Masters students attempt to solve Miami's deteriorating downtown
By: Jacquelyn Weiner
The next attempting to solve the problem of Miami's deteriorating downtown could come from a group of architecture masters students at the University of Miami.
UM plans to offer a studio course for its architecture students on downtown Miami — particularly the Flagler Street area — although when that will happen is still up in the air, said Lamar Noriega, director of development for UM's architecture school.
Downtown Development Authority member Neisen Kasdin, sees big benefits to the plan. "It will expose them to real-world planning in a neighborhood that is evolving and help the neighborhood, too," said Mr. Kasdin, an attorney with Akerman Senterfitt and chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's downtown efforts with the New World Center Committee.
Mr. Kasdin discussed the possibility of UM's planning course on Miami's downtown at the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce 2008 Goals Conference in May.
Originally, UM's School of Architecture planned to hold the studio this summer. However, questions as to who will teach the course have caused the class to be pushed to a shorter workshop in the summer or to a later semester, UM architecture's Ms. Noriega said.
The idea for the course came about during discussion about the future of downtown between Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, dean of the UM School of Architecture, and Paul Zamek, vice president of the Kirksey Architecture Miami office.
Mr. Zamek is to teach the course as an adjunct faculty member along with the other yet-to-be-determined professor, he said.
Mr. Zamek's interest in revamping downtown was sparked as co-chair of the executive committee of the New World Center Committee's Master Plan Task Force, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's downtown development arm.
The task force prepared a one-page executive summary of the Downtown Development Authority's Downtown Miami Master Plan and identified six areas for the chamber to focus on, Mr. Zamek said.
"We discovered there were a lot of areas in downtown that were put kind of low on the task list," Mr. Zamek said.
One of those areas is Flagler Street, which is the focus of the studio, said Mr. Zamek, chairman of the Flagler Street/Central Business District for the New World Center Committee.
It's particularly important to preserve the Flagler Street area because of its rich history, he said.
Many important historical buildings are still in the area, including some of the earliest art-deco buildings in Miami aside from those in Miami Beach, historian Arva Moore Parks said.
Flagler Street "remained a very vibrant main street into the '60s," she said. The area began to decline with the rise in popularity of suburban shopping centers, furthered by the move of Miami office buildings to the Brickell area.
"It's really the most important historical street in the city of Miami," said Paul George, historian for the Historical Museum of Southern Florida. "That was the heart of downtown."
The section of Flagler Street that the students will study has not been determined, although Mr. Zamek hopes to include the area near Macy's at 22 E. Flagler St., he said.
Macy's has repeatedly voiced its disappointment with the poor conditions surrounding its downtown location.
Students in the course will be required to conduct a "real-world case study of the area," which would involve tasks such as interviewing clients with a stake in the area, discussing plans with city officials and putting together a master plan for the Flagler district, Mr. Zamek said.
The design solutions the students come up with will be a vision for the environment of the district, including the landscape and look of the buildings in the area. They also will work toward solutions to parking, traffic and transportation problems, he said.
"It's going to teach students to get out of their comfort zone, roll up their sleeves and really get out on the streets," he said. "I think a lot of times in the architecture world they sort of design in their own realm. And in this case… you're going to have input from both public and private groups."
Flagler Street has most recently been on the lips of the local business community as a potential magnet for big-name retailers and for the much-criticized Flagler streetscape project, which cost taxpayers more than $10 million.
"Downtown is a very relevant issue," said Ms. Noriega of the UM School of Architecture.
In addition, the Flagler area will be an opportunity for the students to work on historic preservation, Ms. Noriega said.
However, this isn't the first time UM architecture students have used the city as a real-life learning tool.
During the fall 2007 semester, all students in design studios at UM's School of Architecture focused on designing a promenade along the nearly 5-mile long Miami waterfront. More than 300 students worked on the project, according to the school's Web site.
Attacking the downtown deterioration will be a new undertaking for the UM students — although they won't be the first to do so.
In January, students at the Florida International University School of Architecture participated in a school-wide project studying design problems in the downtown Miami area, said Nathaniel Belcher, director of the School of Architecture.
"We see the city as a laboratory, so we're constantly dealing with urban design and special problems throughout Miami," Mr. Belcher said.
In addition, both architecture schools hope that their planning work can be a resource for the community.
"I want this to be a study of value," Mr. Zamek said. "That's why we're going to involve all the public groups and the private groups from the beginning."
Mr. Zamek hopes that, through the students work, the public and private sectors will be able to work together to revamp the Flagler Street area into a "vibrant urban destination for locals and tourists alike," he said.
"My intention is that this will be main-street Miami," Mr. Zamek said. "Flagler Street really has a tie to Miami's history and I think we need to bring that to the surface."