North Miami bought her flooded home. Now it’s going to become a park to fight sea rise

A rendering of the winning project shows plans to turn one of North Miami’s floodprone vacant lots into a park that retains extra rainwater and prevents flooding in the neighborhood.
A rendering of the winning project shows plans to turn one of North Miami’s floodprone vacant lots into a park that retains extra rainwater and prevents flooding in the neighborhood. Department Design Office

On a vacant lot on a sleepy street in North Miami, several people crouched around a hole in the ground.

“You see down there? It’s about two feet down. A week ago, it was about a foot,” said Isaac Stein, pointing to the muddy, wet bottom. He’s showing off the high groundwater, an unadvertised feature that made this property unlivable — and unsellable — for decades, and could become its most prominent element as the city redesigns the space with sea level rise in mind.

Mattie Mays, a 69-year-old retiree, lived on this northeast 144th street lot for seven years, in a cozy home with a big yard that reminded her of her childhood on a California farm. But their dream home had a problem.

“After I moved in, a neighbor came across the street and said, ‘That house floods,’” Mays said. “I said, ‘Well, now is a good time to tell me.’”

And it did flood — often. The third and final strike came in the No Name Storm of 2000, which brought nearly four feet of water to Mays’ property. It swamped her house, ruined her Chevy S10 and sent her family fleeing to her mother-in-law’s home.

Shortly after, the city of North Miami approached Mays with cash to buy her home and demolish it as part of a program to move people out of the most flood-prone properties and make sure no one can build there again. She took the deal.

Now, nearly two decades later, the city is doing something with the vacant lot she once called home. Designers plan to turn the half-acre lot into a public park that also absorbs excess rainwater and prevents some of the flooding that terrorizes the neighborhood. It’s also designed to protect the area from the two feet of sea level rise expected by 2060.

The winning idea came in a design competition hosted by New York-based Van Alen Institute. It reimagined the grassy lot as half retention pond, half community education project, complete with lush landscaping to soak up water.

The retention pond alone will increase the water capacity of the lot by twenty-fold, said Stein, co-founder of one of the firms on the winning team, Department Design Office. The team also includes Miami artist Adler Guerrier, Miami architect Andrew Aquart and hazard mitigation start-up Forerunner.

At the community event to celebrate the project on Monday, Stein showed Mays a land survey from 1870 the team had dug up. He pointed to a small X marking where her home once stood.

“Your property was the deepest part of the creek,” he said. “It was the Everglades, basically.”

A land survey from 1870 shows the vacant lot in North Miami designers are turning into a public park was once the deepest part of a creek. Department Design Office

Stein’s team won $80,000 from Van Alen to build the project, one of two the institute is working on in South Florida. The other is a flood-proof redesign of Jose Marti Park in Miami, a city known internationally for its struggle against rising seas.

North Miami, on the other hand, is rarely talked about in the climate change adaptation world, even though the majority of the city is in low-lying Arch Creek Basin, where water once flowed from the Everglades to Biscayne Bay.

“While it maybe isn’t in the media as much as a waterfront or coastal issue, a lot of municipalities are struggling with this,” said Kokei Otosi, project manager for Van Alen’s sea rise adaptation initiative, called Keeping Current. “We were interested to demonstrate that climate adaptation is not limited to cities with millions of dollars for climate adaptation projects.”

Van Alen’s local partner, Urban Impact Lab, spent months meeting with and hearing from North Miami residents, often in front porch conversations that spanned from English to Spanish to Haitian Creole. That feedback shaped everything from where the project happened to how it was celebrated — a low-key gathering instead of a big party.

“These are communities that often aren’t engaged. Their opinions aren’t often asked,” said Marta Viciedo, co-founder of the lab.

Tanya Wilson, North Miami’s planning, zoning and development director, said there’s flooding throughout the city. About one in five residents in North Miami live below the poverty line, according to the census, so conversations about adaptation to climate change have to be broader than just elevating individual homes or selling them, Wilson said.

“We need to remember the plight of the poor in the resilience conversation. Not everyone has the means to move,” she said.

Nor do they want to move. When Mays sold her home to the city, she bought a new house just up the block. Her neighbors said they love the quiet, tree-filled community once known as Sunny Acres. Guillermo Gonzalez, a 59-year-old artist, said sea level rise won’t make him leave the home he’s lived in for 18 years.

“By the time it gets to my block I’ll already be in an assisted living facility in Weston,” he joked.

A rendering of the winning project shows plans to turn one of North Miami’s floodprone vacant lots into a park that retains extra rainwater and prevents flooding in the neighborhood. Department Design Office

He said flooding has always been a problem in the area, but most of the newer homes sit on several feet of dirt, which washes their rain to more low-lying properties like Mays’. His own back yard sits a couple feet higher than his neighbors, thanks to more than just soil.

“I had a neighbor come over once with a metal detector and we dug out half of a turquoise car,” he said.

Mays’ next door neighbor, 51-year-old Jacqueline Silvera, wants to add an extra story to her home and elevate it above the floodwaters, which on bad days can fill her back yard up to her knees.

“I think that’s the future of the neighborhood,” she said. “You have to build higher and higher.”

Both Silvera and Gonzalez are counting on the project to relieve some of the flooding in the rest of the neighborhood. Stein, the designer, said that’s why they named the project “good neighbor,” because it’s designed to help the other residents stay dry. He called it a step toward adapting to climate change.

“Everyone isn’t just going to leave and the place is going to become an ocean,” Stein said. “It’s a very gradual process.”

Stein’s team is also creating a plan for the other lots in the city like Mays’. North Miami owns one more demolished flood-prone lot, but there are more out there the city could buy. Viciedo said there are around 70 such properties in the Arch Creek Basin, and a FEMA report from 2005 showed there were 2,600 in Miami-Dade County.

Stein’s plan — due this spring — will lay out a way North Miami can use these properties to develop a strategy to keep the city dry as seas rise. But first, the city has to buy them.

Florida recently committed $75 million to buying these types of flooded properties as part of a pot of federal relief money following Hurricane Irma. Wilson said North Miami did not apply to the program because of the short deadline.

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“I’m sure there will be more,” she said. “We’re looking to the state level [for that funding].”

Home buyouts due to natural disasters exacerbated by sea level rise are seen as the first signs of human retreat from climate change. Wilson said she’s already thinking of what parts of her city will have to be abandoned and how to protect the residents that will remain.

“I think that conversation is now,” she said. “We’re in the belt of hurricanes annually. We face king tide annually. It’s imminent for us that it’s coming down the road.”

Wilson supports the infrastructure solutions other cities are using, like raised roads and flood pumps, but said before North Miami invests any money they’re working on commissioning a vulnerability study to determine which areas are the highest risk.

“I see a lot of strategies put in place without a lot of vulnerability assessments,” she said. “We want to be intentional. We don’t want to do guesswork.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

Alex Harris covers climate change for the Miami Herald, including how South Florida communities are adapting to the warming world. She attended the University of Florida.