Miami-Dade County

Mainland Miami ponders returning neighborhoods to nature in order to survive rising seas

On mainland Miami, miles away from the pumps that keep Biscayne Bay from slowly swallowing South Beach, the neighborhood around Ray Chasser’s riverfront house sometimes seems like it’s drowning one high tide at a time.

When the moon is full and the bay bloated, a salty soup comes seeping forth from French drains and onto the streets, turning the low-lying peninsula where the southeast corner of Shorecrest meets the mouth of the Little River into a temporary tide pool. During the annual King Tide, when the water level is at its peak, the coastal community floods for days, something Chasser says didn’t happen when he first acquired his property 30 years ago.

“As soon as the tide starts coming up, you can see it coming from the drains. And then the streets are covered,” he said. “And it’s going to get worse.”

Local predictions of up to five feet of sea rise by the next century suggest that the increasing problems created by tidal events are a harbinger of things to come. East of a natural ridge, much of the neighborhood is barely three feet above sea level, making it among the most vulnerable pockets of South Florida real estate not located on a barrier island — and a prime candidate for an existential climate makeover.

In order to save Shorecrest, where million-dollar homeowners mingle with middle-class families and blue-collar renters, government officials across the region are now asking whether it ought to be redesigned rather than simply reinforced. Where climate change poster child Miami Beach is investing $500 million in pumps, streets and sea walls in order to fight for every inch of dry land, municipalities on the mainland are exploring what some communities would look like if they were made to accommodate rising seas rather than simply fight them.

One idea likely to be both controversial and expensive: demolishing properties and returning developed areas back to nature.

“We need to learn to live with water,” Jane Gilbert, Miami’s chief resilience officer, told the Miami Herald. “Raising roads? That will be part of the solution. It will have to be. But we’re going to look for more holistic solutions.”

The earliest concepts are already germinating. In the fall, a group of climate scientists, urban planners and government officials with the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact met for four days and mapped out the hypothetical futures of several communities, including Lower Matecumbe Key and the Arch Creek area of North Miami.

In Shorecrest, what they came up with was as drastic as it was ambitious.

▪ Most of the southeast corner of the community, a vulnerable residential section where sunny day flooding is most persistent, would be bought by the government and turned into a low-lying park designed to hold water during high tides and rainy seasons. Eminent domain is not on the table, meaning the plan would rely on dozens of property owners selling voluntarily.

▪ Sea walls along finger canals would be elevated and reinforced with fill. At some portions of the Little River, where the city has already begun buying land, high-rising berms with public walkways could be erected and swaths of property left undeveloped to catch overflow. Pumps, which don’t operate in Shorecrest today, would be installed.

▪ The busy roadways of Northeast 10th Avenue and 79th and 82nd streets would be elevated and re-engineered to include new swales with drainage systems.

▪ Zoning laws and building regulations would be changed to lure development toward mass transit corridors on high land and away from low-lying areas, where new homes would need to be “amphibious.” Property owners forgoing building rights in vulnerable areas would receive density and height bonuses elsewhere in the city.

Discussions about the plan to this point have been largely hypothetical and free from the burden of price or politics. “They’re good conceptual designs, good conceptual thoughts, but they’re not something we can sign off on yet,” Gilbert said.

Still, talks about long-term planning in Shorecrest are earnest. And “resilient redesign” — perfected by the Dutch — is slowly taking shape in South Florida.

Going Dutch

In Fort Lauderdale, the first Florida city to embrace a state law designed to encourage long-term planning around sea rise in coastal communities, dozens of neighborhoods have been declared “adaptation action areas” and mapped for new pumps, higher sea walls and other public works projects. In the Florida Keys, there’s talk of floating roads and homes.

Around Arch Creek, a 3,000-acre swath of low-lying land and finger piers home to thousands of working-class families in Northeast Dade, the government is exploring the idea of retreating from the most flood-prone areas.

Last year, the county partnered with the Urban Land Institute to study the region’s vulnerability to climate change. A series of solutions emerged from that study, including a proposal to slowly purchase and demolish properties in areas that repeatedly flood and slowly return them back into a marshy, meandering slough.

Though unfunded, the idea isn’t too farfetched: In 2014, 13 property owners asked the county to help them raze and rebuild their houses.

But in a region reliant on real estate values and development growth, talk of buying out homeowners to build marshes isn’t as easy to digest as simply paying for pumps. With little appetite for eminent domain or raising taxes, homeowners will have to want to sell and government will need to find the money to buy.

“The whole approach is delusional,” said Michael Dickman, a board member of the Coral Bay Racquet Club Condo on the southeast corner of Shorecrest, which would be converted into marshy “Dunham Park” under the plan that emerged from November’s climate change charette.

Whether government officials and design experts agree should be evident soon enough.

The Van Alen Institute, a nonprofit New York design organization that led a competition to redesign downtown West Palm Beach, is quietly looking at other South Florida communities as potential candidates for studies that could turn into the foundation for future engineering projects. “At this phase of our work in South Florida, we are still considering what areas of Miami to focus on,” said David van der Leer, the institute’s executive director.

Meanwhile, a deadline closes Friday for firms to submit ideas to the county “beyond the typical ‘off the shelf’ engineering solutions of pipes and pumps” for the Arch Creek area. The county will work with at least two of these companies to pursue low-cost, long-term engineering solutions.

Gilbert, Miami’s resilience officer, says sustainable solutions are important given some of the apparent consequences of pumping floodwaters. A recent study by FIU geochemist Henry Briceño found elevated levels of contaminants in the area where South Beach’s vaunted pumps dump runoff into the bay, raising environmental questions. Briceño has conducted similar testing of Shorecrest’s tidal flooding, and found floodwaters there are also tainted.

“There are absolutely needs for pumps and raising roads. When you have the immediate need to solve a problem, it’s an important solution,” Gilbert said. “But we have to also look at contamination to Biscayne Bay. We’re seeing dramatic die-off of the sea grass in the area right off the northern part of the bay there” off Shorecrest’s borders.

Inevitability

For now, there is no discussion about pursuing the specific concept that emerged from November’s climate compact sessions at the University of Miami. But most everyone agrees that something needs to be done.

Though tidal events aren’t the same thing as sea rise, as in Miami Beach, the King Tide is illustrating the stakes and driving the conversation on the mainland.

Last fall, when high tides inundated the area around Chasser’s home for nearly two weeks, scientists, researchers and a small crew of national journalists parachuted in to take a look at how sea rise looks away from the glitz of South Beach.

Chasser, who owns a Little Haiti farm and just built a new house on the river in 2011, says he now sees normal high tides submerge the dock behind his property and the streets west of his home whenever the moon is full. He changes his route to his house when the water table is elevated in order to keep the saltwater from rusting out the bottom of his truck.

Some property owners are building higher on their own, in part due to changing insurance requirements, though much of the southeast corner of Shorecrest is home to apartment buildings and vacant lots. On the north side of 79th Street, where dozens of homes lie along man-made canals cut from the bay into the mainland, tidal flooding now rises up and into Linda McNair’s garage.

“It’s all up in my utility room,” she said. “It gets into my house.”

Scientists set out this fall to see if residents knew the water was coming from the bay, and found they largely didn’t. Similarly, Briceño, the FIU hydrologist, says people he talked to weren’t aware that the water they were wading through to get to and from home was likely mixed with human waste.

“It looked like the community had been forgotten,” Briceño said. “But now there’s some attention.”

Shorecrest now appears as if it may be the first Miami neighborhood to receive an in-depth engineering overhaul to brace for the future. In the short run, Miami is conducting its own geo-mapping in preparation for the next King Tide in order to alert residents to where the flooding will be and when.

The city is also pursuing a solicitation for engineering firms to update Miami’s stormwater master plan after a 2012 plan failed to include sea-rise projections. And a push is getting back under way for a bond referendum that Mayor Tomás Regalado has vowed will include millions in seed money for basic sea-rise projects like pumps, drainage and sea walls.

Caroline Lewis, director of the climate change awareness organization CLEO Institute, is optimistic that the city is going to come up with working solutions, even if there’s still a long way to go.

“When people see we’re taking concrete action to actually deal with the stresses of climate change and sea level rise in a sample community like this and we are successful and learning, confidence builds that maybe we can stay here another 50 or 60 years and stay out of harm’s way,” she said. “This is where the tide will turn.”

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