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 Diaz'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
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.