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Get on the Underline with Meg Daly

Miami is the fourth most dangerous place for pedestrians in the U.S. and Florida is the most dangerous state for cyclists. Meg Daly has an idea to help fix that, and it begins with building the infrastructure to support increased biking and walking throughout the city’s urban core.

Inspired by The High Line in New York and The 606 in Chicago, three years ago, Daly  proposed building a 10-mile linear park and urban trail in the land below Miami’s Metrorail, appropriately named The Underline. The project has been gaining some real traction.

In a public-private partnership with support from Miami-Dade County departments of Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces, and Transit, the project is set to break ground in fall 2016. “This will be the fastest linear park and urban trail in the country that’s gone from inception to shovel in the ground ever,” said Meg Daly beaming with excitement.  

So how did she do it? We sat down with Meg Daly to learn about her process and get some advice about how to make our own passion projects for the community a reality.

How was the idea for The Underline conceived?

Well, it all started when I had a bike accident 3 years ago. My daughter and I were bike riding. She accidentally clipped my front tire and I fell and broke both of my arms. I was working with a startup and I couldnt drive, so my son, husband, and dad were driving me around all over the place. One day, I had to get to physical therapy, and I thought I could just take the Metrorail and walk the rest of the way under the train tracks. That that was in the summer, and though it was 9:30 a.m., it was not too hot because of the shade of the train tracks. I was walking and I thought, I never realized there was so much space here.And I thought we should turn in it into a public space.

What was the process of getting the idea off of the ground?

I had a lot of luck because my background was all sales and marketing Ive learned that when youre excited and interested that you need to talk about it. So I did. I talked to a lot of people. The answer was that you need to get in touch with Miami-Dade County Parks. I met a woman named Maria Nardi who is the Chief of Planning and Research, Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation, and Open Spaces. As you know, parks are grossly underfunded. Theyre looking at a 10% increase in their budget for this year yay! I said I have this crazy idea and she said thats not really that crazy because thats a priority corridor for the Miami-Dade County Parks master plan. Because transit owns the land, we need to get to the transit department. So we did, we went to the transit department, who said,We love the idea. Why dont YOU go do it?

What was the next step in turning it into an actual, tangible product?

Its been a cool adventure of finding doors that open for you. You get people excited and championing [for you], so its not just me talking all the time, its someone else talking to someone else and that sort of viral noise gets you to an open door. That next open door was at the University of Miami School of Architecture. Since we had no money and we needed drawings. They took us on as a studio project. And it was a very transparent process, where public agencies came in and shared and the students visualized and conceived and faculty jumped in.

I think the reason it got so creative and exciting is that no one had to talk about the money, they just talked about the ideas. That freedom I think really was the energy of the project. We started to get so much momentum and positive feedback that the Parks Department said your next natural step is to actually produce a professional master plan. We received funding from three cities Miami, Coral Gables and South Miamithen we had matching funds from The Knight, Miami and Mitchell Wolfson foundations. As soon as we had enough funding, we selected a design team and gave them six months to get a master plan done for a 10-mile stretch which is incredibly fast. We held five public meetings. We had 200 people at these public meetings, which were very positive and extremely transparent. We had a master plan drawn up Sept. 4 of this year. Its mind-blowingly beautiful.

How much might all of this cost?

We had a $2 million allocation from the State of Florida, but it was an appropriation that got vetoed by Gov. Scott, as did all park and trail initiatives. Then we got $3 million from the county. Just last Thursday we had a million-dollar commitment from the City of Miami park impact fees and this is all primarily for Brickell, which is where we want to begin. And then a million dollars from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). So, weve received in total $5 million dollars of funding to make this project happen. Wed like to get it to $6.5 million for phase 1, which would go towards development of the first mile from the master plan.

It seems like there was a lot of excitement generated online pretty early on. How did you take that and use it to your advantage?

Grassroots support is good, not just for their businesses, but also to activate this community into believing they have the ability to do something that has tangible results. Someone posted on Facebook the other day, and they said: The Atlanta Beltline was community driven, but I think thats harder to do here.My response was: Why?

This community is on a tipping point in believing the individual can drive change and create velocity and momentum. I believe each person is the oracle and opportunity to have a voice for change. Individually, were starting to believe that. Small events like a bike ride, an opening, a sticker that says I love The Underline” … helps people become a part of the greater good.  I think thats important to be part of a voice in that community. Im finding a lot of voices that tell me were in a really good time in our community. The Knight Foundation and The Miami Foundation are part of that they give people the titles and the forums to speak out and activate.

How did you take that online conversation and do something actionable?

I started thinking. Its great that you can use social media and people start liking it and you get some energy, but if you dont have political support its very difficult to get to implementation.

I had never been to a commission meeting in my life I had to go to commission meetings and make presentations. I had to get endorsements from the municipalities that front the corridors — theres three of them. We got endorsements from Coral Gables, South Miami, City of Miami, Miami-Dade County and then just a bunch of business organizations like the chambers and we then got real help from the Knight Foundation and The Miami Foundation. Theyre really  spiritual and philosophical drivers, like-minds and same aspirations of building a better city. They really embraced this project like one big group hug. They really believed in this project and this vision and consequently they really believed in me as a leader. That sort of ground swell and love pushing me in the right direction gave me the confidence to push it forward in a space I had no expertise.

Have you ever had any experience doing something like this before?

Im not a politician. I just know I love our city. I am tested every single day. I am completely outside of my comfort zone every day. So now Im getting used to not being comfortable. This is how its supposed to feel youre not supposed to feel comfortable. If you feel comfortable, youre not pushing your own boundaries. Athletes, great thinkers, parents of young children, will all tell you the same thing. I think we all need to be tested and not be complacent.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to make their own crazy project a reality?

Go for it. Find your champions. Believe in your dream but test it. I think it still boils down to marketing. You have to do your own focus groups, and that can be just cocktail conversations. Theres a maxim in business that it takes 10 outreaches to get 1 potential meeting. In general, 90% of the people are just shutting the door. But with The Underline, it was the complete opposite. I never had that high level of acceptance [before]. I kept falling through all of these open doors. Do do some good old fashion market testing it should resonate anecdotally. Activate the crowd, get your groundswell and push for viral noise. Let that tide move you forward. I think innovation is exciting. Dont block innovation, because thats how the market works. By definition innovation is going to disrupt because its fixing something thats inefficient.

Want to see this park become a reality? Donate to The Underline here.