Miami Beach

Keep raising roads, experts tell Miami Beach, but explain it to residents better

Miami Beach’s plan to save the city from rising seas by elevating roads has brought it international acclaim — and local furor.

The argument has led to threats of lawsuits, a divided commission and even a project successfully shut down for the next six years after angry neighbors complained it would ruin their property values.

Now one of the city’s expert panels called to review the city’s climate change fighting strategy has weighed in, and like the other expert opinion sought by Miami Beach, they support raising roads.

In the Urban Land Institute report, which largely reflects the recommendations made by the panel after a visit to the city in April, experts called street elevation a “key component” of the city’s current strategy and encouraged Miami Beach to continue raising roads.

“What would be the alternative to the elevation of roadways?” asked the panel’s chair, Joyce Coffee, president of Climate Resilience Consulting. “One is Miami Beach becomes Venice. The road elevations keep the city dry.”

Critics of road raising, including Commissioner Mark Samuelian, argue the city’s “one size fits all” plan to elevate all streets to the same height doesn’t serve residents whose properties are at different elevations and need tailored approaches. The ULI report, Samuelian said, ‘has not materially changed my view.”

Opposition to raised roads is largely focused on the impact higher streets would have on property value, either aesthetically or physically if floodwater from the street ends up puddling on front yards. But some pushback is tinged with bad information.

Residents sometimes cite a restaurant in Sunset Harbour, the site of the first and most dramatic street raising, that was initially denied a flood insurance claim after rain clogged up the new pumps and swamped the building. At first, the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program told the restaurant his space now qualified as a basement with the newly elevated street.

He’s since had his claim covered, and the city added a backup generator to fix the flaw in the system that led to the flooding in the first place.

ULI experts said the city did a bad job explaining the projects in the initial rollout, which led to confusion, opposition and the spread of misinformation.

Commissioner John Aleman has been mythbusting some of these claims as she promotes the city’s stormwater plan, and she agrees that the city hasn’t reached enough residents to fact-check all the rumors flying around. Just before the April event, Aleman said the city held four community meetings to discuss the plan. Only 250 residents showed up.

“While that’s close enough for government work, we have 90,000 residents,” she said. “We haven’t scratched the surface.”

The city has already adopted some of the report’s recommendations. In the upcoming West Avenue project, which includes road elevation, the city plans to sit down with each homeowner and business and explain the options for connecting their properties to the newly elevated toad.

Miami Beach is hiring an expert to review the city’s stormwater plans and include more plants and water storage — known as green and blue infrastructure. There are plans to add a decorative screen to the pump and generator in Sunset Harbour, which aligns with the report’s suggestion that the city not neglect aesthetics in pursuit of a climate-ready city.

“There are many cities that should look carefully at how Miami Beach started in terms of their urgency and how they lost trust, as well as how they’re renovating and adapting those plans,” Coffee said. “Miami Beach has moved from planning to implementation. Very few places can say that. Very, very few.”

Still, the city has a long way to go from the sea rise ready Miami Beach described in the report.

In that future city, all buildings would be elevated and situated on raised streets lined with plants and water storage. It would be encircled with a sea wall owned and maintained by the city. Solar panels and other renewable energy technology would be prominent. The water running off from the city’s pumps would be treated so it wouldn’t pollute the bay.

Homeowners would pay for the amount of water running off their property, not a flat fee. They’d have financial incentives at the city level to raise their homes and prepare for rising seas.

City hall would have staffers trained to analyze flooding models before decisions are made about where — and how high — to build. A panel of scientists would advise on policy decisions. Everyone would be trained on how best do their job in terms of a watery future, even the historic review and design review boards.

“Without significant innovation and funding from the city and its residents, every scenario suggests Miami Beach would be in a much worse place than they are today,” Coffee said. “They need to keep moving.”