Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Residents are fed up with runaway development

Miami-Dade's density comes into view while landing at Miami International Airport.
Miami-Dade's density comes into view while landing at Miami International Airport. The Miami Herald

If you fly into Miami International Airport and survey the asphalt-to-green ratio from above, you’d think there’s precious little land left to pave over. The view is a thick tapestry of terracotta and gray roofs dissected by mammoth highways.

This, however, is a golden era for developers.

Everywhere you turn in Miami-Dade County, no matter how tightly packed the landscape, significant construction projects are in the works — and developers are asking for zoning changes to increase density.

From Sunny Isles to Watson Island on the east coast, and from the Northwest Miami-Dade-Broward border to the far reaches of Southwest Miami-Dade, some of the proposals making their way through government boards, councils and commissions will surely have tremendous impact on the quality of life of established communities choked by traffic gridlock at peak hours.

Yet the projects are flying through approvals at lightning speed, with appointed boards and elected officials readily aiding and abetting the growth.

In communities like North Beach, South Beach and Little Havana, the word “revitalization” is the new euphemism for development that, more often than not, is an opportunity for developers to seek up-zoning changes that will tax these areas with more traffic and density.

Upwards, young man, upwards.

But people are fed up — and fighting back.

Almost a dozen Miami residents are suing the city of Miami, claiming that it has used underhanded tactics to get lucrative projects for developers approved at the expense of residents. One of them is the Watson Island mega development project on public land that will make the already nightmarish MacArthur Causeway traffic even worse.

In Little Havana, residents who had never before sought the limelight organized on social media and beyond and recently packed historic preservation board meetings.

They won historic designation for at least the east side of the enclave — and most important, they earned the respect of city officials who underestimated their constituents and had resorted to tactics like posting notices about up-zoning meetings in English in a largely Spanish-speaking community.

In Miami Beach last week, an effort to increase the floor area ratio for Washington Avenue, from Sixth Street to Lincoln Road — a hotly debated issue — deadlocked and didn’t make it out of the land use and development committee.

Developers and their attorneys argued that increasing building height and floor area ratio was the way to stimulate the area’s revitalization.

Residents argued that more traffic gridlock in South Beach is, simply, intolerable.

The residents won — proof that miracles do happen.

“When the county needed investment stimulus [during the recession] one could understand the argument that development was needed to increase the tax base,” Miami Beach community activist Frank Del Vecchio tells me. “But we’ve turned that corner. The same reasoning about stimulating and protecting should be used in favor of putting the lid on development. Now we should protect the investments of the developers and citizens who have invested in our communities — and the politicians should no longer acquiesce to over-development because we need the jobs. We should be thinking sustainability. We have to protect what we have.”

And all I can say is amen to that.

The stretches of green you see from above, well, that’s the Everglades.