Miami Beach

Miami Beach wants higher roads and pumps to fight sea rise. Some residents say no way.

Construction workers raise the height of the street and sidewalks in front of the Publix at 1920 West Ave. in Miami Beach.
Construction workers raise the height of the street and sidewalks in front of the Publix at 1920 West Ave. in Miami Beach.

Miami Beach won't be elevating new roads anytime soon, after fierce opposition from residents who alternatively insisted their neighborhood didn't flood and therefore didn't need higher streets, or who worried higher streets would send floodwater into their homes.

Neighbors in the city's latest stop on its internationally lauded $500 million plan to pump, pipe and elevate itself away from rising seas fought back from what they say is an unnecessary project — one they say will ruin their property values.

"We will not let Upper North Bay Road become another failed experiment," said Jane Jacobs, a resident of the tiny bayside patch of island the city had planned to spend $24 million on upgrading pipes for drinking, sewage and stormwater, as well as elevating the road.

In a contentious 5-2 vote, the commission agreed to scrap the plan and re-build it with the recent recommendation from several expert groups to include more natural solutions like plants and water-storage areas.

The move could delay the project for around six years, because the Florida Department of Transportation plans to start its Alton Road project (which includes elevation) in 2021. During the two years of construction, drivers will be re-directed to North Bay Road. It wouldn't be possible to have both roads under construction simultaneously. City staff are working to develop new criteria quickly enough to award a contract by early next year.

Low-lying Miami Beach — and its dense collection of some of the area's priciest real estate — faces one to two feet of sea level rise by 2060, according to the Southeast Florida Climate Compact. NOAA reports show the island could see high tide floods every single day by 2070.

Advocates for climate action on and off the city commission worry about the message this delay could send to the broader community of banks, investors and developers who keep a wary eye on Miami Beach's response to the threat of sea level rise. They worry that any anxiety about the city's plans could result in financial punishment for an economy dependent on tourism and development.

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Mayor Dan Gelber said experts have told him again and again the city needs to elevate streets and install pumps in order to protect property values and keep sea level rise vulnerability from affecting home prices in Miami Beach like it has on the mainland.

But some residents are wary of a government that — under the previous mayor — rammed through a radical, untested approach to fighting sea level rise with no-bid contracts on a hyper-accelerated timeline, even if that plan has recently been complimented by a panel of experts. A few residents even hinted at lawsuits if the city didn't back off its plan to elevate their street.

"This is a very difficult thing our city is trying to do. Nobody wants to spend 2 billion dollars to get everybody angry," he said. "I would urge you all not to decide you don't like something and back into a reason not to do it. That's a very dangerous thing to do when it comes to protecting assets."

Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, one of the most vocal opponents to moving the project forward, called for more studies and experts to come up with the perfect plan before moving forward, no matter how long it takes.

"Is it really a pause if we're doing the proper and appropriate research, or is that smart?" she said. "We will eventually do this work. We have to do it the right way."

The commission also agreed to move forward on gathering proposals for the next project on the list, First Street in South Pointe.

"The world has to know we're not stopping what we're doing," Gelber said.

Miami Beach has put into action an aggressive and expensive plan to combat the effects of sea level rise. The city is rolling out its plan of attack and will spend $400 million to $500 million over the next five years doing so.

The administration's now-scrapped suggestion was to give the $24 million North Bay Drive contract to the winning bidder, David Mancini and Sons, and ask the firm to add in more natural solutions. That new design and price would have been approved by the commission and Mancini could have begun construction on the project.

The change in plans wouldn't have taken very long, Commissioner John Alemán argued, because the only available green spaces are the swales alongside the road and a couple of small parks.

"We all have to face the facts," she said. "If we don't raise the roads they're going to be sitting in water and they're going to deteriorate. That's not a good use of public money."

Plenty of residents don't see a need for an elevated road.

Jean Marie Echemendia-Kouri, a real estate broker who owns two houses on the street, said she's worried about the impact elevated roads would have on her homes — "water has to go down, and if my home is below the road, that's where water will go" — and her property value.

"We have all the stars, all the captains of industry. I'm not saying any street should be an experiment, but why North Bay Road?" she said. "We're the highest taxpayers in Miami Beach."

Nancy Bernstein, a Realtor, told the commission her street hasn't flooded since the drains were cleaned.

"It's not broken at my house. Please don't fix it," she said.

Her neighbor, Bruce Bender, disagreed. He said he had pictures of a foot of water from North Bay Road that flooded the first floor of his home a few blocks away. The area's three temporary pumps installed to keep flooding at bay aren't enough, he said.

"I am absolutely, completely, 100 percent desperate."

Miami Herald Staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.