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Designer Of New York's High Line Threatens To Withdraw From Similar Project In Miami Beach

When it opened after a renovation in 2009, the High Line was considered a transformative project for New York. A historic elevated rail line that had become an eyesore by the early 2000s was turned into a public park, along which there are now gardens, art installations, performance spaces and restaurants.

Six years ago, Miami Beach engaged the same firm that led the High Line's renovation, James Corner Field Operations, to reimagine Lincoln Road, an open-air shopping destination and pedestrian promenade.

But now the project is stalled and Corner is threatening to bow out.

Lincoln Road on Miami Beach

Lincoln Road stretches east-west across the barrier island of Miami Beach, from the Atlantic Ocean on one side to Biscayne Bay on the other. In the 1960s, six blocks were closed to vehicular traffic, and the street was made an open-air mall designed by hotel architect Morris Lapidus, with water fountains, art deco elements and trees. The road was updated in the 1990s. 

About 85 different landlords own property along the road, with retail stores leased to big-name tenants including Nike, Apple and H&M. Rents peaked at $300 per SF in 2018, but those rates drove out independent stores, and the coronavirus pandemic hurt retail further, though landlords experimented with pop-up concepts and flexible rents.

In September, when occupancy on Lincoln Road was 74%, Terranova founder and Chairman Stephen Bittel told Miami Today that rents had dropped into the $200s per SF and some leases could be drafted as the cost of occupancy plus a percentage of sales. A Colliers retail report from Q1 of this year cited the average direct asking triple net lease rate as $75.43 on Miami Beach, which has a total vacancy rate of 6.9%.

Corner's firm was engaged six years ago to devise a master plan that would make Lincoln Road a world-class shopping, dining and cultural district. It proposed adding seating and green space and better incorporating alleys and sidewalk cafés.

The Miami Herald reported in 2019 that the city would pay pre-construction design costs and the whole construction bill, while property owners in the Lincoln Road Business Improvement District would tax themselves an additional 25% to pay for programming and promotion. 

Over time, though, the scope of the project waxed and waned. The budget dwindled from $77M to $50M, and the project was put on hold during the pandemic.

In May 2019 and again in March of this year, Corner's firm wrote memos expressing concerns about progress, according to RE:Miami Beach. This year, James Corner Field Operations principal Isabel Castilla wrote that the current scaled-down plan has been reduced to repairs and cosmetic improvements.

“The work proposed will still in fact be disruptive and costly, and yet the ad-hoc approach will have very little impact beyond new coats of paint and hidden utilities. This is not the transformative vision everybody originally intended when we were first interviewed and selected for the design,” she wrote.

Last week, Corner himself wrote a letter to the Miami Beach mayor, commissioners and city manager saying that his firm “will need to withdraw from the project” if the parties can't come to an agreement moving forward.

“The memo speaks for itself,” Lincoln Road BID Chair Lyle Stern told RE:MiamiBeach.

He said Lincoln Road draws 11 million visitors annually and serves a public function like Central Park in New York. He suggested the city go beyond mere lighting and irrigation improvements and opt for spectacular upgrades, as it would likely be another 30 years before another renovation project would be attempted.

A spokesperson for Miami Beach said city leaders will consider the memo over the coming weeks.