Kicking off the discussion of the project, Assistant City Manager Alina Hudak told the Commission, “Our city is at a critical juncture. You will decide the future and set precedence for the path of our response to the upgrade and delivery of critical infrastructure. This decision will continue to define the future of our city and the billions of dollars of public and private assets that we’re charged with protecting.”
Following community protests over a large above-ground auxiliary power generator proposed for the street-end on Lincoln Road and the bay, a team from the City and design/builder Ric-Man Construction Florida looked at 12 alternatives. A compromise option proposed by Mayor Dan Gelber won out. The option known as “3A” places all of the above- and below-ground infrastructure in the City’s P24 parking lot at 1671 West Avenue, between Trader Joe’s and the West Avenue Post Office (above). The discharge outfall will be at 17th Street and Collins Canal
Overall, the project will address flooding from sea level rise and aging underground infrastructure. Throughout the City, underground pipes can range from 70 to 100 years old. The area covered by Phase II of the West Avenue project is located between 8th Street and Lincoln Road, including side streets, and Bay Road between 14th Street and Collins Canal.
Commissioners also approved a harmonization policy for West Avenue, the term used for measures that need to be taken to connect properties that will be below the crown of the raised streets.
The first phase of the West Avenue project was completed but Phase Two was put on hold after the 2017 election and promises by then-incoming Mayor Dan Gelber and Commissioner Mark Samuelian to create a "red team" to study the City’s resiliency strategy to determine if it was on the right track. West Avenue residents weren’t necessarily unhappy about the delay, expressing frustration that while Phase I addressed the underground needs and the raising of roads, there was little to no thought about the above ground aesthetics.
Aesthetics and the importance of community input were key elements of the final report from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) which looked at Miami Beach's strategy in 2018. While the City digested the ULI recommendations, the West Avenue project was placed in the Resilience Accelerator, a joint initiative of 100 Resilient Cities and Columbia University, in an effort to get the project “unstuck.” A multi-disciplinary team that included Miami Beach staff, the contractor, and community leaders worked on concerns and ideas for improving the project including road elevation, road harmonization with private properties, turning lanes vs. roadway medians, pedestrian and bicycle prioritization, enhanced walkability, enhanced tree canopy, stormwater quality, baywalk connectivity and construction phasing. Construction was expected to begin last December.
Earlier this year, after nearly two and a half years and five studies, City Commissioners held a workshop in an attempt to get the City’s resiliency projects back on track but, until now, there has been little movement.
At last week’s meeting, Hudak reminded Commissioners the City’s strategy has been “reviewed, vetted and analyzed by two of the top engineering firms in the world.”
“The challenge of rising seas, failing underground infrastructure and balancing the disruption to the day to day quality of life to our residents and visitors is a challenge that many communities throughout this country are facing. Few communities,” she said, “are at the point that this city is at.”
“We are the example and the experiment. With that comes tremendous responsibility and takes tremendous courage to move forward."
“We are the example and the experiment. With that comes tremendous responsibility and takes tremendous courage to move forward,” Hudak said.
“Multiple national experts have highlighted the cost of not planning for sea level rise and the potential negative impact to our property value and the City’s tax base,” she said. “The implications of not acting and moving forward are real in terms of potential loss of property values and damage. The good news is that the experts have shown that actually the investments are well worth it.”
With regard to West Avenue, specifically, Hudak said, “Superficially one might be fooled into believing that the implementation of Phase I and the intense operational support of temporary pumps… solved the problem. The truth is what is happening underground and is quite different and has been described to you by all of our experts. All any of us have to do is drive up to North Bay Road or North Beach to know that the danger is real.”
Quoting Public Works Director Roy Coley, she said, “’We cannot continue to pump the ocean’… We must, today, have direction and we must make a decision to move forward.”
Hudak noted the significant resident outreach and input adding, “We have been truthful and forthcoming about what we know and what we don’t know.”
To date, Hudak said, the City has spent $19 million to design and permit the West Avenue Phase II project which is now at 90% design. Referring to the compromise on location 3A, she said, “It respects the aesthetic of the neighborhood,” though “It comes with a price.” Estimates are that the relocation will be an additional $1 million to $1.5 million and take approximately six months longer than other options. (The original budget which was approximately $56 million for the project is now anticipated to be over $100 million.)
Option 3A will provide the same level of service but will not include “additional gravity redundancy” in the event the pump system fails due to a power outage, Hudak explained.
Gelber said with “better FPL service,” the gravity system won’t be necessary. While, “mechanically” it may not be the best solution, he said, “what it does do is weigh the aesthetics.” The six-month delay didn’t concern him. “I think we can live with this for decades and I’d rather not do something we’ll regret… There is no perfect option, but I think it’s the right option.”
“These residential projects are a Rubik’s Cube with razor blades on the end,” Gelber said. Everything we do has an impact somewhere else… all we can do as policymakers is listen to people in the community, listen to our experts and try to come up with a balance that will work, what is appropriate and what is best for the community. I think we’ve done that in this case.”
The vote was unanimous to move the project forward.
There was less agreement on the harmonization policy. Within West Avenue Phase II, there are 178 properties impacted and a total of 192 areas that require harmonization.
Public Works Director Coley said, “Any property that has habitable space lower than the future crown of road will automatically be entitled to a drain installed on their private property at no expense to them.” Concrete and asphalt driveways and pedestrian access and sod landscaping in other areas will be installed at no cost to property owners. Any upgrades, such as pavers or tile or specialty landscaping, elevated fences or gates will be at the property owners’ expense.
A memo from City Manager Jimmy Morales accompanying the item indicated that, in addition to the new policy to eliminate the connection fee for private property drainage connections, the harmonization policy was revised “to accommodate fire connections in the harmonization process at no cost to the residents… These revisions are aligned with other public street elevation projects, such as Palm and Hibiscus, where residents have not paid connection fees for direct connections,” Morales wrote.
At the outset, Hudak said, the City’s interdisciplinary team proposed a policy that was “transparent, standardized and equitable for 178 private properties” impacted. She noted it was “consistent with past practice” while incorporating “lessons learned in the Palm and Hibiscus project” which was tripped up over harmonization agreements and failure to seek permit modifications.
Harmonization plans have been developed for all 192 locations on West Avenue. So far, the City’s team has met with the 24 property owners initially scheduled to be the first in the construction timeline. With the relocation of the Stormwater Treatment System to the parking lot on West Avenue, the properties impacted first will change.
“If the Commission delays this decision on a standardized set of rules, it will prevent staff from moving forward with the property-specific agreements that are so necessary to continue the momentum on this project,” Hudak warned.
During the public comment section of the meeting, residents and neighborhood associations expressed concern about the costs that might be incurred by individual properties and questioned who would pay for landscaping, pavers, fences and other items that had to be torn up for the construction.
After public comments, Commissioner Mark Samuelian asked to defer the discussion for 30-60 days to allow further discussion with residents while seeking a cost analysis for each property owner.
Commissioner David Richardson said, “Our engineers have told us this work needs to be done. The work related to harmonization can be done as the project is ongoing. I am very concerned about hitting the pause button on this one… I can see where this conversation could easily be a six month pause or even longer. I am not in favor of pausing. I want to get going with it.”
“I think this body has just got to make a decision that the community wants the project or it doesn’t,” Richardson said. “We have listened. We have relocated a big box that was going to be in the middle of the street at additional cost… I think that was wise.”
But, he said, “Either the community wants this or not. We’ve spent close to $20 million and if we’re not going to move forward” the City needs to “cut our losses and go to another neighborhood and I know that sounds harsh, but we’ve got to get moving. I don’t support a further pause.”
Working with the community on the harmonization process and getting each individual agreement signed can be done as the project progresses while additional analyses could take months, “more delay, more pause, and I won’t support it,” Richardson said.
Some of the concerns that have been raised are due to “encroachments” on public property, including fences, landscaping, and other improvements made by private property owners on the public right of way, according to David Martinez, Capital Improvement Projects Director.
“We typically will not put that back,” Martinez said. Pointing to the complications on the Palm and Hibiscus project which he noted was “criticized tremendously,” there were “over 140 properties with encroachments and harmonization issues and, for the most part, they’ve all been resolved without any exchange of dollars.”
Commissioner Steven Meiner said he didn’t “see the same consensus” from the neighborhood on the harmonization issue as he did on the relocation of the treatment system “and that gives me concern… My duty is to make sure that every policy we take does protect private property and I’m not there yet.” He supported Samuelian’s call for more discussion.
“This may end up being a pause by another name,” Commissioner Ricky Arriola said. “We need to make a decision today or by the next meeting, otherwise there’s just going to be further delay.”
Gelber said, “We’re going to have to do this,” citing engineering opinions. “The only question is if there’s cost and dislocation.”
Commissioner Michael Góngora asked if something could be done to help homeowners with some of the costs of putting landscaping back.
Samuelian said his position was “not about pausing. It’s about getting it right.” He said he wanted the 24 property owners with whom the City met to have the proposed harmonization designs in hand with cost estimates of their responsibility. Martinez clarified that each of the property owners had received copies of the designs.
Working with the concerns raised, Richardson proposed several amendments to the proposed policy. Picking up on a question from Commissioner Micky Steinberg, he proposed giving credit for the money the City would have spent on basic concrete, asphalt, or sod toward more elaborate pavers, tiles, landscaping, etc. with the private property owner making up the difference.
He also proposed waiving fees for right-of-way permits and reimbursement or credit for up to a maximum of $1,000 for private property building permit fees.
Richardson also proposed that the rest of the harmonization designs be sent to the remaining property owners now.
Noting, “If something’s missing [from the policy], we can amend it down the road,” Richardson made the motion for approval. It passed 5-2 with Meiner and Samuelian opposed.
The options considered for West Avenue Phase II can be found here.
The harmonization policy as presented is here.