A neighborhood improvement project to replace aging infrastructure and mitigate flooding due to sea level rise in the South of Fifth neighborhood will move down the priority list following lack of consensus among the stakeholders. In a letter to Miami Beach Commissioners, Interim City Manager Raul Aguila said, despite “the most expansive stakeholder engagement effort to-date for a single project,” the community remains conflicted over where to place a water treatment system and outfall pipe. As a result, he is recommending the City not proceed with the project at this time and begin moving through the priority list developed by Jacobs Engineering which places the First Street Neighborhood Improvement Project (NIP) tenth in line.
Approved in 2016, the First Street NIP was awarded to design firm Wade Trim in 2017. According to Aguila, it “includes critical life safety and property protection improvements to the area along First St, as well as cultural and aesthetic benefits.”
“The project upsizes water mains along Alton Rd. to meet fire flow demands and builds drainage infrastructure to attenuate severe flooding on First St.,” Aguila wrote. “The project also improves street lighting and sidewalks to beautify the neighborhood, elevates roads to eliminate tidal flooding, changes the roadway design along First St. to promote pedestrian mobility, adds landscaping to beautify the neighborhood, and accommodates cultural and placemaking features for the neighborhood.”
In the four years since its approval, there have been 40 public engagement meetings – four in 2017, three in 2018, 17 in 2019, and 16 in 2020, Aguila noted. “Reaching consensus on even some relatively benign issues required the utmost creativity of project staff, revisiting designs that were once unacceptable to the neighborhood and redesigning the project to fit new stakeholder opinions.”
“Nonetheless, the location of the water treatment system and outfall pipe were by far the most elusive issues,” he said.
The City’s first option was to locate the water treatment system in a triangular area near Alton Road and First Street but “stakeholder consensus proved fleeting whenever the outfall pipe was discussed,” Aguila wrote. “Residents of the nearby condominium associations strongly opposed the installation of the outfall within the area due to the impacts. While many other alternatives were considered, including siting the water treatment system at the nearby school, none was more feasible than a version where the outfall pipe would be granted an easement by the Marina, but this option was strongly opposed by the Marina operators.”
“Absent property rights for other alternatives, the City’s staff began to entertain siting the water treatment system and outfall at South Pointe Park – an option that at the commencement of the project was not within the realm of possible alternatives for the neighborhood to consider, given the fact that portions of the Park were recently constructed,” Aguila said.
He continued, “This alternative required a complete redesign of the project. It moved the water treatment system near South Pointe Park, away from private residents; moved the outfall to government cut, not impacting any of the condominiums South of Fifth; and kept the triangular park (Alton Road) intact, preserving the coveted greenspace in the neighborhood, and received the approval of the South of Fifth Neighborhood Association (SOFNA).”
Following direction from the Commission in the summer of 2020, City staff held further community engagement meetings to try to reach consensus which remained elusive.
“While the stakeholders near the originally proposed triangular site seem to support the new location, the stakeholders near the South Pointe Park location are concerned about the water treatment system’s impact to the area and its overall aesthetics,” Aguila wrote. “Some residents expressed concerns about the City’s legal right to site the water treatment system within the Park. This concern was addressed when adjustments were made to the plan locating all above ground components outside of the park and only below ground components would pass through the park. The National Parks Service reviewed the proposed design and concluded that they had no objection to the water treatment system’s siting.”
Separate from the “driving factor… to address the recurrent and severe flooding exhibited along First St.,” Aguila noted the “many other critical components” of the project dealing with public safety and aesthetics.
“Those project components that address the safety and welfare of the public will need to be built, independent of this project – namely the water and sewer projects that protect life and health,” Aguila stated. “However, the stake holder engagement effort has demonstrated that the neighborhood is conflicted in the overall NIP.”
While “there will always be an impacted stakeholder,” Aguila wrote, he is recommending postponing the project “until a future date where consensus can be reached” and moving ahead with the Jacobs Engineering prioritization.
According to City Engineer Nelson Perez-Jacome, “The City has spent approximately $700,000 on planning, preliminary design and extensive public outreach and communications to residents — in order to garner consensus.”
In an email Q&A, he indicated the original budget for the project was estimated at $26.8 million. “However, this estimate does not reflect the subsequent conceptual design changes for alternate proposed locations of the water treatment system and outfall.”
With regard to when the project, if it remains tenth on the priority list, would be completed, Perez-Jacome wrote, “These are complex projects that incorporate various types of infrastructure improvements and that require extensive public outreach. Therefore, estimating the exact duration of tasks can be challenging. However, we can reasonably project that at number 10, this project could begin construction as soon as seven years from now. This assumes that the Department initiates the design of two neighborhood improvement projects per year, and that it takes approximately two years from initiation to start of construction. These projects could be accelerated or delayed, depending on various factors.”
State Representative Michael Grieco, a former City Commissioner and South of Fifth resident, reacted to the recommendation. “If they throw out this project that was approved six years ago, it sets an awful precedent that essentially says that any group of residents, large or small, can shut down any public works project if they just continue to scream about it all while our entire stormwater program has come to a screeching halt. This isn’t just about First Street, this is about all streets.”
Grieco, who has posted videos and other photos of the flooding on his social media accounts, said, “The whole neighborhood South of Fifth is now one of the most vulnerable and low-lying neighborhoods in the City. There’s a reason why it was prioritized at the top of the list half a decade ago.”
“Every time it rains… and every time there’s a tidal event, you’re hydroplaning down First Street and Alton,” Grieco said.
The program, he emphasized, is “not reactive to existing flooding. Existing flooding makes it easier to sell, but the stormwater program is about prospective, not just flooding but economic issues. We need to be sending a message to the insurance underwriters that we are taking sea level rise seriously. We have come to a screeching halt when it comes to the stormwater program.”
“I’m not seeing any movement” on a project that has been in the works for “upwards of six years," Grieco said. "There’s been no movement other than the clashing of the NIMBYs and the vocal minority trying to kick the can down the road because they don’t care about climate change. They care about the inconvenience.”
“There’s a social contract here and everybody’s got to experience construction inconvenience for the long-term economic viability of the City,” he said.
“This project was top of the food chain. It’s already been funded,” Grieco said. “I am in communication with the City Administration and I think that this recommendation is not embracing the institutional history of this project.”
As to the elected officials, he said. “I don’t think it would be politically wise for anyone on the Commission to use the Jacobs study as cover for an inability to make a decision. Everybody wants an excuse to kick the can down the road because they don’t want to upset anyone. You can’t run a stormwater improvement program by perpetual committee. At some point, you just have to make decisions despite upsetting the vocal minority.”
Community activist and South of Fifth resident Frank DelVecchio is one of those not convinced by the many public meetings. “There are basic questions that have not been addressed,” he said.
In addition to concerns about the impact of construction on the neighborhood, he said in an email, “The city and its consultants simply have not justified the extensive system of stormwater drainage pipes and the interlocking system of massive 6' - 9' diameter pipes that would be inserted into torn-up streets including First Street from Alton Rd. to Washington Avenue, Washington Avenue into South Pointe Park, and Alton Road from 5th Street to First Street. [With no indication of a master drainage plan for the other South of Fifth streets which require stormwater drainage.]”
“No ‘justification’ for the absolute necessity of drainage for First Street from Alton Road to Washington Avenue other than some photographs taken by a resident of flooding adjacent to The Courts Condominium,” he added.
DelVecchio also questions the need for a back-up diesel generator. He says there has been “No determination by the City as to whether the construction of the huge capacity FPL substation at Fourth Street near Lenox will provide the power ‘redundancy’ that would preclude the necessity for building a backup diesel powered generator to power a stormwater pump located in South Pointe Park at the southern terminus of Washington Avenue or at the Alton Road ‘Triangle’."
City Engineer Perez-Jacome noted the ultimate decision lies with the City Commission which could choose to discuss the project again in the future.
Photo taken from video by Michael Grieco
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