Eleven years in, Miami’s Underline has gone from unlikely notion and idealistic blueprint to hard construction and the debut of its first, wildly successful segment, Brickell Backyard.
Now the ambitious, $140 million plan for a 10-mile linear park, urban trail and outdoor art and performance space underneath the elevated Metrorail line is about to enter its final stretch.
With a second, 2.14-mile phase well under construction and progressing fitfully to a mid-2023 completion date, Miami-Dade County public works planners and their partners at the nonprofits Friends of the Underline and the Underline Conservancy are simultaneously fast-tracking planning and design for the linear park’s last and longest section.
On Thursday, the county and Underline staff and volunteers launched a series of meetings to gather public input for the project’s third and final phase, a 7.36-mile segment running from the edge of Miami’s Coconut Grove to the Metrorail terminus at Dadeland South. The segment runs through three municipalities — Miami, Coral Gables and South Miami — as well as unincorporated county territory and five Metrorail stations. The path will also go over at least three canals and waterways, at least one of which — the Coral Gables waterway — will require construction of a new footbridge.
On the wish list during Thursday’s meeting, among other requests: a skate park, tables for chess and courts for bocce bowling and pickleball. Planners noted that wide spaces along the Underline pathway near Downtown Dadeland would provide ample space for sports and recreational facilities.
A second in-person meeting was held Saturday morning at the Coral Gables Museum, with a third, online-only gathering set for Monday evening. Next year will see more public meetings as planners and landscape architects unveil their designs and proposals for more than a dozen recreational “living spaces” or amenities along the final segment’s length, while laying out a precise construction schedule.
The project’s managers say they have compressed seven segments of the planned trail and park into a single final phase to meet an end-of-2025 deadline for completion of the full Underline under the terms of a $22 million federal grant.
“This is a very accelerated schedule,” said Irene Hegedus, the Underline project manager at Miami-Dade’s department of transportation and public works, which is overseeing its design and construction.
There’s some good news for those impatiently awaiting the debut of that last stretch: Rather than wait for the full phase three to be finished before inaugurating the new trails and features, the county plans to open each discrete section for public use as it’s finished. Under a preliminary plan designed to speed completion while minimizing closures of streets and the existing, bare-bones M-Path, work will proceed from Dadeland South northward, and southward from the end of the currently under-construction phase two at Southwest 19th Avenue.
Though the alignment for the separate, continuous bicycle and pedestrian trails that make up the Underline’s backbone was laid out at the outset under a master plan by New York-based landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations, the precise features for the third phase will depend on what its future users say they want — the same process used to design the park’s first two phases, officials said. Only one feature has been already decided on, a dog park at LeJeune Road in Coral Gables, because it’s part of a specific grant.
The park plan for the third section also calls for an innovative set of stormwater ponds and gardens to collect, retain and filter rainwater in low-lying areas of the pathway that are now prone to flooding. Those would be integrated into an elaborate, garden-like landscape plan for the entire path. Amenities like playgrounds, gathering or performance spaces would go in 14 designated spots along the trail, but their precise use is yet to be determined.
“We want to make sure we provide diverse activities for everyone,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Raquel Regalado, whose district includes a portion of the Underline, at Thursday’s well-attended meeting at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.
Added Miami-Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins, whose district also encompasses sections of the park: “We actually try to build what you want. We take your input seriously.”
The Underline has been fully funded through a combination of local, state and federal money, impact fees on adjacent development and private grants. Once segments open, maintenance and 24-hour security are the responsibility of the private Underline Conservancy, which raises money to cover those costs.
Like the Underline’s first section in Brickell, which opened in February 2021, the third segment will be designed by the James Corner firm, which also led design and construction of New York’s famed High Line. Miami’s NV2A Group will build the new segment. The two firms won a competitive bid for the job.
Planners hope construction on the third phase will go more smoothly than the second phase, which has been somewhat delayed because of COVID-19 pandemic supply-chain issues and unexpected complications from a simultaneous Florida Power & Light project to bury high-tension power transmission lines 25 feet beneath the ground under the Metrorail from Bird Road to the Miami River.
Underline backers say FPL initially planned to conduct its project in sections in coordination with Underline construction, but decided instead to finish the job in one fell swoop. That in turn slowed down the Underline work, which is being layered over the FPL lines.
“It ended up being more complicated than anyone anticipated,” said Meg Daly, who first conceived of the Underline and founded the Friends of the Underline group to support its development.
Hegedus said Underline phase two work is speeding up as FPL finishes its project. Bike and pedestrian pathways are already being laid out and graded in preparation for paving, installation of light and utilities and the planting of thousands of plants and trees. The second phase is being designed and built by a local team made up of Lead Engineering Contractors and landscape architect Ken Gardner of GSLA Design.
Completion of the full phase two is now set for July 2023, Hegedus said, though sponsors are hoping at least some of it can open sooner.
“The contractor is doing everything in its power to finish on schedule,” Hegedus said.
Either way, said phase three’s lead designer, James Corner partner Isabel Castilla, who also worked on the High Line, the work so far has gone remarkably well and rapidly for a project of the Underline’s length and complexity.
“We are making great progress,” Castilla told the audience at Thursday’s workshop. “Eleven years to make a project of this scale is unprecedented.”