Black architects feel pushed out of Underdeck planning

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Samantha Morell Miami Times Staff Writer May 17, 2022 Updated Dec 5, 2022

Five years after the state accepted plans for an enhanced I-395 and a signature bridge to go with it, a team of local Black architects is left wondering if its design for a cultural public space underneath the reconstructed highway will ever see the light of day.

Ron Frazier, Neil Hall and Zamarr Brown were among the lead architects – alongside urban planning team PlusUrbia – responsible for coming up with “Heritage Trail,” an area of recreation meant to connect Overtown with Biscayne Bay and propel Miami’s diverse history into the Magic City spotlight. The plan was proposed as part of a joint venture between engineering groups Archer Western and de Moya, which are now leading the ongoing construction of their I-395/SR 836/I-95 design-build project.

When the joint venture’s proposal was first chosen by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) in 2017, the team of architects was under the impression that Heritage Trail would be built once the highway was completed. It wasn’t until talk of what’s now known as The Underdeck began to spread that the existence of a new plan for the public space was made clear.

“There were at least three years in which we didn’t hear anything from anybody, and all of a sudden we saw that the city was moving ahead with someone to create a new plan, so we were left out in the dark in terms of that,” Frazier said.

Localization of power

Soon after construction on the highway began in 2019, FDOT delegated some of the planning power to the city of Miami, which the department felt was a better fit to operate a local space. That’s when Frazier says he stopped receiving updates.

He initially thought that the move to localize efforts would only foster a plan for maintaining the space once it was constructed, essentially building upon the design Frazier and his colleagues had already envisioned. But according to the first memorandum of understanding (MOU) detailing the partnership between FDOT and Miami, the city was to submit a new plan “with a level of specificity comparable to the plan and design” originally submitted through the joint venture.

That MOU was made effective April 4, 2019, about three months after Archer Western and de Moya broke ground on the highway. In December 2021, the city entered into yet another MOU with the Town Square Neighborhood Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that oversees development surrounding the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and would house the dollars allocated to fund the new engagement process.

As a result of that MOU, a committee composed of local leaders, residents and advocates was tasked with engaging the public for input. The Underdeck committee – officially called The Underdeck Subcommittee Advisory Board (USAG) – has since begun to host monthly community meetings to facilitate that engagement.

“It was like everybody was starting from ground zero and asking people what did they want and the whole bit,” said Frazier. “Well, we already did that.”

A game of numbers and names

A plan for The Underdeck designed by architectural firm Hargreaves Jones retains some of the amenities initially proposed by a team of Black architects in 2017, including open lawns and interactive water features. (Courtesy of Hargreaves Jones)

The committee has since released a design plan finalized by architectural firm Hargreaves Jones, including water features, open lawns and community plazas. What it doesn’t share with the original plan, however, is specific references to the legacies of Caribbean and Native American cultures woven throughout the fabric of Miami’s history.

“[The Heritage Trail] was looking at it from a time machine more or less,” said Frazier. “Starting in front of the Arsht theater would be that area where the Tequesta Indians were settled, and as you move toward the Miami River, it would sort of tell the story of how Miami was born.”

Lisa Martinez, the lead facilitator for the USAG, assures that the committee is determined to reach a consensus plan that is just as diverse as the people whose communities it will affect. Every month a meeting is held in Overtown and another in the Biscayne corridor, to make sure all residents have a chance to be heard.

“Development of diverse representation and inclusion is at the heart of The Underdeck Committee and TSNDC’s work,” she said, which includes collaborating with small and minority-owned businesses.

The Heritage Trail – also the name of The Underdeck’s former design plan – is a walkway that will connect the east and west ends of the newly proposed space. (Courtesy of Hargreaves Jones)

But everything is tentative until prices are itemized and numbers drawn. A particular goal of the committee is to evaluate a cost for the new plan – and to see how it weighs next to that of Heritage Trail.

An update on finances was initially promised for the monthly meetings in April, during which Martinez instead announced that the process had been indefinitely delayed – as had the construction of the signature bridge itself. The completion of the highway has since been rescheduled for the summer of 2026, nearly two years later than its original target date.

Still, the issue that seems to be on everyone’s mind has less to do with costs and more to do with names. Heritage Trail is one of 15 names so far proposed by The Underdeck committee, with others ranging from “Towners Mile” to “Legends Place” and more.

The currently proposed design for The Underdeck shows a one-mile, 33-acre open space landscape beginning in Overtown near Gibson Park and extending to Biscayne Bay. (Courtesy of Hargreaves Jones)

Many Overtown residents feel that the official name should include a direct reference to their neighborhood, which was torn apart by the original construction of the I-95 highway in the 1960s. Others want to make sure that The Underdeck’s branding is equally reflective of every community it passes through.

In any case, the original name, Heritage Trail, will be reserved in the new design – if not for the entire public space, then at least as the designation for a walkway connecting its east and west ends.

Earlier this year, the USAG conducted an initial survey to allow residents and stakeholders to vote on a name or to propose their own. A follow-up survey is expected to be released soon.

The next Overtown community meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on May 31 at the Urban, located at 1000 NW Second Ave. Doors open at 5 p.m.

A winding road ahead

Whatever the committee comes up with – from names to funding strategies to design content – has to be reviewed by the city before the consensus plan can move on back to FDOT for final approval. In the end, both the state and the city have to execute a lease agreement in order to clear the way for proper ownership and zoning changes.

There is a possibility that the state will retain the services of the original team of Black architects responsible for Heritage Trail, but Frazier and Hall have all but given up hope on that front. Frazier, who has been an urban planner for six decades, says he’s all too familiar with the destruction that highways bring to minority communities.

“The same thing is going to happen to Overtown that’s always happened to Overtown and all the other Black communities that these interstate highways and other stuff are going through: It’s just going to become a thing of the past, and nobody is ever going to remember what happened in that area,” he said.

Hall believes the city should be the one to engage the original team of architects rather than continuing to pay another firm to work on a new design.

Miami City Manager Arthur Noriega did not respond to The Miami Times for comment by press time.

And as bridge construction treads on – which Hall believes is the only priority for FDOT, Archer Western and de Moya – he fears the state will end up signing off on a design that’s nothing more than “vanilla.”

“This is a big deal, and if we are not participating at the level of the Adrienne Arsht Center group, the Midtown group and also the Wynwood group, then we’re playing checkers while they’re playing chess, and I am tired of it,” he said.

“All you have to do is walk down there underneath that [highway] and ask the question, who owns all the property adjacent to this expressway?” Frazier said. “And then you ask yourself, who is this space going to be for? And when they say it’s for the residents of Overtown, which residents? Is it those that are there now that won’t be there, or those that will be living in all those high-rise buildings looking down on that space?”


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Traffic, Mobility & Utilities

This group will be convening with all relevant agencies and stakeholders to identify key related challenges and to ensure short-term and long-term cross-sector plans are agreed upon and implemented.

Funding Strategies

This group was initially charged with fundraising the match dollars required by the Knight Foundation grant (noted in the approved MOU and City resolution).  All fund-raising goals have been fully met as of December 2021 and are currently funding all planning activities.  The group is now developing a framework for the fund development strategy related to capital, operational and maintenance needs.

Stakeholder Awareness, Education & Engagement

This group is responsible for casting the net broadly to create awareness of the project and engage residents in the Underdeck’s development.  A full engagement strategy has been launched and will continue through the summer of 2022.  A monthly newsletter and website will be launched beginning in March, monthly community meetings will be held through the Summer of 2022, and stakeholders will have regular monthly opportunities to inform and engage with the Underdeck Committee Working Groups.

Construction, Operation, Maintenance

This group is working closely with the City of Miami and FDOT to ensure that the Heritage Trail, Legacy Walls and other public art components will include stakeholder leadership, participation and input in the exhibits, artists, and content.  This group is also working with the City to identify the appropriate expertise to develop a realistic estimate for the operation and management budget for the long-term sustainability of the public space.  This estimated budget will inform the work  of the fund development working group in the coming months.

Government, Project Management & Strategic Oversight

Naming/Branding – Over the last two months community meetings, focus groups, surveys, and interviews have been conducted to gather input from our community. Two engagement and marketing firms, Kivvit and Circle of One have been brought on board to support this process.  A Creative Brief will be developed inclusive of potential names for the Underdeck or Open Space Area.  These potential names will be shared with the community and further input will refine the final recommendations that will be considered by the Underdeck Executive Committee.  The final selected name is subject to the approval of the City Commission.   

This group has researched best practices on governance of public spaces and has been reviewing various governance structures nationally and locally.  They are currently working on recommendations that would inform the governance of the public space.  These recommendations will inform future bylaws.

Voice Your Support for The Underdeck!

Greetings and Many Thanks,

It is not often that a municipal project with the scale and scope of the Underdeck, is developed with the intentional and valued participation from members of the community. The City of Miami is to be celebrated and commended for empowering the people of Miami through its sanctioning of the Underdeck Committee to provide community-driven recommendations about how the Underdeck should be designed, named, branded, programmed, operated, governed, and maintained.

In 2022, 124 members of the community served on five Underdeck working groups focused on Stakeholder Awareness and Engagement, Operations and Maintenance, Traffic and Mobility, Funding, and Governance. A total of 129 working group meetings were held during the year. More than 35 community in person and virtual meetings were held in Overtown and Downtown to engage residents, along with survey respondents providing feedback for the Underdeck Naming totaling more than 2000. In addition, two special interest groups were created for Economic Development and Youth Engagement, further expanding the Underdeck Committee’s outreach.

The anticipation of this 33-acre public multi-purpose green space is enhanced by knowing that the recommendations for development through this community engagement have been submitted for your review and will soon be voted upon. With a vote of “Yes” to these recommendations, the Underdeck will truly be a project of the people, by the people, for the people.

As a public space positioned to reconnect communities and serve as a destination for families and friends to engage with one another, it is greatly appreciated that the City of Miami has and will continue to value the voices, insights, and recommendations that will ultimately make the Underdeck we can authentically call our own.

Alan Fein

Chair Government, Project Management, Strategic Oversight Working Group

Alan Fein is a Shareholder in Stearns Weaver Miller’s Litigation Department and a member of the Firm’s Board of Directors. For over three decades, Alan has successfully handled complex business litigation in South Florida and in the leading business courts in the nation, including the Delaware Court of Chancery, the Delaware Supreme Court, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Eleventh Circuit and the District of Columbia. At the same time, he has developed one of the region’s most vibrant sports law practices, and brought vision and leadership to a number of community leadership roles.