s going to happen with the businesses. “It’s going to be a beautiful street. It’s going to be good for the City,” he said. “If you close the street for six months, we’re done. We’re concerned. We’re not a huge company.”
 
Mike Llorente, the BID’s attorney said, “We are committed to this” and said the owners would discuss the plans further at the BID's Board meeting on the 17th.
 
As a postscript: Arriola had more fuel for his fire Friday posting on Facebook that a Walgreens was coming to 947 Lincoln Road, the space formally occupied by Hofbräu Beer Hall and which is undergoing renovation. 
 

 
 

Renderings: James Corner Field Operations

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