Miami is transforming. This resident looks for a place to fit in
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Priced out of Paradise: City in Transition
Miami-Dade is the most expensive metro in the U.S. for renters and one of the costliest for home buyers. This series explains why that’s so and what it means for the region and its residents. Our interactive tool helps renters and buyers match their budgets to affordable neighborhoods. Future stories will explore solutions to South Florida’s housing crisis.
Gavin McKenzie is one of the happy beneficiaries of Miami’s sweeping and long-lasting development boom.
The builder and master wood craftsman and his firm, McKenzie Construction, have ridden the wave to success for 15 years, undertaking high-profile residential and commercial projects in revitalized hot spots from South Beach to Wynwood and the Miami Design District. Along the way, McKenzie and his firm, based in a refurbished 1938 Allapattah warehouse, have developed a reputation for fine design and artisanship.
But McKenzie, a rare fifth-generation Miamian, shares the misgivings of many longtime residents about the scale and speed of the metamorphosis, which he said has erased some of what defined the city — and about the influx of many people with little attachment to the place beyond a financial investment.
“It’s changed the dynamic of the city in a lot of ways,” McKenzie said. “In my father’s day and his father’s day, most people were from here. That was not a rarity. I hold a lot of nostalgia for Miami as a smaller town. What I miss is that sense of the city, the simplicity in the way things were. The ability to find some semblance of solitude, which is no longer an option for as many people.
“I see both sides of the coin here. I do see a need to improve the downtown and the urban core of Miami. But I’m a strong believer that bigger isn’t always better.”
But bigger, and more of it, is what Miami is getting as the redevelopment tide spreads steadily from downtown Miami and Brickell to surrounding neighborhoods and even the far suburbs:
▪ Working-class Allapattah, the city of Miami’s most diverse area, is in line for not one but two mega-projects. The first, the eight-acre River Landing, features a five-story shopping center and a pair of rental apartment towers. It is already under construction on the north bank of the Miami River. A second ambitious and architecturally edgy apartment/office complex on the site of the Allapattah produce market, designed by star architect Bjarke Ingels, recently won approval from the city commission.
▪ Coconut Grove is chockablock with redevelopment projects in and around its village center. The historically African-American and Bahamian West Grove section, meanwhile, is under siege from a wave of residential redevelopment that threatens to wipe out the neighborhood and its remaining longtime residents.
▪ Towers are popping up in the new Downtown Doral and at Solé Mia, a colossal 184-acre mixed-use urban development on a former landfill in North Miami.
▪ Single-family subdivisions and apartment clusters are once again under construction on the county’s fringes. In farthest West Kendall, giant international apartment developer Greystar has completed two phases of its Casa Vera development, where rents range from $1,600 to $3,300 and which advertises proximity to the Everglades as one of its amenities. Along the Florida Turnpike Extension in South Miami-Dade, the last remnants of farmland inside the county’s urban development boundary are also giving way to new homes.
▪ The massive and controversial Magic City Innovation District in Little Haiti, which proposes building what amounts to a miniature city in the heart of the immigrant community over 15 years, is nearing approval by the city.
“It just knocks me over,” said veteran Miami preservationist Dolly McIntyre, who has lived in Miami since the 1950s. “They are talking about $1 billion in construction over 18 acres. My God, that’s a whole city. And in the middle of Little Haiti. Everything is just bigger, bigger, bigger.”
As home and land prices rise dramatically, and big development radically transforms Miami’s urban landscape, many residents are venturing ever farther afield in the search for housing. Costs have risen almost everywhere, but the pattern is not uniform, and searching out pockets of affordability or serenity has become a necessary pursuit for many renters and prospective home buyers.
Given Miami-Dade’s fractured local governance, with 34 separate municipalities and vast unincorporated areas governed by the county, the city is really “a federation of cities” offering a multiplicity of options and varying circumstances, said Miami planner and architect Andrés Duany.
“It’s the city that I know of that’s least easy to generalize about,” Duany said. “You don’t have to leave Miami to find your place, the way you might have to leave Tampa.”
More than one observer believes Miami will become more like Los Angeles, where people avoid suffocating congestion by living and working within a circumscribed radius.
“In L.A., you live in your neighborhood. That’s already becoming the case here,” said urbanist Richard Florida, who lives part of the year in Miami Beach and the rest in Canada, where he is a professor at the University of Toronto. “People live in Brickell and they don’t go to South Beach.”
For those wanting to stay close to the center, overlooked neighborhoods or places that recall the Miami of old are true finds.
Miami native Michelle Garrido and her husband, Peter Trujillo, left Brickell and downtown Miami when they got a chance to move into her late grandmother’s 1962 house in heavily Cuban-American Flagami, the long western tail of the City of Miami. The neighborhood of mostly modest houses and apartments has become the newest frontier for those hunting for still-affordable single-family homes inside city limits and close to everything.
“You drive by and see the houses and everyone’s remodeling,” said Garrido, whose own house got some needed TLC.
The house is not large but has plenty or space for the family she and her husband hope to start, and the location is ideal. Both have short drives to work. On the weekends they enjoy taking car-share to Wynwood’s craft breweries.
McKenzie, 38, grew up in the Grove and Pinecrest. When looking for a place to live with his wife and young child, he settled on the tiny village of Biscayne Park, just north of the Miami Shores city line, where the heavy tree canopy and human neighborhood scale of homes and streets remind him of the Grove. His firm even renovated the historic log cabin that serves as town hall.
McKenzie said he’s lucky that success allows him to enjoy the best of both worlds — old Miami as well as the denser, hectic new global city. He just wishes that the dramatic changes in the city of his birth would also leave more space for what’s been here all along.
“At the end of the day, it’s a quintessential compromise,” he said. “It’s a bit of a tug-of-war. It’s not whether to progress or not, but how. If we can do it with a nod to the past and the existing fabric of community, that is awesome.”