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Miami’s Suburbs in the Sky

Though one of the densest cities in the country, Miami has high-rises that don’t translate to vibrancy. Credit: Paul Morris

Are the mega-condos of Miami’s Brickell neighborhood the key to urban vitality and innovation, or are they just cul-de-sacs in the sky? In a keynote speech during the 20th Congress for New Urbanism in West Palm Beach, author Richard Florida challenged the idea that the “rush to density” will unlock and release the potential of our cities.

“This rush to density, this idea that density creates economic growth,” is wrong, Florida said. “It’s the creation of real, walkable urban environments that stir the human spirit. Skyscraper communities are vertical suburbs, where it is lonely at the top. The kind of density we want is a ‘Jane Jacobs density.’”

In her influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs objected to neighborhoods that were made up exclusively of high-rises and instead preferred neighborhoods with buildings that are a mix of different building ages and types — Greenwich Village in New York City, for example. When you consider cities around the world, it is in those types of neighborhoods where you will often find the arts districts, the best music venues, the creatives, the authentic, the local businesses, the innovators, the vitality — and a sense of place and community.

Low-rise Greenwich Village.

I live in Brickell, in a rented condo on the 23rd story of building built in 2007. It soars for 10 more stories above me and sits atop an eight-level parking pedestal where every car has a happy home. It’s surrounded by other residential towers of similar stature. Now, I enjoy Brickell primarily because I can walk for nearly all of my basic human needs — groceries, a barber, a slice of pizza etc. It’s also well-served by MetroRail and Metro Mover, both accessible from my doorstep. It’s a rare Miami neighborhood in that regard. But increasingly, I find myself questioning if Brickell is a “walkable environment that stirs the human spirit” or merely just a semi-walkable streetscape in the shadows of impersonal towers functioning as suburbs in the sky.

In many ways, the mega-condos of Brickell share several of the undesirable characteristics of a suburban gated community — despite being the densest neighborhood south of New York City along the east coast. It’s largely impossible to know more than few people in a 50-story building, if you know any at all. The “inclusion” of a parking space (which can drive up the cost of a unit anywhere from 15-30 percent, according to parking expert Jeffrey Tumlin) acts as an incentive to drive, therefore damaging the pedestrian realm. The buildings and their residents, by nature, are segregated by income. The anonymity does not encourage civic engagement — in the recent city commission elections, the Brickell zip codes recorded an 8 percent turnout.

That means 92 percent did not vote.

Meaningful public space in Brickell is severely lacking. With no central plaza, no signature park, no outdoor public room, no farmers market or gathering place, most of the “public” realm is centered around commercial “third places” (Starbucks) or reduced to the street and sidewalks. The latter is problematic because Brickell’s sidewalks are terribly neglected and the streets full of maniacal drivers. (Sometimes you’ll even see a maniacal driver on the sidewalk).

Portions of Brickell, especially Brickell Avenue, are dark and full of uninviting blank walls and underpasses. The “pedestrian shed” in Brickell is actually quite small. Aside from disjointed commercial sections of South Miami Avenue, a walk around Brickell is a particularly unrewarding experience. (Crumbling sidewalks, perpetual construction with worker disregard to pedestrians, dark streets, curb cuts galore, bullying motorists, busy arterials with scant crosswalks, the desolation of vacated office towers after business hours.)

The businesses attracted to Brickell are beginning to look a lot like those implanted in suburban shopping malls — national franchises like Blue Martini, Fado, P.F. Chang’s — which would be acceptable if there were actually some other businesses opening besides restaurants. The 800-pound gorilla in the room no one seems to be talking about is the future Brickell CitiCentre, a 4.6 million-square-foot retail, hotel and condo behemoth and the largest private construction project in the U.S. at present.

Rendering of the Brickell CitiCentre.

For better or worse, this project will fundamentally transform the neighborhood, if not the entire city. On one hand, it will mitigate the retail deficit that exists in Miami’s urban core. On the other, we can expect plenty of national franchises, thousands of parking spaces and plenty more traffic on the dangerous and uninviting “urban arterials” of SW 8th and SW 7th streets. Ultimately, it may be a series of towers that function more like a suburban shopping mall rather than a seamlessly integrated edifice into the urban fabric with an active pedestrian realm.

It’s obvious that areas like Wynwood, Midtown and the Design District are the emerging centers of Miami’s arts and creative community. Brickell is beginning to seem like a stark contrast to those neighborhoods; identified as a weekend playground for suburbanites, wealthy South Americans on vacation to their second homes and disengaged young professionals. As the housing stock continues to increase in those aforementioned neighborhoods, the divide will become ever more apparent.

The longer-term prospects for the Brickell megatowers are arguably quite bleak, as flimsy homeowners associations will face massive maintenance costs and liabilities in an era of expensive energy in their giant-scaled buildings — an increasingly urgent situation that smaller, human-scaled buildings will have an easier time confronting. When these towers require broad renovations, the limitations of their enormity will truly be exposed.

The key to long-term vitality in a neighborhood is whether its inhabitants are truly fulfilled with their surroundings. To quote Richard Florida, “The quality of a place itself is the single most important factor in people’s fulfillment. There are four parts to this: the degree to which a community: values its history; is walkable and mixed-use; values arts, both street art and high art; and integrates the built and natural environment.”

Aside from Brickell’s walkability, it seems to be failing on the other fronts Florida mentions. Valuing history? Entitled residents are using an ancient burial ground as a toilet for their dogs. Street art and high art? There are no art galleries in Brickell and the only “street art” is the incessant sidewalk spray paint indiscriminately spewed by utility and construction companies. Integrates the built and natural environment? Another fail — all that exists in Brickell is the built environment. (The Miami Riverwalk project would be nice if completed in my lifetime)

There are some improvements on the way — Triangle Park, if ever completed, will be a welcomed, albeit small, neighborhood plaza. There are plans to overhaul South Miami Avenue and 1st St to be more pedestrian and bicycle friendly in the coming years. However, it’s relatively unlikely these projects will significantly change the underlying social construct of a skyscraper-burdened place.

I increasingly find myself leaving Brickell on my bicycle in search of more authentic urban experiences found elsewhere in the city. Actually, I need to leave Brickell just to go to a bookstore or bicycle shop…usually found in “Jane Jacobs” density.

Tags: built environmenturban designmiamidensityplacemakingjane jacobsrichard florida