21: Could controversial development revive the
(By Andres Viglucci, Miami Herald)
There is nothing accidental about the urban
rebirth now convincingly altering a formerly
desolate 12-block stretch of Biscayne Boulevard
north of the Omni.
In a city designed for cars, not people, what
you see today on the Boulevard is something
completely different: a walkable, workaday
neighborhood of shops and apartments, the result
of good old-fashioned urban planning by, yes,
the city of Miami.
Could the city's ambitious and controversial
Miami 21 rezoning plan -- to be considered by
the City Commission Thursday after years of
delay -- replicate the Boulevard's revival
across the city?
That question is central to the debate over the
sweeping plan, which would toss out the city's
unwieldy, auto-oriented zoning code for a new,
and ostensibly simpler, set of rules first
tested along this length of the Boulevard.
There is little magical or glamorous along the
12 blocks, from Northeast 18th to 30th streets.
It's no South Beach. But the success of city
planners' efforts, using principles that
underpin Miami 21, seem undeniable: They have
fostered commerce and pedestrian traffic by
mixing retail and residential uses, while
retooling how new buildings meet the street to
make them sidewalk-friendly.
Along sidewalks where prostitutes once owned the
night, there are people pushing baby strollers
-- with babies in them. There are people riding
bicycles, jogging, shopping, walking dogs,
grabbing lunch or coffee with a friend -- even
walking to work.
Never mind Starbucks (although there is a new
one anchoring the north end of the reviving
stretch, at 30th Street). If dog groomers are
any measure, the Boulevard along the old
Edgewater neighborhood has truly arrived. It has
"You know what's attractive? There are dry
cleaners and restaurants and all the little
conveniences you need, and there didn't used to
be,'' said David Carolan, director of sales for
the new City 24 residential and commercial
project on 24th Street, whose ground floor is
home to a personal training gym, wellness center
and the New York Bagels shop.
"There is a new shop every month, and we're in
the worst economic downturn in 75 years,'' he
said. "That's pretty powerful.''
LIVING AND WORKING
Across the Boulevard, Joe Jacobs moved his
medical-billing business into an office in a
condo and commercial building at 25th Street
that houses the popular Mario the Baker
On a side street, Jacobs' office door opens
directly to the sidewalk. Next door, a doctor is
moving in. Above them is a recording studio. The
offices conceal the side of the building's
massive garage and have windows looking onto the
Jacobs lives upstairs in the condo tower.
``It's very safe,'' he said, stepping outside
his office for a smoke on a recent afternoon.
``You see people out walking dogs at 1 a.m. I'm
impressed with what they've done in this area.''
Still, Miami 21, a cornerstone of Miami Mayor
Manny Diaz's administration, has proven a
contentious approach. Neighborhood activists
complain it does too little to tame development,
even as architects and developers' lawyers
contend it's too restrictive, making
commissioners wary of tackling the plan amid
Obscured in the debate over building heights and
property rights has been one overarching goal of
the plan: reshaping development to help
resuscitate aging, depressed districts like the
The key to revival on Biscayne Boulevard has
been an influx of residents drawn by reasonable
prices and rents at several new buildings lined
at street level with commercial space.
New businesses, including a rock memorabilia
store and a bicycle shop, have also moved into
historic 1920s buildings protected by the city
in recent years.
It's not happenstance, city officials say, but a
strategy embraced by city planning Director Ana
Gelabert-Sanchez and her staff under the tenets
of New Urbanism.
The movement has reshaped development around the
world, reviving dormant traditions of urban
design that put pedestrians first -- mixing
retail with residential, lining sidewalks with
storefronts to encourage foot traffic,
concealing garages and, in some cases, shading
sidewalks with arcades.
"It makes a real city, which everyone has been
clamoring for,'' Gelabert-Sanchez said.
Those principles, which underpin Miami 21, stand
in contrast to the car-is-king, suburban
template of parking lots, blank walls, exposed
garages, obtrusive driveways and set-back,
isolated buildings that under the current code
had long dominated -- and deadened -- city
The present code has produced places like the
Doubletree Grand condo-hotel in the Omni
district, and the residential towers along
Brickell: self-contained buildings designed to
be entered by car, with expansive driveways and
yawning garages that make little accommodation
"Obviously, there's a return to urban living,
and what's succeeding are places with good,
24-hour urban character,'' said land-use lawyer
and Miami 21 supporter Neisen Kasdin, a former
Miami Beach mayor and vice chairman of Miami's
downtown Development Authority, pointing to the
success of new pedestrian-friendly districts
like Mary Brickell Village.
But the Boulevard's transformation has come only
through lengthy negotiation and arm-twisting
with developers, and on larger projects only --
the result of expanded review powers for city
planners approved by the commission several
Miami 21 would make pedestrian-friendly urban
designs the law, and extend those rules to
buildings that now escape review because they
are too small.
The new code would also bar the type of
buildings that went up during the recent boom on
the side streets of Edgewater leading to
Biscayne Bay: overscaled towers with stark
garages and walls fronting sidewalks in a
formerly low-scale neighborhood, the result of
generous zoning allowances 20 years ago. Miami
21 would still allow the larger buildings, but
require better design.
The Miami 21 changes, city planners say, would
apply principally to new construction or
extensive renovations along commercial
corridors. Most properties, including those in
residential neighborhoods, would be largely
But some architects and lawyers contend Miami
21, which was meant to simplify the convoluted
layers of the current code, is even more complex
and extensive, making it harder to figure out
how much a developer or homeowner can build on a
"We want pedestrian cities, we want parks and
green space. No one disagrees with that,'' said
architect Bernard Zyscovich, a New Urbanism
critic. "But it's a wholesale change for the
city, like a heart transplant, and the
consequences haven't been thought through.''
Zyscovich says Miami 21 unduly restricts
building design to the point that the city --
especially in high-density areas like downtown
-- would become a monotonous landscape of big,
square buildings. Land-use lawyer Carter
McDowell, a leading critic of Miami 21, says
other changes, including new fees for building
super-tall, amount to an illegal restriction of
Zyscovich says the city can get the
urban-friendly design it wants without Miami 21
by requiring that garages be screened or
concealed with retail and residential units at
"If you simply do that, you don't have to
change the whole code, and you leave the
architect freedom to do a better building,'' he
Paradoxically, neighborhood activists say Miami
21 doesn't go far enough, failing to accomplish
the goal that gave rise to the effort: limiting
the size of tall buildings abutting low-scale
In some places, including Southwest 27th Avenue,
Miami 21 would allow overscaled buildings next
to single-family and duplex neighborhoods, they
complain. And although the tall structures would
have to step back from their smaller neighbors
in a stair shape to lessen their intrusiveness,
critics say that doesn't solve the problem.
"There are a whole lot of issues they have not
resolved, or they say they resolved and when you
read it, they didn't really resolve,'' said
Hadley Williams, a leader with Miami
Neighborhoods United, a group that opposes Miami
But city planners and their consultants at the
Miami firm of Duany Plater-Zyberk insist the new
code is far clearer than the old, closing
loopholes and substituting diagrams for pages of
They say they sought to balance property rights
with neighborhood protection -- though not
always to everyone's satisfaction.
"The negative voices are the loudest,'' said
the city's lead consultant, Elizabeth
Plater-Zyberk. "Everyone is pointing to the
agenda they didn't get, but they're not seeing
the bigger picture.''
Plater-Zyberk and city planning chief
Gelabert-Sanchez say architects will have almost
complete freedom. The main restriction: tall
buildings would have to step back after eight
stories to allow light to reach streets.
"Once you learn it, we think it is much
simpler,'' Gelabert-Sanchez said. "And if you
want to do something spectacular, a bold
statement, or dedicate a space in front to a
civic plaza, you can do it.''
The city began imposing its sidewalk-friendly
principles on the Boulevard just before the
real-estate boom hit full tilt. Building Zero
was Cite, a mixed-use project occupying a full
block on 19th Street.
Though some later buildings on Biscayne
Boulevard would be larger, the template was set
at Cite: The garage sits in the interior of the
block, surrounded almost entirely by living and
retail space, and no driveways interrupt the
arcaded Boulevard sidewalk.
On side streets, townhomes hug the sidewalks.
One row consists of "live-work'' units, with
office space downstairs and living quarters
upstairs, occupied by, among others, a
psychologist, interior designer and real-estate
The complex is home to the Boulevard revival's
earliest success, The Daily Creative Food Co.,
2001 Biscayne Blvd., a deli packed at lunchtime
since opening three years ago. Former New Yorker
Adam Meltzer, the owner, saw the potential and
liked how the building allows streetside dining.
"People told me I was crazy. But on day one we
had a line of people out the door,'' he said.
Meltzer plans to expand into a space next door
and begin opening for dinner. The best proof of
success, he notes, is his new competition -- the
salad and smoothie chains that moved in two
"The more, the merrier. It makes the whole area
look better,'' he said. "Look, this is not
Lincoln Road. We're not trendy. We're here for
the long haul.''
Leonardo Rodriguez witnessed the transformation
first hand. He moved into Edgewater off the
Boulevard when he first arrived from Cuba 15
years ago. "It was really bad. You couldn't
walk on the street. I was robbed twice,'' he
Eventually he moved to Miami Beach. But then he
saw what was happening on the Boulevard, and
chose a generous, affordable space on the ground
floor of a new building on 18th Street to open
his pet-grooming and boarding business, Pet
"It's like New York, you see the same people
all the time. They shop in the neighborhood,
they walk their dogs,'' he said. "It looks like
a brand new city.''