Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Buenos Aires — a model for Miami?

This capital is about to take a bold step that might be a good idea for Miami, New York and many other urban centers around the world: It will move its city hall, and its 2,500 employees, to one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

By Dec. 15, Mayor Mauricio Macri — one of the three leading candidates for next year's presidential elections — is scheduled to start the city hall's move from downtown Buenos Aires to the southern district of Parque Patricios, one of the city's most abandoned areas. The idea is to revitalize Parque Patricios and at the same time reduce traffic congestion and pollution at the city's center.

What's more, the new city hall will be located in an ultra-modern $30 million steel and glass construction that is being built by renowned architect Sir Norman Foster. His firm, Foster and Partners, has built among other things the futuristic Beijing and Hong Kong airports, London's City Hall, and Berlin's reconstructed Reichstag parliament building.

I visited the nearly finished construction at Parque Patricios last week, and the building is truly impressive. It occupies a full square block, is largely lit by sunlight during office hours, and its inside looks like a series of balconies hanging in the air, where people will work in offices without walls.

It is scheduled to house the mayor's office and 1,500 employees, while another 1,000 will work in other buildings scattered around the city. Originally, it was built for the city-run Banco Ciudad, but the mayor and the bank's authorities decided to swap their respective headquaters.

Other European and Latin American cities, such as Barcelona, Spain, and Medellin, Colombia, have already moved some government offices and cultural centers to poor neighborhoods in hopes of revamping them. Urban planners call this trend “urban acupuncture.”

Medellin has even built a giant 400-yard high outdoor mechanic escalator that connects the 140,000 residents of one of the city's biggest slums, which sits atop a hill, with the rest of the city. Since it was built in 2011, the Comuna 13 slum, which was one of Colombia's most crime-ridden areas, has become increasingly prosperous — and safer.

Macri told me the city has recently taken other steps to revitilize Parque Patricios. Thanks to tax exemptions and other incentives offered by the city, 174 companies and three universities have recently moved to Buenos Aires' previously downtrodden southern neighborhoods, he said.

“The U.S. model of cities with suburbs, where people commute long hours to go to work, has failed,” Macri told me, adding that Buenos Aires has copied that model and people often spend three hours a day commuting to work. “It makes much more sense to create many self-contained downtown areas within the city, where people can live, work and shop.”

I asked Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado whether it wouldn't be a good idea for Miami to move its city hall from its current bay-view location to one of the poorest areas of town. “I don't think so,” he said.

According to Regalado, Miami City Hall's centric location has the advantage of being accessible to people from all over the city, which allows poverty-stricken residents to participate in public hearings. Neither New York, nor Chicago, nor any other big U.S. cities have moved their centrally located city halls to poor areas, he said.

“In our case, instead of spending money in a new city hall building, it would make more sense to repair streets, invest in new parks, an build new infrastructure and community centers in poor areas,” he said.

My opinion: Miami, which has been concentrating its glitziest buildings on Biscayne Bay — and is now discussing construction of a $430 million 1,000-foot futuristic mega-tower, SkyRise Miami, which promoters say will be the city's version of the Eiffel Tower — should consider following Buenos Aires' steps.

Why not move City Hall, or some of the city's growing number of ultra-modern museums, to poor areas, so as to drive more people to go there and help revitalize them? Not only Miami, but New York, Chicago and many other U.S. cities should watch the Buenos Aires experiment closely. If it works, it may be worth copying it.