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Miami: Downtown Development: Billion-Dollar Upgrade- May 2004

For much of its history, downtown Miami has been a bustling commercial center by day and a ghost town by night. That may change.

Miami-Dade County officials, eager to transform Miami's urban core into a vibrant "24-hour city" where residents live, work and play in close proximity, are aggressively touting high-rise condo developments throughout the downtown area. Officials say as many as 80,000 new residents, attracted by a burgeoning arts and entertainment scene and eager to flee suburban gridlock, will move downtown over the next 20 years.

But the plan comes at a price. To accommodate the influx, city and county officials say the downtown area will require an overhaul of its transportation network that may cost billions of dollars. That overhaul, detailed in a comprehensive report known as the Downtown Transportation Master Plan, calls for a traffic tunnel under the Miami River, another tunnel connecting the Port of Miami to the MacArthur Causeway, removal of elevated exit ramps from I-95 and a slew of other projects. The city also recently proposed a streetcar rail line. The plan could take decades to complete.

"Yes, it's ambitious, but we're now shifting from planning to implementation," says Mary Conway, Miami's Capital Improvement Program and Transportation director.

Perhaps the boldest proposal is to lower I-95 to street level to reconnect neighborhoods planners say were torn apart by the elevated expressway. That project, says Conway, is still years away. Another proposal, already in advanced planning, calls for sinking the elevated stretch of I-395 underground. That project alone could cost $600 million. The Port of Miami tunnel may cost $500 million; the Miami River tunnel as much as $400 million.

Critics say the projects are too expensive and would disrupt traffic for years. Others are less concerned, noting the recent half-penny sales tax for transportation approved by voters and the state and federal funds that those tax proceeds can leverage.

"Downtown used to be a place that shut down after dark," says Frank Baron, project manager of the downtown master plan. "We're not a 24-hour city yet, but we will be soon."

IN THE NEWS

Coral Gables -- Kraft Foods will move its Latin American division headquarters here from Rye, N.Y. The company says the move will create 107 jobs within the first two years at an average annual salary of $76,000.

Key West -- City and county officials have agreed to build a temporary housing facility for the city's burgeoning homeless population. The so-called "safe zone" will be built adjacent to the county's detention facility on Stock Island. Last year, the National Coalition for the Homeless ranked Key West the seventh "meanest" city in America. The rankings are based on homeless laws, anti-poverty efforts and the treatment of homeless residents. Florida ranks as the second "meanest" state after California.

FLORIDA TRENDLINE?REAL ESTATEProperty Rise
The value of Miami Beach property rose 74% in the seven years ended last year.


Source: Miami-Dade CountyMiami-- Florida Marlins executives have rejected lands adjacent to the Orange Bowl and the Miami Arena as possible sites for the team's proposed $325-million stadium. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria says he prefers downtown Miami but will consider other parts of the county or outside Miami-Dade if he and city leaders can't reach an agreement by early this spring.

County officials say downtown Miami's $260-million Performing Arts Center will open in October 2006, nearly two years behind schedule. Officials are worried that cost overruns could push the final price tag to well over $300 million.

Miami-Dade -- The Florida Department of Transportation has appropriated $100 million to help fund an extension of the county's Metrorail transit system to Miami International Airport. When completed in 2012, the rail line will connect with the Miami Intermodal Center, a passenger and cargo transit hub now in construction near the airport.

Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, the parent company of cargo carriers Polar Air Cargo and Atlas Air, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company says it hopes to reorganize with fewer airplanes but has no plans to lay off any of its 200 Miami workers.

United Airlines has eliminated its last flights from Miami to Latin America, closing its Miami base for pilots and flight attendants. At least 150 workers will be laid off. Another 570 will be offered transfers. United, which has struggled to compete with American Airlines in the Latin market, has slowly reduced its service there over the last decade.

Despite skyrocketing costs associated with security, the Port of Miami posted solid growth in 2003, county officials say, with cruise dockings up nearly 9.7% and cargo volume up 3.7%. Total revenue was up 3.5% to $83.5 million.

Mexico's top television network, Televisa, has announced it will set up a base in Miami to gauge a move into the growing Hispanic broadcast market in the U.S. Televisa has a programming agreement with Univision, the leading Spanish-language media company in the U.S.

A new real estate investment fund has been launched in Miami, targeting the region's core urban areas. American Ventures' Philip Blumberg hopes his South Florida Urban Initiatives Fund will raise as much as $100 million to provide developers with so-called mezzanine capital -- funding that supplements traditional bank loans.

City Finances
S&P GIVES MIAMI BONDS A+

MIAMI -- Standard and Poor's has raised Miami's bond rating to A+, underscoring the city's recovery from the brink of financial collapse in 1996. The rating -- the highest in Miami's history -- will save the city about $6 million a year, officials say. Other rating services also have raised Miami's bond ratings, citing a downtown construction boom, stable tax rates and greater fiscal oversight. With the improved ratings, officials are hinting at the possibility of presenting a new bond referendum to voters as early as November 2005.