Neighborhood Transformation

Neighborhood Transformation

FIU Study Concludes That
Expressways had Devestating Impact on Overtown

A study by the FIU Institute of Government completed in the late 1990's documents that expressway construction and urban renewal during the 1960s had a devastating impact on Overtown, and it proposes government actions that could help revitalize the community.

The study was commissioned by the Metropolitan Planning Organization, a Miami Dade County agency that coordinates local transportation planning, to assess the extent to which Overtown has been historically affected by the expressway system that bisected the community and to suggest measures to strengthen the community's future.

An interdisciplinary team of public administration/public policy analysts, economists, historians and planners from FIU conducted the study with a subcontractor, The Black Archives History and Research Center. In addition to a review of documents on the issue, interviews were conducted with 56 former and current Overtown residents. The research team also studied the impact of similar transportation projects in Atlanta, Jacksonville, Nashville, New Orleans and Tampa to compare their experience with Overtown.

The study was the first to historically confirm what has long been perceived: that Interstates 95 and 395, State Road 836 and urban renewal projects constructed in the 1960s, (and to a much lesser extent, the construction of Metro-Rail and Metro-Mover in the '80s), had a disastrous impact on the Overtown area and helped destroy a once viable and thriving African American community.

"The same trends were experienced in the other comparison cities after major transportation projects were launched," said Milan Dluhy, director of the FIU Institute of Government, which coordinated the study. "They took a big hit when the urban expressways went through and never recovered."

In 1950, Overtown had a thriving central commercial area and 45 percent of the African American population in Miami-Dade County. In 1960, Overtown reached its peak in population (close to 33,000) and had a diverse mix of 318 businesses. After around 1970 and the projects the study focuses on, Overtown bottomed out to a level from which it has never recovered. The expressway and urban renewal projects displaced close to 12,000 people and another 4,830 moved out for other reasons during the 1960s. From 1960 to 1970, the community lost 51.2 percent of its population and 33 percent of its businesses; in 1970, 15,935 (8.4 percent) of the county's African American population lived in Overtown, and the areas significance and commercial importance had seriously declined.

In addition to the severe loss of residents and businesses, the community's internal circulation system was left in shambles, the vacant space under the elevated expressways became a wasteland and haven for undesirables, and home ownership dropped from 12 percent to 5 percent from 1950 to 1970. Today, Overtown has one of the highest poverty rates and worst (and cheapest) housing in Miami-Dade County. The population is now just under 8,000 and there are only 41 businesses left -- compared to 389 in 1950. Only 2 percent of the county's African American population lives there and 32 percent of the population lives in either public housing or government subsidized housing.

Dluhy pointed out that state Department of Transportation officials -- who made most of the major decisions on site location decisions in conjunction with local officials -- never adequately considered the lasting impact that expressways would have on the Overtown community. Unlike today, when environmental impacts are assessed and public hearings are required, the availability of cheap land and political agendas determined the route of the expressways. Ironically, the original route for I-95 called for it to follow the FEC railroad tracks, approximately one block west of Biscayne Boulevard, which would have bypassed the heart of Overtown. When the right-of-way could not be secured, the route was shifted further west bisecting Overtown, a move that encountered little to no political opposition.

While the study acknowledges that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to recreate the Overtown of 40 or 50 years ago, its recommendations -- corrective actions for past mistakes -- are based on government involvement to support a transformed and stable community. Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Tampa have recently intervened to enhance low-income, minority areas impacted by downtown expressways and interchanges.

The transportation infrastructure recommendations, which would improve the circulation system in Overtown and improve its physical appearance, could be implemented by the Florida Department of Transportation, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Miami-Dade County Commission and other transportation-related agencies. Recommendations are based on revitalizing the central business district for current and future residents and making it a destination point for tourists and other people in South Florida. They include:
  • The perimeter of Overtown needs to be highlighted using historical symbols or markers to enhance the gateway character and identity of the area.
  • Signage from all exit ramps from I-95, SR 836 and I-395 should direct people to the Historic Folklife Village and the main commercial districts.
  • Additional landscaping and beautification at the midtown interchange.
  • Opening of dead-end streets to enhance circulation and stimulate commercial development.
  • Study the feasibility of completing the MetroMover loop from the School Board either south to the Government Center, southwest to the Overtown Shopping Center or westward to Culmer Station.
  • The area under I-395, currently an ugly and dangerous wasteland, should be landscaped, filled, or converted to commercial or recreational use.
  • Consider additional exit and entrance ramps from I-95 and I-395
Economic development-related recommendations include:
  • Encourage the city of Miami and the Sports Authority to complete an adaptive reuse study of the Miami Arena.
  • Extend the Downtown Development Authority's boundaries to include all of Overtown.
  • Reinforce the privatization efforts of the Miami-Dade Housing Authority in the Town Park Gardens Area, which will increase residents' stake in the area.
  • Work with the city of Miami to help develop affordable housing and office complexes for the 240 acres east of I-95 and west of the Miami Arena.
Over the next few months, the study and its results will be presented to the Metropolitan Planning Authority, city of Miami, Miami-Dade County Commission, Downtown Development Authority and the Florida Department of Transportation.