All Eyes on the Miami River
By Jill Patterson
They say every great city has a great river. While it may not be as majestic as the Seine or as stately as the Thames, the Miami River has a unique history as long and vibrant as that of our city. After all, the River is our birthplace. And with all the hoopla about Miami evolving into an international city, it seems about time we turned our focus to the River and gave it the attention it deserves.
The Miami River originated from the Everglades and ran unimpeded to the mouth of Biscayne Bay, fed by underwater springs and tributaries. The natives made it their home more than 2,000 years ago, as evidenced by the stone circles found on the south shores and, more recently, north banks. Imagine the pristine beauty and wildlife Ponce de Leon encountered when he visited the area and noted the Tequesta settlements in 1513. While the River was the site of the Brickell trading post, the advent of the railroad changed it forever and made it a working river. To this day, it is heavily used as an alternative port to PortMiami for smaller vessels from the Caribbean and handles $4 billion in cargo a year, according to the Miami Herald.
Charting a course down the River cross-sects a wide variety of Miami life and is a bit like taking a journey through time. The upper river is rough and industrial, with boatyards and old marinas that remind us that the River has been a smuggler’s paradise for decades, from Prohibition to the cocaine days. At the middle river, you will find Spring Garden, a lovely green oasis of historic homes marooned by industry on all sides. Farther downstream, pass under the Flagler and 5th Street bridges, the banks rise up hundreds of feet as the River meanders through a canyon of the latest residential condo boom. Battered cargo ships and tugboats make way for glistening mega yachts parked near the River’s mouth, home to some of Miami’s most exclusive restaurants, such as Zuma and Il Gabbiano.
While the last building cycle brought many buildings near to the River’s shores, the scope of new developments planned right now looks as if it will change the River’s character forever. The map on the next page outlines some of the approved, massive new projects. For instance, 444 Brickell, renamed One Brickell, across from the Viceroy/Icon will be developed by The Related Group, with three buildings, one of them 80 stories. Just upstream on the same side will be Miami
Riverwalk developed by the Chetrit Group and Ari Pearl, designed by Kobi Karp. Karp sees the River as the “hearty, historical spine or backbone” of Miami and instead of turning his back to it, as many projects have done, he plans to feature the River as the highlight of the project, making it its “front yard.” The neighboring Jose Marti Park will be renovated and the city streets will be opened out to invite people to come and enjoy the open spaces down to the water. At a recent hearing at the Urban Design Review Board, Pearl said, “The Riverwalk and Park will be to Miami what the High Line and Battery Park are to New York. We are creating something special, which will be amongst the most important public spaces in the city.” The project plans to have four buildings, 60 stories each, a combination of residential, hotel, office and commercial. Finally, much farther up toward the “Health District,” will be River Landing, developed by Andrew Hellinger, which will feature 426,000 sf of retail, 475 apartments and 1,500 linear feet of riverfront park. In fact, the Miami River Commission mandates that any new development must put forth 50 feet from the River’s edge for the public riverwalk, but many projects are giving more space, such as FAR Properties, developing the River Point park parcels on the north side, which will be designating 65-78 feet of public space in front of the River. That project calls for twin 60-story towers, a mix of condos, commercial and lodging. In exchange for developers building beyond height restrictions, many are giving back improvements, such as extending the south portion of the public riverwalk or adding “off” lanes to 95 to ease up traffic. A total of 9,448 residential units and 530 hotel rooms are either previously approved or undergoing permitting.
Other notable new projects along the River are Sea Vault, a mega-yacht marina for 14 lucky ships. The marina will have slips up to 230 feet long with a three-story ancillary support building at the end of each slip with separate crew and captains quarters. Miami preservationist and hotelier Avra Jain has recently purchased the Historic Miami River Inn just south of the Flagler Bridge. Ms. Jain has been largely responsible for the successful restoration of the MiMo hotel district along Biscayne Boulevard. It is rumored she has hired acclaimed designer Stephane Dipoux (Nikki Beach, Pearl, Buddha Bar) for the project. Inspired by the roaring success of Seaspice (formerly Seasalt & Pepper), a number of new restaurants will be dotting the shores, including Sushi Samba and British sensation Duck
Miami River Commission
It appears the River is the next big thing and, thankfully, the Miami River Commission is doing great work reviewing projects and funneling funds and energy in the right directions. At this point, all of the River has been cleaned and dredged, with the exception of Wagner Creek, which will begin a $20 million cleanup this year. Because most of the real estate along the River is privately owned, the River has long been hidden from public view. As these waterfront parcels change hands, it makes a unique opportunity for development to allow access and enjoyment of our historic treasure and feature our River front and center. And as the city grows, it seems we are coming full circle back to where we started.