Miami is one of the most recognized waterside cities in the United States, known especially for its beaches and its year-round tropical climate.
But according to Rafael Fornés, architect and former professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture, the city’s urban development could make a better use of its charming coastline, as other seaside U.S. cities do, were it not for the construction of buildings that block access to Biscayne Bay.
“Miami’s coastline is very incoherent and uncharacteristic,” said Fornés, who has followed Miami’s urban planning for 20 years. He is now a lecturer at the UM School of Architecture.
According to Fornés, while the city should be developing more from the downtown area to the sea, it’s growing in the opposite direction. In other words, the construction of big installations and building begins at the coastline, obstructing the water view and occupying spaces that should be devoted to public use.
The root of the problem, Fornés said, lies in the fact that Miami does not have a structured pre-design plan of the city’s civic space.
“Miami is clamoring for a master plan,” Fornés said. “In Chicago, for example, the city is growing, but there is at least a pre-design of the important spaces for the public. That continuity does not exist here.”
Ricardo López, architect of the private studio Florez Lopez Architects and another lecturer at UM School of Architecture, agrees.
“Now that the city is moving, we need to define a vision to guide all its development in order to shape the public spaces,” said López, who considers the bay to be “the city’s most important public space.”
According to Fornés, Miami’s waterfront, where the shore meets the sea, is “totally invaded by private properties,” and he cites examples of huge facilities such as the American Airlines Arena and Bayside Marketplace, which reduce the view of Biscayne Bay and do not have a maritime walk sufficiently large and connected.
The absence of an urban plan for the coast has created an access problem. According to Fornés, when public land close to the water is bought with the purpose of building on it, the areas that were once accessible to the public become private property. Likewise, ocean-view condominiums built near the water can be enjoyed only by those who can afford to live in those buildings.
Fornés says that this was not always the case in the downtown area. There are old photos of Miami showing an extensive connection of the city to the sea, where the views were wide, accessible and unobstructed by condominiums and large buildings. Today, Fornés says, that connection has “disappeared” and has been “privatized.”
More recently, the city has debated the construction of the Cuban exile museum on Parcel B, a piece of land behind the American Airlines Arena that has remained unused for years. The more recent outcome of the debate was a vote by the Miami-Dade County Commission where the majority agreed to build a museum and a park.
“It’s unacceptable. It’s part of that fever of wanting to build on the water. I don’t doubt that there could be someone who would combine the park and the museum, but, why the obsession of building on the coastline, right next to the water?” said Fornés, also making reference to the recent proposal of building a soccer stadium downtown, which, though rejected, shows the tendency to build obstacles between the city and the sea.
Spaces open to the sea also have a sentimental significance for many Miami residents. Among Hispanics, especially those who grew up in tropical cities close to the sea, there is a nostalgia for the waterfronts of their childhood, from Havana’s well-known Malecón to others like the ones in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and Montevideo, Uruguay.
On weekends, some Miami residents go to the waterfront at the Ermita de la Caridad shrine in Coconut Grove or Bayshore Drive for a stroll, to meditate, exercise or simply look at the ocean.
These waterfront areas are too small or not connected, Fornés said.
“It’s a wrong concept,” he added. “There has to be a continuity of the public space, to be seen as an organism, not as the sum of isolated parts.”
That said, the two main downtown parks, Museum Park and Bayfront Park, could be part of the solution. In 2008, López’s studio conceived the Biscayne Water Trolley project, whose purpose was to improve public access to Biscayne Bay and connect the existing parks through a ferry, which would become a public transportation alternative for residents.
“In the downtown area, the Museum Park and Bayfront Park are very important spaces, but they are disconnected,” López said. “There is the possibility of connecting them to create a much larger pedestrian area.”
Also in 2008, Fornés worked with 10 architecture students from the University of Miami in a summer workshop to photograph a map of the Miami waterfront and consider the available public spaces. Through the years, the students have stayed on the topic, drawing plans of the city and proposing new projects as an academic exercise.
Today, as part of the architecture curriculum, students in their fourth semester participate in a study in which they present designs to create a public fish market on a narrow lot across Lummus Park, on Ocean Drive and 15th Street in Miami Beach.
Nicolás Delgado, architecture student who recently finished his sophomore year, took part in the project last semester.
“The logical site to create public spaces in the city is by the sea, which is Miami’s biggest attraction,” Delgado said. “Given the nature of the project, we always address the whole issue of access to the sea throughout the city.”
To draw and present their plans, the students must make contact with neighbors and local businessmen to become familiar with the issues that the community is more concerned about. And though the student projects do not go beyond the study stage, Delgado says they are a good first step because they offer young architects the opportunity to conceive ideas for the future development of the city.
“What’s interesting is that there is an ongoing conversation on the issue and it could create awareness,” Delgado said. “To have students thinking of the issue and involved in the city’s day-to-day will have its effects, big or small.”