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HIGHWAYS TO BOULEVARDS BLOG: Overtown Expressway, Miami | Congress for the New Urbanism

HIGHWAYS TO BOULEVARDS BLOG: Overtown Expressway, Miami

This post is a part of CNU’s Highways to Boulevards Blog series, which features interview summaries and insights from some of the best minds at the frontline of our Highways to Boulevards Initiative.

The following post on Miami's now infamous Overtown Expressway stems from an interview with Anthony Garcia of The Street Plans Collaborative, formerly of TransitMiami. Anthony explains the social forces at work in the decade prior to the Overtown Expressway's construction, the current state of the highway removal debate, and what makes a removal effort successful. Read our previous blog on Austin's "cut and cap" proposal for I-35.

The decline of the Overtown neighborhood in 1960s following the construction of the elevated I-95 and I-395 highways is well documented (here and here). Residents near the proposed highway were forced to give up their homes and shops to concrete colonnades and expansive asphalt ribbons. Prior to its demise, the Overtown neighborhood, one of Miami’s oldest and most lively, was a predominantly black community whose charm and vibrancy attracted entertainers, outsiders, and sustained a number of local businesses.

Today, much of the tragic decay of the Overtown neighborhood is attributed to these highways (namely I-395, which uncomfortably bears the neighborhood's name in common usage). The Atlantic Cities recently claimed that almost “half the population of Miami's Overtown area was displaced in the mid-1960s to make way for major interstate interchanges.” The statistics on Overtown today are sobering:

  • "55% of the residents of Overtown live in poverty
  • the median household income is $11,314
  • there are only 41 businesses
  • the vacant space under the elevated expressways has become a wasteland
  • 32% of the community’s population lives in either public housing or government subsidized housing
  • the homeownership rate is 3% compared to the national average of 60%"

 The Miami Herald. “Overview of I-395 looking east in Miami, August 23, 1967.

(Statistics courtesy of Touching Miami With Love)

But the Overtown story is more complicated than an urban highway causing forced displacement. According to Tony Garcia, “...the migration of the Overtown community within Miami-Dade County was the result of a confluence of forces that led up to the construction of the Overtown Expressway. Policies of segregation and disenfranchisement had been ongoing for a decade by the time the expressway finally came through – among them bank redlining, public housing expansion, and unsafe structures / slum demolition policies.”

Where did the displaced go? “Most were relocated to nearby communities within northern Miami-Dade County, such as Liberty City,” says Garcia. He agrees that the sentiment at the time was “highway equals progress” and the negative consequences were outweighed by the supposed benefits the highway brought. “News articles from the time acknowledge the problem,” he says, “but treat it as an unfortunate (and unavoidable) byproduct of progress.”

Today, A Slow Crawl Toward Removal

In 2012, the Overtown Expressway/1-395 made CNU’s list of “Freeways Without Futures." Little movement has been made in removing the expressway since, though the Florida DOT has made a few proposals for highway “improvements.” What gives?

“Earlier this year, the Florida Department of Transportation proposed preliminary designs for a reconstructed highway in a slightly different orientation than its current position," writes Garcia. "They claim that this proposal was the result of an exhaustive public participation process, but in fact, there was very little transparency in the actual decision to choose the reconstruction alternative over any of the other worthy alternatives that were considered during the multi-year process.”

Luckily, Tony sees some positive progression, at least from one community. Professor Andrew Georgiadis at the University of Miami School of Architecture (which partners with CNU to offer an online CNU Accreditation program called CNU-A) led an urban design studio called Highways to Boulevards: Miami, wihich asked students to redesign much of the Overtown Expressway. Andrew has been involved in the Overtown Expressway development process since 1999. Back then, it was clear to him and many others in the public meetings that the real problem for the area was the highway.

Fast-forward to this past semester: Andrew tasked a design studio of 4th, 5th and graduate architecture students with rethinking the expressway. This was a chance to refresh and recast the highway discussion with new ideas besides higher and wider. The students presented their proposal to panel of judges that included members of the Florida Department of Transportation, State Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad, and former Mayor of Miami Manny Diaz.

Students' proposal for a residesigned Overtown Expressway. Photo courtesy of Highways to Boulevards: Miami

The student concepts baffled the judges. The contest required the students to preserve the highway, but the judges couldn't seem to find it in the renderings. Because much of Miami is at risk of urban flooding due to climate change, the students' proposal was a "sea level rise adaption" of the existing highway, keeping it at its current level but expertly restitching the city grid overtop of it - essentially creating a tunnel - with gradual slopes and mounding of city streets. Many of the new streets sitting atop the highway were inspired by highly effecient European roundabouts and at-grade boulevards. The plan had the foresight to create space for public transit. The traffic counts came back exceeding those of the current "spaghetti" interchanges. The Real Estate Valuation Report showed enormous potential for cost savings and tax-revenue generation compared to the favored FDOT plan. Even so, the judges rejected the plan on the grounds that it hadn't been a part of the official FDOT study. The student plan was a dead end.

But others were angry at the FDOT. Tony says: "At the same time, City of Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado and Commissioner Marc Sarnoff sued FDOT for proposing a highway that veers substantially from what FDOT proposed during the public process. Specifically, they claim that the 'signature bridge' that was proposed by FDOT has been replaced by a standard issue DOT highway overpass. FDOT for its part claims that it does not have the money to build a signature bridge, or any of the other alternatives.”

Lessons for Miami and Beyond

Despite the latest decisions coming from the Michigan DOT, the national discussion on urban highways and transportation has been accelerating, with many state DOTs and municipalities embracing new street design strategies such as Complete Streets and context-sensitive solutions. While Garcia agrees progress is being made all over the U.S., he says it “makes the lack of progress locally all the more frustrating.”

“The City of Miami has been doing slightly better over the past few years with regard to streets, but overall our region (Miami-Dade County) is painfully behind when it comes to providing residents with comfortable, livable streets," says Garcia. "Car culture is thoroughly entrenched here. Streets are primarily for car travel, and everything else is incidental. County and State traffic engineers consistently design streets for car flow at the expense of pedestrians and cyclists. Although there is a growing constituency of people who want better street design here, improvement is slow.”

In the face of the slow pace of change, Tony is turning to the internet to gather supporters and propose alternatives. Tony ran the site TransitMiami for many years, and his current partner at Streets Plan Collaborative is tactical urbanism proponent Mike Lydon. Their work helps press major issues of Miami-related transportation and planning, including the passage of Miami 21 and ½ Transit Tax.

To Garcia, blogs have grown in scope and purpose: “The strength in a blog comes from providing in-depth content about a subject, building a network of people, and leveraging the reach of your network to negotiate with policy makers.” Because when it comes down to it, he says, “change on any transportation advocacy initiative comes from the power of a large group of people working together with their elected officials to push past the negative inertia of the status quo.”

Photo courtesy of TransitMiami and Google Earth

Current arieal view of the Overtown Expressway rendered from Google Earth. Photo courtesy of Google Earth, TransitMiami.

Where to Go From Here

Though Professor Andrew Georgiadis's urban design studio didn't make it out of the studio, it doesn't mean it was futile. "I wanted to influence the design and configuration of proposals," he said, "and give them pause to think: 'What is our role? Are we multimodal? What does that look like?'" And he has. Andrew and his students got residents and others to think about alternatives again, at a time when public acquiescence to the Department of Transportation seemed inevitable.

Thus far, local grassroots efforts, bloggers, and sustainable tranportation advocates haven’t had much success in turning around or steering the debate on removing the Overtown Expressway. The FDOT remains intractable. It’s Tony Garcias’ opinion that the constituency of removal advocates relative to those who want to keep the Overtown remains small. Perhaps the Overtown Expressway still pleases enough people.

Fortuitously, many similar advocacy efforts have found success in having a champion in city hall. “Enlisting a mayor, commissioner or representative as a public ally often means the difference between achieving the intended goal and not,” says Tony. “In Miami none of the current elected officials seem eager to take on FDOT for anything more than a more expensive bridge.” Until then, Miami is still searching for their champion.

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