In 2015, Longtime Coral Gables Entrepreneur Meg Daly Started an Ambitious Plan to Make the 10-Mile Strip of Land Under Miami-Dade’s Metrorail a Safe and Inviting Public Space – with a Focus on Coral Gables’ Three Mile Underline Stretch. Since Then, she has Obtained $70 Million in Public and Private Pledges
By Julienne Gage
Ask entrepreneur Meg Daly how much urban planning experience she had before launching the Underline, an ambitious initiative to create a multi-purpose public space below the Miami-Dade Metrorail, and she’ll laugh. She’ll say she didn’t have any, but what she did have was a vision, based largely on hard-won experience.
“I’ve driven past the Metrorail my whole life and I never really paid attention to it,” said the Coral Gables life-long resident, who has spent decades commuting along – and across – U.S. 1 while working South Florida marketing jobs. Then in 2014, she broke both her arms in a biking accident, prompting her to spend months taking the Metrorail to get to physical therapy.
“I’m such an independent person, I was tired of asking people to drive me here and there. So, I ended up taking the Metrorail from the UM station to the Coconut Grove station,” she explained. “I ended up below the Metrorail walking that last half mile to my physical therapy and that’s when I realized there’s so much land underneath this train.”
The experience got her to thinking about how Miami’s public spaces compare to those of other major American cities. Take, for example, New York City’s Highline, a 2.5-mile park built on an elevated rail line that was to be torn down. City planners managed to salvage it by planting grass, flowers and trees, as well as installing benches. Today, more than 5 million visitors stroll down its path each year.
Back in South Florida, Daly discovered that the average resident gets less than 20 minutes of daily exercise, and that the area is among the nation’s top dozen most dangerous places for pedestrians, according to an annual report by Smart Growth America. Combining walking with biking, South Florida rises to the No. 4 most dangerous areas, according to Transportation for America.
Soon Daly was imagining the underbelly of the Metrorail as something like the Highline, but on the ground and with a public green corridor running all the way from downtown Miami through three miles of Coral Gables and into South Dade.
As a marketing executive, she knew the first step was to start networking, so she called Miami-Dade Department of Parks and Recreation Director María Nardy to see if the county would be interested in supporting such an endeavor.
“This was just the kind of project that the county likes to see, where we can make use of existing property for the public benefit. We were ecstatic that Meg was taking this on,” said Nardy.
But they needed a design team, so they called Rocco Ceo, director of the University of Miami School of Architecture’s Design and Build Program. “I volunteered to run an ideas studio with upper-level students,” explained Ceo. “Students were assigned a one-mile portion and then had to come up with ideas for projects along those different lengths.”
One of those segments will directly enhance the entrance to the University of Miami across from US-1.
“You enter Coral Gables off US 1 and what does it look like from Douglas Road? What does it look like from Bird Road? What does it look like from LeJuene? It’s not a gateway. It should be a gateway moment. There’s no front door to the university, like there is if you go to Harvard Yard,” says Daly. “It’s a great university with no street-level presence, and kids have to get in their car and drive across the street just to go to Starbucks.”
Plus, many millennials – students among them — would prefer to hoof it than to drive. Some even prefer not to own a car at all. “There’s a whole generation of them coming into the city and they’re not interested in dishing out $5,000 to $6,000 a year to pay for a car, insurance, and maintenance. They’re looking for alternatives, and the Underline fits into that idea,” said Ceo.
By the time the project design was up for final review, dozens of local officials came to the presentation hoping they, too, could address these new urban demands.
“What sparked my interest in the Underline is the concept of taking underutilized space and transforming it into a ‘destination’ site,” said Coral Gables City Commissioner Vince Lago, who has taken a lead role in making the city more environmentally sustainable. “Many cities across the country have similar concepts, all of which are highly successful and widely used by the community. It’s about time South Florida leadership began to improve pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. It is practically non-existent.”
There’s no front door to the university, like there is if you go to Harvard Yard. It’s a great university with no street-level presence…Meg Daly
Since registering The Underline as a 501c3 non-profit, Daly has put together a board of directors, trustees, and more than 800 volunteers. City and county government agencies have pledged tens of millions in public funds, while real estate developers, medical facilities, and other small businesses have pledged millions more, for a total of $70 million.
GREENING THE EMERALD CITY AND THE CITY BEAUTIFUL
All this support comes attached to a plethora of initiatives, including a plan to green and shade the area with native trees, plants, and orchids provided by Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens.
“We love the idea of converting unused spaces into habitats for rare plants,” said Fairchild’s director Dr. Carl Lewis. “It is part of Fairchild’s mission to help conserve plants and improve the aesthetics of our community.” Their botanists have chosen vegetation hardy enough to rely solely on rainwater, which it can help filter back into the aquifer while absorbing carbon emissions and serving as a bird sanctuary and butterfly corridor.
And what would any stretch of tropical South Florida be without orchids? The Underline will also be a beneficiary of Fairchild’s Miami Orchid Project, an initiative encouraging students and volunteers to grow and plant tens of thousands of orchids in urban areas throughout greater Miami.
“The Underline will be a special opportunity to create a contiguous corridor of native orchids through downtown Miami,” said Lewis.
Brent Reynolds, CEO and managing partner of NP International, which is also developing Coral Gables’ Paseo de la Riviera Project, says connecting to green spaces, urban trails, and transportation hubs is part of his company’s core business model.
Last year NP International won approval for Gables Station, a development project that will replace a parking lot and small commercial building at 251 South Dixie Highway with a 4.3-acre mixed-use development. NP International knew the development would be across US 1 from the Underline and has pledged more than $3 million to build out and landscape that section.
“We’re actually expanding it to create one of the largest public parks in the City of Coral Gables,” he said, noting that the Underline, and more specifically the strategic location of this green space “is really going to bring force to the connectivity of the South and North Gables.”
He’s also confident his portion of the project – which includes apartments, hotel accommodations and retail space – will connect residents across demographic lines.
“We don’t want an overwhelmingly large portion of any one demographic, so we are targeting our marketing to millennials all the way up to empty nesters, and seniors in select cases, so it really is a full spectrum,” Reynolds said.
HEALTH AND WELLNESS
That’s good news for healthcare professionals who want to see residents getting fresh air and exercise all throughout their lives.
“Part of our initiative toward preventive health is to increase the amount of exercise that people get, and for that you need green and open spaces”, said a spokesperson for Coral Gables’ Baptist Health Network. In addition to generating ideas and activities, Baptist has also pledged to build out a portion of the Underline where it meets the network’s hospital in the City of South Miami, located just a few blocks from Coral Gables.
Baptist sees this space generating activities like yoga or tai chi, as well as for educating the public on basic health, like coordinating first-aid workshops.
These features and activities are especially important to the community’s older population, says Florida International University Professor Ebru Ozer. In 2017, she teamed up with FIU gerontologist Dr. Iveris Martiez to get students to stroll portions of the Underline with elderly people who live in proximity to it.
“The older adults pointed out the shortcomings – the issues with safety and comfort,” Ozer said. “They weren’t able to walk too long. They needed rest stops, meeting points, and bathrooms, as well as proper signage letting them know which direction they’re going.”
They also said that the distance they could walk wasn’t nearly as important as the ability to feel connected to the larger community.
“They said they would like to sit and watch other people do things,” Ozer said, like people tending urban gardens, or parents playing with their kids.
DEVELOPING PUBLIC TRUST AND SAFETY
Daly welcomes the public input, and knows Friends of the Underline have a lot of public campaigning and educational work in the years ahead.
For example, the public will have to understand that the planning and permitting process for building public restrooms will require more time and money than the Underline can currently afford.
Then there’s the question of public safety. Built properly, Daly says the Underline could do more to deter crime than invite it. In fact, the corridor will be lit with sensors that pop on whenever a person is passing and shut off once they’re gone, thereby deterring crime without flooding light into nearby homes.
We’re actually expanding it to create one of the largest public parks in the City of Coral GablesBrent Reynolds, CEO of NP International
But all this requires funding, and local taxpayers will want to be informed about who’s paying for this public-private partnership and from what sources.
“I think if someone really doesn’t understand how public dollars are expended, they may think ‘Oh you’re building this beautiful park, you’re taking away from X,’ and that’s not true,” explained Daly. “You’re actually creating new funding sources for something that wouldn’t otherwise exist.”
At the same time, she hopes residents will see the Underline as a metropolitan draw, one that makes the city more inviting as well as more competitive.
“If we really want that 21st Century City, one that offers amenities to talent for growth industries, [we have to realize that] they’re demanding mass transit, walk-able, bike-able communities,” says Daly. “We’re not as green as we think. We have a lot less park space per capita than a lot of other metropolitan areas.”
“Hopefully this project is a paradigm shift and changes our heavily car dependent culture,” said Lago. “It is the responsibility of government officials and administrations to prioritize public safety and encourage recreational sites such as the Underline.”
With a least several more years to go before the Underline’s Coral Gables stretch gets built, residents have plenty of time to weigh in with ideas about the plans, either through public meetings, volunteering with Friends of the Underline, or even offering financial or material support.
“The communal tables, the game tables – those weren’t our ideas, those were the people’s ideas,” Daly reflected. “We see the Underline as a spine of the future.”