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I-395 bridge project forces out Overtown residents

One Overtown resident gets only $300,000 for his 97 year-old home

Erick Johnson | 5/1/2014, 9 a.m.
The dramatic “Wishbone Arch” suspension bridge will replace the existing I-395 that goes through Overtown.

Benjamin Brown finally moved out of his Overtown family home of nearly 100 years on Monday after packing up generations of photos, plaques and other heirlooms in the only house he has ever called home.

The retired school teacher said goodbye for the last time to the blue and white structure that has been his home for 80 years.

The building that has stood since World War I will meet the wrecking ball any day now to signal the beginning of a new, massive $600 million construction project that will build a new 1.4 mile expressway, part of a flashy, dramatic suspension bridge known as the Wishbone Arch. City, state and even community leaders hope the new bridge will gain world-wide acclaim.

Those plans came at the expense of Brown and several other Overtown residents and businesses who were forced out of their structures after the state seized their property through the power of eminent domain. The bridge project will connect the mainland to Miami Beach and Watson Island.

In accordance with federal laws, the residents and business owners’ relocation expenses were covered by the state, which also purchased their structures at market value.

Documents obtained by The Miami Times show residents, business owners and Black community leaders were aware of the forced expulsion for many years through community meeting and hearings. They voiced concerns about the project’s impact on Overtown. Many were concerned that the project would further decimate their community much like the construction of I-95 which displaced thousands of Overtown residents in the late 1950s.

“They just came in and told us what they planned to do and that was that,” said Brown, who learned of the news from a routine community meeting some 10 years.

City leaders said they first learned about the project as far back as 2001 when the state decided to scrap and rebuild I-395 to handle traffic congestion to Miami Beach by an ever-growing South Florida population. But urban planners and state officials had other reasons to rebuild the expressway.

For one, I-395 is too noisy and it’s too dark underneath to allow pedestrian to pass through without being frightened. The highway also hangs too low to allow for some trucks to pass through.

Officials at the Florida Department of Transportation said the existing bridge has other “deficiencies.” They contend that the expressway is too small with only two lanes -and a continuous one- in each direction. There are also unexpected merges and lane drops that may cause more congestion and accidents as more cars used the highway to get to and from Miami Beach.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the reconstruction is that I-395 has been identified as a Hurricane Evacuation Route. A new, bigger expressway would help evacuate residents from Miami Beach and other islands faster and easier and with better traffic flow.

There were other alternatives to rebuilding I-395. One was to build elevated ramps at the Midtown interchange, but that plan was ruled out after Overtown residents overwhelmingly rejected the plan which was later determined to be “fatally flawed” by engineers.