The Cities of Coral Gables and Miami face slowdowns and shifting public opinions on their twin pedestrianizing streetscape projects.
If you have been to Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, or Flagler in Downtown Miami in the past year, you might notice stark similarities in the decor: exposed drainage pipes; bulldozers; large piles of rubble; and very few workers. These two projects are part of a nationwide trend to “pedestrianize” streets that currently favor the car. Both projects are significantly late on their timelines, and are affecting business and public opinion in their areas.
Projects to pedestrianize streets are usually seen as win-win scenarios. The city puts up most of the funding and is handsomely rewarded over time with the tax collection increase from better business and higher rents. Residents of the area like it, as it betters their experience, and drivers usually take a different route helping with noise pollution and pedestrian fatalities. In areas where pedestrians rule and patrons find new places with their feet and not their wheels, these projects are seen as slam dunks. However, what happens when proper due diligence is not executed and unrealistic timelines are put forward? The answer can be seen in both the Miracle Mile and Downtown Flagler streetscape projects.
In Coral Gables, the Miracle Mile Streetscape plan is expected to widen sidewalks, change angled parking to parallel, and pedestrianize Giralda Ave. It was to be completed over 18 months in 8 phases that planned not to close down any individual block for more than a few months, to not strain business too much. The total project cost is $21.6 million funded by the City of Coral Gables. The project is severely delayed and is not even halfway complete about a year into it. In addition, multiple blocks on Miracle Mile and Giralda face massive disturbances and lane closures. This all appears to stem from an oversight in the necessary replacement of the master drains at each street corner. The custom manufacturing of these has delayed the entire project and caused ripped up sidewalks and streets to remain idle. In addition, the contractor project manager at Ric-Man International left the company early in the project creating confusion and scheduling errors. Businesses in the area give mixed reports on its effect on their bottom line, but all say that it is a nuisance that needs to be wrapped up as soon as possible.
In Downtown, the Flagler Street project would double the width of sidewalks, create unique signage, add pavers instead of asphalt, and create blocks that would be easily closable for events. It was to be completed at the end of this year and relied on a block by block scheme similar to the Miracle Mile plan. So far, only 1 block has been completed, another is ripped up, and the remaining 3 have not even begun work. The contractor, whose project manager has changed 4 times since the project began, claims that the delays are due to utility lines that are not located where city drawings have put them. This is a common occurrence in infrastructure projects and one that is expected below Miami’s oldest street. This contingency is included in the contract with the city as the contractor’s sole responsibility. The $13 million project is funded by the City of Miami, the Downtown Development Authority, and by special assessment to the buildings adjacent to the work.
Both of these urban core pedestrianization projects are late due to unexpected underground infrastructure issues, and the contractors’ floundering reactions to them. City governments and economic development authorities are not professionals in construction and building, and cannot be expected to take the blame for such mistakes in due diligence. They are responsible for ideas and funding. Contractors, however, should be held responsible for bidding with unrealistic timelines and incomplete information. In most cases, they are not financially penalized for lateness and bear little responsibility for damages of any kind. The ones that bear the responsibility and damages are political officials who subsequently lose their seats, and business owners who lose money every day the project is delayed.
This is not to say that government does not have an obligation to create projects that constituents want and execute them. This is to say that process matters, almost as much as the solution. If as much care is taken in the process as the outcome, cities can begin to leverage community input and action to bring constituents into the fold, and maybe end up with an even better outcome. All it takes is the political will and a little foresight.
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