Tuesday February 20, 2007

Miami 21

Here’s an article I wrote for Damn Magazine back in June of 2006. It was published in October, but has never made it online before. I took the photos back then for the article, though in the magazine it ran with Julian Martin’s much better pictures.

Miami, June 2006

A New Miami?

I’m sitting in a shabby banquet room in the Eugenio Maria De Hostos Neighborhood Service Center in Wynwood, surrounded by huge pieces of foamboard covered with maps, diagrams, charts, and computer renderings of buildings and streets. Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk is just wrapping up her presentation — one she’s given four times in the last week — and opens the floor up to comments. The low-level grumbling that had accompanied her talk resolves itself into a succession of complaints, many followed by applause from a healthy proportion of the 100 or so assembled. Plater-Zyberk takes all this in stride, answering each person without a shred of disagreement. Yes – the plan needs work. Yes – they would revisit that aspect to see if it could be improved. Yes, yes, yes.

We’re talking about Miami 21, the state-of-the-art master plan that’s been Manny Dias’s dream ever since he was elected mayor of Miami in 2001. It took years of preparation, but finally a firm was hired, and today we have a proposed plan. Now comes the hardest part: getting the public to agree to it.

Miami 21 is an effort to marry the best ideas from the last thirty years of urban planning to the weird realities of Miami’s existing cityscape. It focuses on what types of buildings should go where, in an effort to create a city that is convenient and pleasant for drivers as well as pedestrians. It’s not as impossible as it sounds: groupings of medium and high-density buildings with storefronts and plazas along the ground floor, plenty of trees, and nice wide sidewalks, and who wouldn’t walk a couple of blocks to run an errand? And the organization and higher density makes public transportation start to look like a viable option. Beyond that, the plan incorporates historical preservation, emphasizes open green space, hearts art and culture, encourages mixed-income development, and generally hits all the feel-good talking points that wide-eyed urban planners love.

Key to all this is something called the transect. It refers to the gradual transition from nature to the urban core through distinct zones: rural, suburban, medium-density, urban. The transect calls for throwing out old, complicated zoning codes in favor of these zones, which encourage building along old-fashioned models: suburbs, for example, begin to look more like small town under this system, with centers of common public space, shops, and parks. The transect system also eliminates the variance system, under which politically connected developers were able to have the rules changed on case-by-case basis to squeeze more profit out of their land at the expense of community coherence.

Edgewater, June 2006 Which brings us back to the meeting, and yes: the complaints. For the most part, the meeting is attended by developers, realtors, and big-time land owners, all of whom have the most to loose from certain aspects of the plan. In the effort to normalize building densities through the city and apply some control to the growth, sweeping changes have to be made to the zoning codes, and these changes have winners and losers. The landowners and developers whose ability to build gigantic concrete’n‘glass condos has been circumcised are pitching a fit. You can’t blame them, but neither should you really accommodate them, right? It’s our damned city, and we should be able to put our needs above those of developers who want to cash in and move on. This is about the vast majority of the people . . . those who actually live and work here. Obviously and unfortunately, those people are scarce in the process that goes into these sorts of plans, and while the planners try to do what they believe we want, their ability to push back against the big money interests in hindered by a lack of voice from the other side.

But actually, the problem is worse than that. Not only are many people not aware of the process, but if they were aware, they would be quite skeptical of designing a city with a big fancy plan.

While our responsibility for the natural environment has enjoyed a surge of popular support over the last several decades, the same can’t be said for the urban environment. Some cities are loved and others hated, but we don’t really think about how we can shape and influence our cities through concentrated action. This is exactly what urban planners do, though, and it’s what they’re doing with Miami21. Too bad the timing stinks. Everyone knows that we’re coming off a major building rush right now. Hundreds of building and renovation projects of all shapes and sizes are taking place all over town, and while many more are in the planning stages, conventional wisdom has it that anyone who hasn’t broken ground already is going to find it increasingly difficult to do so. As the housing supply expands and prices (especially for condos) begin to level off, the increases in building materials are going to make all sorts of numbers just not add up. So great; if we can expect a major building boom once every 20 to 30 years, and we just wrapped one up, what are we doing; planning for a rush of building in 2030?

There is good news, though. For one thing, many of the buildings now going up adhere to some of design rules of new urban thinking. There are shops along the first floor, the parking garages are hidden from the street, and the buildings are set back at the fifth or sixth floors, giving them a sense of scale from the sidewalk.

This is particularly noticeable in Edgewater, the area east of Biscayne Boulevard between the Omni and I-195. Few places have seen as rapid a transformation over the last few years as Edgewater, where single-family homes and small apartment buildings (some dating back to the original Miami construction boom in the 1920s) mingle with empty lots, construction sites, and gleaming new towers. Throw in a few corner markets, and when all the dust settles we may just have a real walkable community on our hands. It’ll get another boost when the streetcar system which is planned for the area comes online in 2010.

So there’s the city of the future for you: it intelligently mixes high, medium, and low density buildings with nice sidewalks, public spaces, and practical public transportation. Actually, it looks suspiciously the way cities all over Europe have looked for an awfully long time. And the plan? Well, Plater-Zyberk will have her hands full between now and September, when the city commission votes on the final plan. Only time will tell how much effect the plan will have, though.

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  1. Duran    Tue Feb 20, 10:10 AM #  

    Is Damn magazine still in production? I went to the opening back in October and never heard from it again. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any copies of the magazine around town.

  2. dreaming    Wed Feb 21, 07:08 PM #  

    not only does it sound a little like europe, but also a lot like just about city or town north of approximately atlanta. most places have grown up organically. the sunbelt is unique in its efforts to create human scale, walkable cities from master plans. it doesnt usually work too well.

  3. Fuentes    Thu Feb 22, 04:25 AM #  

    Real nice article on Miami 21…I believe in our future built the intelligent way …

  4. alesh    Thu Feb 22, 07:35 AM #  


    It’s true, “master plans” usually aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. And as I point out, this particular plan is poorly timed (though it keeps getting pushed back, so who knows when it’ll actually be finished).

    Still, if you think of it as a “smart” re-vamping of the zoning codes, what’s the problem? However limited or broad the changes are, they’ll be for the better.

    What I want to see, at a minimum, is for the few blocks around Biscayne Blvd from around NE 5th street to around I-195 to be transformed into pedestrian-friendly areas, with wide sidewalks, big shade trees, street-level shops in fancy high-rises (featuring cheap condos in about another 12 months!!), and parking garages not visible from the street. This is already starting to happen in some areas, and if Miami 21 happens it’ll continue.


    I’m not sure . . .



  5. Y Sanabria    Sat Feb 24, 12:56 AM #  

    The devil is in the details. It is now late Febuary 2007. Miami 21 has a long way to go before they properly answer the real life questions that continue to come up.

    Anyone notice Miami 21 is trying to put homeless shelters in Little River?

  6. MiamianLawStudent    Mon Feb 26, 02:07 AM #  

    Y Sanabria:

    The homeless shelters need to go somewhere.
    Don’t they?

    nice article

  7. Y Sanabria    Mon Feb 26, 05:41 PM #  

    To MiamianLawStudent

    Actually, homeless shelters do not have to exist. Students must stay in school and graduate. Then they can find jobs. Or students can attend vocational schools and then graduate. Students can even attend law school. Then they can get jobs. Everyone should get their own housing. That way citizens do not have to depend on more discliplined citizens to work extra hard. Is it fair for one group to subsidize the food and shelter for another group?

    Is it fair to ruin downtown with Homeless Shelters? This happened from 1980 to 2007. Is it fair to ruin Wynwood? Overtown? Just visit NE 20th Streets to NE 25th Streets west of N. Miami Avenue.

    Stay in school. Learn a trade.

  8. mkh    Mon Feb 26, 07:57 PM #  

    What’s the weather like there in Utopia? Well, okay, I guess by definition it must be pretty good.

    Here in the real world there are already homeless people, for a whole variety of reasons from poor luck to mental illness to bad life choices. To get to this idyllic state where there aren’t any homeless people, did you round up the pre-existing specimens and shoot them all? Or did you use Dickensian poor houses and prisons? Maybe you’ve developed time travel, so those who made mistakes in their youth can just hop into a brass and crystal contraption and jump back to high school. Whatever the cause, I’m glad it worked out for you!

    Perhaps it isn’t fair that those of us with jobs have to support those who can’t manage to survive without public assistance. It is, however, something civilized societies do.

    Alesh, I would love to see some of those pedestrian-friendly areas crop up in Miami. I truly loathe cars, and wish I could afford to live in a city with a strong, vital, and walkable city center.

  9. MiamianLawStudent    Mon Feb 26, 10:11 PM #  

    Y Sanabria:
    Please see MKH’s response. Thanks.

    nice post. Thanks.

  10. SquaTERS rrIGHTS    Sat Mar 31, 08:37 PM #  

    Maybe if the homeless in miami spent less time building and decorating their little shanty towns and got GOT A JOB. If your not to drunk or stung out on crack its easier. And I dont recall the homeless freezing to death here in florida. so its not that bad to do some landscaping or just DO ANYTHING is it?