Six years and multiple cost reductions later, plans to upgrade Lincoln Road have gotten nowhere and, now, highly acclaimed landscape and urban designer James Corner says his firm “will need to withdraw from the project” if a resolution cannot be reached for moving forward. In a strongly worded letter to Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, City Commissioners, and City Manager Alina Hudak, Corner noted “some significant challenges” to moving forward with the project following a reduction in the budget from $77M to $50M.
Corner’s firm, known for the High Line in New York City and the new Underline in Miami, created what is known as the James Corner Master Plan for Lincoln Road. The Master Plan included larger sidewalks, new landscaping, and proposed turning alleyways into pedestrian walkways to expand retail and restaurant opportunities as well as better integrating sidewalk cafés into the pedestrian and shopping areas.
The scope and vision expanded over time to include the 200-300 blocks and connectors on Drexel and Meridian Avenues from Lincoln Road to the Convention Center and New World Symphony and Soundscape Park. The 200-300 blocks were later cut and the Drexel Avenue portion was scaled back as part of the cost reductions approved in 2019.
Meanwhile, COVID put the project on hold when then City Manager Jimmy Morales said he didn’t want to further disrupt reopening businesses that needed time to recover.
Since then, the Lincoln Road Business Improvement District (BID) which represents property owners, James Corner, and the City have discussed how best to get the project on track. The frustration over lack of progress, however, prompted Corner’s letter this week.
“We have worked for well over a year now in good faith with the City, and have offered various constructive ways forward, and yet we keep coming up against obstacles and do not believe that the current direction is sensible nor recommended,” he wrote.
“The scope, budget and details are neither feasible nor aligned.” Though Corner said his team “tried to work with the City to identify issues and develop solutions,” their suggestions have “been rejected by the City, and we have been instructed to move forward as per the previous direction. This makes no sense and is riddled with problems that will surface during implementation.”
Corner wrote of concerns expressed to the City in two memos from May 2019 and March 2021, concerns “which frankly are still pertinent today,” he noted.
“Please bear-in-mind that this project began over 6 years ago, in April 2015. The process included extensive community outreach, engagement with residents, business owners and tenants, and permits and approvals with numerous City Agencies,” Corner wrote. “We completed a fully developed design and construction document set for the entire project since February 2020. The new direction is mostly just a cosmetic retrofit and yet still requires significant new design, construction documentation and approvals.”
“I am writing this letter to you because this project is important. We have worked hard and in good collaboration with the City and the community. Lincoln Road has a great legacy and deserves carefully considered transformation for the future,” he said. “I am hopeful that you can review this letter and the two attached previous Memos which more fully describe the issues involved, and that we may together try to forge a positive plan forward. If we can not come to a resolution, I am afraid that we will need to withdraw from the project.”
In the memo from earlier this year, James Corner Field Operations Principal Isabel Castilla wrote, “Over the course of working on this project since 2015, we have stated the importance of ensuring that the Lincoln Road renovation scope, even if reduced, have a transformative impact for the City, businesses, residents and visitors alike.”
“We understand the City’s goal of minimizing disruption caused by construction; however, we have concerns that the limited scope is mostly one of repairs and cosmetic improvements rather than real upgrades that will make a significant difference in terms of how Lincoln Road looks, feels and works,” she wrote. “The work proposed will still in fact be disruptive and costly, and yet the ad-hoc approach will have very little impact beyond new coats of paint and hidden utilities. This is not the transformative vision everybody originally intended when we were first interviewed and selected for the design.”
The cost estimates, she noted, were developed in 2018 which are “likely outdated” and do not include some items added to the scope, including a playground area.
To meet the City’s goals to minimize construction disruption and keep costs within the approved $50M budget, the firm proposed a phased approach starting with a pedestrianization of Drexel Avenue which would have limited impact on businesses while also conducting a feasibility and cost study to assess the new scope of work, additional work that may be required as a result of the changes, and to confirm a construction budget that fits within the City’s approved expenditure.
In the May 2019 memo, Corner outlined the reduced scope including a smaller area of concentration, reducing the quality of materials, eliminating sidewalk replacement and improvements along storefronts, eliminating the 200-300 blocks and scaling back on Drexel Avenue.
“A considerable amount of time and expense has been incurred in creating a cohesive Masterplan that was negotiated with and supported by the City, residents, business owners and tenants,” Corner wrote. “We are very concerned that the revised plan the Capital Improvements Team has given us to implement addresses only cosmetic renovations and fails to fix any of the practical, technical and operational aspects of Lincoln Road. The proposed $50 million renovation is mostly cosmetic and not at all transformative.”
Specifically, he noted, outdoor café spaces would remain the same “without any newly designated areas, re-organization or additional space,” that “Shade trees are significantly reduced in number, with none on the promenade sidewalks” and “Lighting is installed in existing locations only and will fail to provide adequate illumination.”
Storefront sidewalks would remain as they are “worn, patched and broken in many places,” he said.
He lamented the loss of “[a] new iconic gateway and shade feature – the 400 block Trellis” (rendering above) which he said is important to “the overall re-branding and ‘gateway’ identity image of Lincoln Road.”
Corner expressed concerns that “A clear emergency vehicle path is not provided,” that “Pedestrian street-intersection crossings remain as today and are not reconfigured for improved safety” and that "Paving cross slopes fail to meet ADA requirements."
Further, he noted, “Drainage capacity/function is not increased or improved.”
As one compromise to provide a boost to the street while also minimizing costs, Corner proposed adding the signature trellis feature back while reducing costs in other areas.
Two years later, the frustration has mounted as little progress has been made, leading Corner to indicate he would withdraw from the project if a “positive plan forward” cannot be agreed upon.
Lincoln Road BID Chair Lyle Stern reacted to the latest communication from Corner in an email to RE:MiamiBeach.
“I’m not certain that the city has communicated with the Lincoln Road BID on this matter. However, the memo speaks for itself,” he wrote. “That said, we are a city that prides itself on spectacular public spaces and that is what Lincoln Road is. A public pace. Our city will have to decide what community impact it wishes to invest in since it will likely be the only investment for the next 25-30 years.”
“As other magnificent public places and spaces are being built across the bay, I would hope that we choose to make what amounts to approximately 7 acres of lushly landscaped pedestrian space, a magnificent place for our residents and guests,” he said.
“Lincoln Road is a public space,” Stern emphasized. “It is not owned by the adjacent property owners.” He compared it to South Pointe Park as a public amenity with its “significant cultural institutions” including the New World Symphony, Miami New Drama, and South Florida Arts Center “and surrounded by spectacular and important historic buildings.” With 11M visitors annually and landscaping “curated by Fairchild Tropical Gardens,” Stern wrote, “in many ways it is our ‘Central Park’ being strolled through more frequently than any other park in our community. In addition to our beaches, it is often what visitors think of when they think of Miami Beach.”
Stern echoed Corner’s point that the Master Plan was “the product of hundreds of hours of community workshops and meetings in which the citizens of our community, especially the surrounding neighborhoods, provided strong guidance to our city leadership. The driving guidance was that everyone wanted a spectacular and activated public space.”
“Much of the Corner Plan provides for upgrades required by the City: storm water drainage, irrigation, lighting, roadway improvements,” Stern noted. “Others deal with connectivity, as in the case of a boulevard that connects our Convention Center with Lincoln Road and on to Espanola Way, Washington Avenue, Ocean Drive and beyond. A wider Meridian Avenue promenade that creates bike lanes, wider shaded sidewalks and reduces traffic impact. This is not a Lincoln Road issue – it is a quality of life question for our city leadership. The citizens of our community invested much time in this plan. The difference in cost, especially given the funding sources available, the real estate tax contribution by Lincoln Road buildings, the public space improvements necessary and the recognition that these improvements will frame this district for the next 30 years (as did the last improvement) is negligible.”
“As the flow of wealth migration continues, likely new residents as well as office, retail and restaurant tenants (as we are seeing with Starwood’s Global Headquarters) will make decisions on where to call home based upon public spaces in a community. This really comes down to leadership, vision and listening. Our community has already spoken,” Stern concluded.
City Spokeswoman Melissa Berthier responded via email to an inquiry seeking comment on Corner’s memo, “The city will evaluate the consultant’s position and will address accordingly in the next few weeks.”
Renderings: James Corner Field Operations
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