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Explore Big Sugar’s Huge Private Railroad Through Florida’s Farmlands On The Meticulously Restored “Sugar Express”

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Based in the rather odd little town of Clewiston, FL, the U.S. Sugar Corporation is the largest sugar cane producer in the country and the mack daddy of Florida’s massive sugar industry, known collectively as Big Sugar.

Bringing in their 92nd annual Florida sugar cane harvest this fall, the company has had a massive role in state politics and Everglades environmental protections (or lack thereof), for the past century of Florida’s history. Centered around Clewiston, sugar cane fields spread over hundreds of thousands of acres across the lower middle of the state, covering an area so huge that U.S. Sugar has always operated its own railroad to manage it all. And a few years ago they expanded from just transporting things like sugar cane to shuttling around pleasure-seeking tourists and nerdy railroading fans as well.

The South Central Florida Express, the official name of U.S. Sugar’s railroad, has always squired cargo trains of sugar farming-related things, sugar foodstuffs, and sugary leftovers, up and down an extensive network of 171 miles of track through sugar cane fields and along the southern perimeter of Lake Okeechobee. The system is so big, it’s officially the largest privately-owned agricultural railroad in the United States. The “cane trains,” as they are called, take freshly harvested sugarcane to the company’s gigantic refinery just south of Clewiston for processing, after which more trains take the resulting sugar-related products, like refined white sugar crystals and molasses, to interchanges on each end of the line where they will then head off throughout the United States and into grocery stores and ultimately into your food.

The new heritage railroad, called the Sugar Express, debuted here a few years ago with a 100-year-old steam engine that has its own storied Florida history. This locomotive began life on the Florida East Coast Railway’s Key West Extension, also known as the famed Overseas Railroad (where the Overseas Highway is now), and was later used by U.S. Sugar to haul “cane trains” in the middle of the 20th century. Fully restored and used for tours, events, and special outings like a Polar Express-themed excursion for Christmas, that single heritage train has since expanded in size and scope, with an impressive collection of historic railcars, including a dining car, an open-air car, a former Pennsylvania Railroad lounge car, another steam locomotive that had been on display outside Jacksonville’s historic downtown train station since 1960, an entire turntable formerly used by the Wabash Railroad in St. Louis Missouri, which will now be used in Clewiston, and more.

Over the past few years, as the world tackled a pandemic and U.S. Sugar continued to restore its historic locomotives, railroad cars, and old pieces of infrastructure (like the turn table), and wider public ridership interest grows, events happened here and there. For the 2022-2023 winter season, they just announced a “Start of Harvest” train on October 1st, which will be a day-long excursion to Lake Placid, FL, including a two-hour stop in the quaint little town, for $148 per person, and a much more elaborate and extensive three-day tour of the entire SCFE railroad in January, for an appropriately sizable $400 per person.

Publicity photos of the Sugar Express via U.S. Sugar

Shorty’s Barbecue, A Miami Institution, Will Be Built Over by Two Giant Towers

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Welp, the legendary Shorty’s Barbecue, which has occupied its prime location on US-1 for 70 years, adjacent to the Dadeland South Metrorail Station, is being replaced by two gigantic transit-oriented towers. The restaurant’s owners sold off the site early this year, and the developers have just submitted their proposed plans for county approval. And boy, the new stuff will look nothing like the down-home, eclectic, laid-back restaurant that’s there today. Everyone involved, including the developers and the restaurant’s owners, promises that the iconic country-style barbecue joint will live on in the project’s commercial space. Although a lease has already been signed to that effect, ensuring its survival, as we’ve seen from many other old-school and well-loved Miami spots that are no longer here, such as Scotty’s Landing, Tobacco Road, and others, in reality, that survival is far from assured.

According to FL Yimby: “Designed by Coral Gables-based Corwil Architects, with Witkin Hults + Partners as the landscape architect, plans call for two connected mixed-use towers of 20 and 25 stories that would collectively yield 780,703 square feet of space, including 500 multifamily residential units, 4,851 square feet of ground floor retail, and 668 parking spaces. The towers would rise 318 and 280 feet and would be connected by a bridge designed to provide a free flow of light and air from east to west.”

Feature Image: Photo of Shorty’s Barbecue by Phillip Pessar.

A Drop-Dead Spectacular South Beach Art Deco Villa Sold Earlier This Year For $7 Million

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They say a kitchen renovation can test any marriage, but apparently not for a former Detroit automotive CEO and his interior designer partner.

Michael Chetcuti and Kyle Evans (of Kyle Evans Design, because of course he has his own firm) spent six years turning what was left of a historic Streamline Moderne Art Deco house in South Beach’s Flamingo Park neighborhood (and not much was left, seriously) into a house so spectacular that their neighbors must just hate their guts. From jealousy. The duo only lived in the completed house for a couple of years before apparently getting bored, plopping it back on the market in March, and selling it in two months for a cool seven million dollars, because, as they casually told the Miami Herald, “we love a good project.” Oy vey. Well, at least It’ll be exciting to see what kind of architectural fantasia they whip up next.

Oh, and it got a write-up in the Wall Street Journal, because of course it did.

Competition Asks Us To Imagine What Floating Affordable Housing in Biscayne Bay Might Look Like

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An architectural ideas competition is looking for proposals that explore the idea of floating affordable housing in Biscayne Bay, to address the dual issues of climate change and housing affordability in South Florida. The competition brief overlooks the many complications that would make something like this extremely difficult if not impossible to build, not the least of which is environmental concerns, but focusing on these main problems it hopes to find some innovative solutions.

Put together by the organization Arch Out Loud, and judged by an impressive list of local and international jurors, the competition asks the question: “How can we design solutions that not only create affordable housing but also make it resilient to the looming problem of sea-level rise?” This is in response to changes happening that are leading to climate gentrification in the surrounding neighborhoods of Little Haiti, Little River, and the Upper East Side.

“The recent development and revitalization of the neighborhoods brings about its own underlying uncertainties: will longtime residents be able to find affordable housing near their current homes and communities? And, if so, how can they protect themselves from the risk of being displaced again due to sea level rise?” asks Arch Out Loud.

The site itself is a parallelogram of Biscayne Bay between the American Legion Park and Legion Picnic Island. Program requirements leave much of the decision-making to the imagination of competition entrants, with the only major requirements being that there be a minimum of 45 units of affordable housing and that each unit comes with its own boat slip, perhaps suggesting they see Miami as one day being so inundated by the ocean that even the poorest among us will have to own a boat to get around. Oh, and although the rules don’t seem to explicitly say the housing has to float, it’s called “Floating Housing” enough on the website that this is pretty clearly what they want. Considering most of the bay bottom is actually quite shallow, this could be a bit of an issue.

Although the early submission deadline has already passed, teams still have a few months to get their design submissions in for a slightly higher fee.

Featured image via Flickr/R. Maas. Aerial view of site via Arch Out Loud.

Miami’s Homeless Are Getting A Tiny House Village On A Stunning Island Paradise

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The City of Miami Commission made a surprise decision Thursday afternoon to approve a controversial pilot program that could add tiny houses for the homeless to picturesque Virginia Key.

Thursday morning, at the beginning of a grueling 13-hour commission meeting, the commissioners had voted down the very same proposal. The plan, which had already inflamed the passions of the public, prominently featured cute tiny houses for Miami’s homeless over other more FEMA-esque options, which commissioners praised as an effective way to maintain the homeless population’s dignity. They pointed out, however, that it failed to fully take into consideration everything else that happens on the Key, which is known for its parkland and educational institutions, as well as other practical matters related to the two alternative sites proposed. Then later, in the same meeting, one commissioner flipped his vote, allowing the whole shebang to go forward, including building the encampment on Virginia Key. What made him change his mind? Well, according to the Islander, the local newspaper for the neighboring wealthy community of Key Biscayne, which isn’t exactly enamored with the plan, the “late-night switcheroo” happened when Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla had second thoughts:

“I would like to reconsider Item 2 with a caveat that they come back in September with alternative sites (such as wide-open spaces in the west part of Miami-Dade County). My objection was the lack of areas offered (three) and the due diligence that was lacking (on selecting these sites).”

The other areas being looked at were NW 71 St. and NW 5th Place (49,000 square feet, already fenced in); and 2451 NW 7th Ave. in Allapattah (173,000 square feet, privately owned land), where “safe, secure” zones could be established with 24-hour security.

Because it was a “non-agenda resolution” that was brought forth originally, a new “non-agenda resolution” was legally able to be introduced by de la Portilla during the Commission meeting.

Commissioner Manolo Reyes was baffled by what this vote would entail, but Carollo and De La Portilla said it would include the pilot program on Virginia Key, with between 50 and 100 portable “tiny homes,” being developed. It also directs City Manager Arthur Noriega to bring forth other alternative sites (at the Commission’s second September meeting) and have officials tally what the total costs would be (earlier, officials said it would cost about $700,000-$800,000 a year just for manpower to safeguard the homeless at the Virginia Key campsite).

Basically, Virginia Key is in. So are the tiny homes, probably. The other two sites are out, and while the city pushes forward with the creation of a homeless village among the swaying palms, pink sand beaches, and bucolic backdrops of Virginia Key, alternative sites are being looked at out west, where there’s likely enough available real estate but the subtropical beauty leaves something to be desired.

Featured image of Virginia Key Beach Park via Wikipedia.

Swinging 1970s Compound in South Miami Comes With Multiple Pavilions, Freeform Pool, And Super-Rad Floating Fireplace

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This 4,400 square-foot compound in South Miami comes replete with an all-stainless-steel kitchen, groovy pendant ball lighting, a spiral staircase, exposed beams under a vaulted ceiling, and of course, a floating fireplace hanging from its own big iron chimney.

Built in 1971, sold in 2020, renovated in 2021 perhaps as someone’s pandemic project, the house finally flipped back onto the market in 2022 asking $3,529,000. The listing description limits itself to a laundry list of what everything in the renovation cost, which is completely gauche, but perusing the pics one can see the property has retained much of its 1970s je ne sais quoi. Whoever built this joint knew how to have fun. Hopefully, whoever gets it now will too.