Overtown residents want to reclaim a destructive I-95

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Samantha Morell Miami Times Staff Writer Apr 5, 2022 Updated Dec 5, 2022

The Florida Department of Transportation is collaborating with the city of Miami to create The Underdeck, a linear park under the soon-to-be reconstructed I-395. Although the challenge of planning a major area of recreation in the heart of the city is itself no walk in the park, the biggest controversy surrounds what may come off as an unexpected dilemma: the project’s name.

Residents of Overtown, where The Underdeck will begin near Gibson Park, want to reclaim the space where their neighborhood was once divided and destroyed by the original construction of the I-95 highway in the 1960s. But others are hesitant to attribute The Underdeck solely to Overtown when it will ultimately extend across the Florida East Coast Railway tracks toward Biscayne Bay, reaching key cultural institutions like the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

The Underdeck committee, tasked with engaging and advocating on behalf of residents and stakeholders while creating its own plan for the park, has been hosting community meetings to discuss the branding process. During the first half of March, it held four virtual discussions to introduce the names it has come up with.

The Underdeck will feature open lawns, multiple interactive water features, and other amenities for residents and tourists. (Courtesy of Hargreaves Jones)

The names are divided into three groups. Group one focuses on “paying homage to Overtown and looking toward a connected future for Miami,” including names like “Towners Mile” and “Heritage Trail.” Group two vows to “[celebrate] the melding of people, neighborhoods and cultures that make up the rich fabric of Miami,” including names such as “Soul Mile” and “Legends Place.” Group three “[calls] for reconnection and coming together in the face of what the overpass has separated,” displaying names which emphasize the word “unity.”

Still, of the 15 suggestions that have been presented, only one references Overtown by name. For Overtown resident and business owner Emmanuel Washington, that’s a mistake.

“For the most part, I-395 and I-95 – the biggest community that it affected, physically, economically, spiritually and mentally, was the Overtown area, so to not even mention the name Overtown in the name, I think, would be a disservice to our community,” he said.

Washington has attended meetings both in person and virtually to express his opinions on the entire planning process. There, he’s introduced his personal name of choice: the “Overtown Renaissance Heritage Trail.”

The Heritage trail will connect the east and west ends of The Underdeck. (Courtesy of Hargreaves Jones)

Besides hosting monthly community meetings to gather feedback, The Underdeck committee also conducted a survey – available up until March 30 – to allow residents to choose from one of the 15 names or suggest their own. The committee now must gather those results and deliberate before updating the public on its next moves.

The next community meetings will be held April 19 and April 20 in Overtown and the Biscayne corridor, although exact locations have yet to be decided. The focus of the meetings will be to discuss finances, particularly where additional funding for the project can be extracted.

During the March meetings, the proposed design rendered by consulting firm Hargreaves Jones was presented to the community, and residents shared their reactions.

The plan houses a variety of what’s being identified as character zones, including the “Civic Waterfront” near the bay where the signature bridge begins; a 24-hour active urban zone around the Omni district known as “Live, Work, Play,” complete with a broad, open lawn and an interactive water feature; the “Active Heart” across the tracks that includes a dog park and a multi-use court; the “Neighborhood Green” zone, bringing event plazas, a “splash path” and a performance stage to Overtown; and finally, “ Heritage Trail,” which will serve as a spine for the project connecting the east and west ends.

In response, residents spoke about possible health-related effects that may arise from frequenting a dwelling space that’s located under a major highway. Some worried that the area and its public restrooms could be overrun by people experiencing homelessness. Others brought up safety, either for pedestrians crossing major intersections or for young people using the space during later hours.

Washington says he wants to make especially sure that Overtown residents will reap the economic benefits from the project.

“We have generational families that now have left Overtown because of economic reasons – because they can no longer afford it – and that’s because they weren’t given the economic opportunities to work on these [revitalization] projects,” he told The Miami Times.

All of these suggestions and more are being gathered by the committee, which assures that it is first and foremost an advocacy group looking out for the interests of residents, and will be deliberated upon before returning to the city with its proposed recommendations.

Miami’s first deliverable is due to the state June 30. The Underdeck Committee plans to submit its recommendations to the city manager by May 2, giving the municipality ample time to review them and provide feedback before its commission meeting June 23.

In the meantime, what The Underdeck’s name will be is an ongoing debate – one that committee chair member Nelson Adams is also interested in.

Adams, who was raised in Overtown and attends church in the neighborhood regularly, says he appreciates the notions of heritage, unity and peace that have all been considered throughout the branding process.

“How that looks – it’s kind of like making sausage,” he said. “All of those ingredients need to go in and, as for the outcome, hopefully it will be something that’s symbolic of all of that.”

To get involved, visit UnderdeckMiami.com.


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Concept Design

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.