A common trope heard in Miami Beach is that “density is good, but new development is bad” and that certain European capitals exemplify “good density” because they manage to pack their populations into low-scale buildings.
Those dense, low-rise environments were not shaped by the rigors of urban planning, but rather by the limits of production technology — namely, elevators and structural steel did not yet exist. Adhering to only low-rise urban typology today puts nostalgia ahead of technology and function. And, it ignores the very real danger of sea level rise. Progressive cities around the world are outpacing low-rise European capitals, not only economically, but also in terms of cultural production, mass transit, environmentalism and other key metrics.
Miami Beach is a unique, evolving and widely celebrated mix of old and new. Historic preservation formed the cornerstone of the city’s revitalization beginning in the 1980s and helped to create a great community along with significant value. Today, the city is renowned for buildings that blur the line between historic and contemporary in a manner that celebrates the past while satisfying modern demands. Miami Beach's architectural landscape is one of the qualities that makes it such a special place to visit and reside.
The global city is unique, however, in another, less fashionable respect: It is built entirely upon a low-lying barrier island composed of porous limestone, and is therefore highly susceptible to sea level rise, including associated flooding challenges.
While maintaining the aesthetic integrity of Miami Beach's built environment remains a worthy focus of the community, the most important issue the city faces today is resiliency. Therefore, planning should be guided by desired objectives rather than prescribed physical outcomes.
Yet, the social ecology of Miami Beach is extraordinarily fragile. There is an obvious tension between the city's dual aims for historic preservation and resilient planning. On the one hand, the city's identity is rooted in its past, and it is therefore accustomed to preserving historic structures wherever they happen to exist. On the other hand, the city knows that it makes little sense to require perpetual preservation of structures that are severely impacted by sea level rise and flooding, especially where owners of those structures already face disproportionately heightened maintenance costs, as well as the prospect of shortened building lifespans.
To advance a thoughtful and effective approach to sea level rise and related challenges in Miami Beach, the city recently convened an expert panel assembled by the Urban Land Institute. The resulting report, “City of Miami Beach Stormwater Management and Climate Adaptation Review,” helps to reconcile the apparent disconnect between traditional historic preservation and evolving resiliency paradigms through the following core recommendations. To paraphrase:
1. Shift the city’s planning paradigm to a geologic water-modeling driven approach to ensure the city will be able to “live with water” in the long term.
2. Introduce blue-green infrastructure developed with a detailed modelling approach that guarantees buy-in and co-benefits. In other words, pursue more than just “gray” infrastructure solutions by converting some low-lying areas to water storage or living shorelines while at the same time equitably re-assigning development rights – including by allowing greater height and density in some areas – to offset the loss of usable space as water levels rise.
3. Acknowledge that not everything can or should be saved. This means that the city is going to have to make tough choices with regard to historic preservation.
The ULI report therefore suggests that the city embrace what is essentially a new preservation planning paradigm – one that recognizes the importance of continued historic preservation, but also allows for more dense and intense high-elevation development in response to sea level rise.
Overly restrictive zoning — including historic designation — can have devastating economic, social, and environmental impacts because of the degree to which it prevents densification and adaptation to changing physical factors.
While it is important to preserve historical aesthetics, the city must acknowledge the realities of changing landscapes and adopt responsive planning paradigms. Failure to do so will result in fewer investments in the community, lost tax revenues to fund public needs, increased housing costs that push the population outward rather than upward, and the absence of an urban life of true opportunity for its residents.
▪ Yamal Yidios is the CEO of Ytech. He is a civil engineer and real estate developer who holds an executive master’s degree for owner/president management from Harvard Business School and a master's degree in engineering with a focus on real estate development from the University of Florida. Ytech has invested in, developed and redeveloped more than 7,000 apartments in addition to single-family home subdivisions, and office projects in 25 cities, including 182 units in Miami Beach. Ytech has a pipeline of more than $1 billion in condominiums and mixed-use projects equating to 1.9 million square feet of future development across the southeastern United States.
▪ This opinion article was written for Business Monday of the Miami Herald. It reflects the view of the writer and not necessarily that of the newspaper.