With Miami Beach set to break ground this year on the most ambitious piece yet of its aggressive anti-flooding project, some homeowners worry that raising streets to keep them dry will cause flooding on their properties.
The city will embark on a $100 million project to raise roads, install pumps and water mains and redo sewer connections during the next two years across a swath of single-family homes in the La Gorce and Lakeview neighborhoods of Mid-Beach. A sizable chunk of a citywide effort estimated to cost $400 to $500 million, the work is meant to keep streets dry in the face of sea level rise.
Along the way, engineers will have to figure out how to smoothly join private property to the public right-of-way, which will be an average of two feet higher than it is now. In some cases, private property that drains excess water into the street will no longer do so, creating a conundrum that public works officials believe could be solved with a new form of public-private partnership.
It will be a long and ongoing conversation between taxpayers and City Hall, and many residents began that dialogue at an early information meeting Thursday night. They got a rundown of the project, which is expected to begin this fall, and aired their fears.
The project area includes about 800 homes to the west and directly south of the La Gorce Golf Course. The work will be broken into three sections that could have up to three contractors working simultaneously:
▪ La Gorce Island entrance to 59th Street
▪ 59th Street to 51st Street
▪ 51st Street to Surprise Lake
Three new pump stations will be placed at Fisher Park, at the end of 56th Street, and at 63rd Street and Alton Road. Sewer connections will be moved to the front of homes, new street lighting will be installed, and a bike lane will be added on 51st Street.
About 80 residents attended Thursday’s meeting, and after repeated questions about what impacts residents could expect on their properties, it became clear that the city engineer will be meeting individually with many homeowners in the coming months. With homes built in different years at different elevations, complicated by obstacles such as sprinkler systems, bushes or walls that push out onto the public swale, the city will have different challenges based on each property’s characteristics.
“We will have meetings whenever you want,” said Bruce Mowry, the Beach’s engineer, to a packed room at the Miami Beach Golf Club.
City staff and elected officials have long said “there is no playbook” on how to safeguard a vulnerable coastal city from the rising tides, which scientists believe will continue to cause more frequent and more severe flooding during the next century. This next chapter will include some upgrades and lessons learned from previous projects, including new, more efficient pumps dressed with landscaping.
After one question about the quality of the water being pumped out into the bay, Mowry said the city is exploring new filtration methods that could be included in the pumping system, like ultraviolet lights to kill bacteria.
New drainage systems capture more solid debris and sediment than the current infrastructure. But a water quality analysis last year showed the expelled water carried high levels of pollutants, raising concerns with more frequent tidal flooding anticipated as seas rise in the next few decades.
“We know we’re still having some issues,” Mowry said. “It’s a lot better than it was, but is that good enough? Our intent is to continue.”
The city is soliciting contractors for the job now. Contracts are expected to be awarded during the summer, and the public works department hopes to break ground in the fall. An ambitious schedule has the work being completed by 2019 — before the state transportation department begins a separate improvement of Alton Road in 2020.
Along with the obvious construction inconveniences, residents will be at the front line of a new kind of issue: How does a city balance moving fast to keep public streets dry when the work could swamp private property?
Resident Barry Klein asked about what happens when properties that drain excess water into the street now can’t do that once the road is higher.
“Are we expected to do injection wells?” Klein asked. “What are we expected to do?”
The answer could lie in a new program that would allow private properties to pay a fee and connect to the street drainage system — a concept city staff is exploring and that would require approval from the commission.
“We’re not leaving anybody behind,” said Eric Carpenter, an assistant city manager who works as the city’s public works director. “We’re bringing everybody with us, we’re just going to have to use different tools to get everybody there.”
He said the city wanted to hold a preliminary meeting to make contact with residents early on, even before visuals and design concepts are set in stone, so property owners can start interacting with the city now.
The end goal, Carpenter said, is to develop a toolbox owners can use to protect their homes in the long run.
Smaller stormwater projects, with raised roads and new pumps, are either done or in progress in Sunset Harbour and along West Avenue in South Beach.
When several pumps were either turned off or out for repairs during a thunderstorm in October, one restaurant a few feet below street level flooded, fueling the worries of homeowners in the larger project area. The owner’s insurance company denied full flood coverage, prompting the owner and city to dispute the claim.