Miami 21: The Drama Continues

Mike Lydon reports from Miami, where the fight to institute a form-based code is proving to be far more high-profile and contentious than expected.

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Mike Lydon is the founding Principal of the Street Plans Collaborative.

Heralded as a zoning code for the 21st century, Miami 21 has earned the attention of American city planners, livable city advocates, and urban policy wonks for the better part of four years. Indeed, as one of the nation’s most ambitious and innovative urban planning projects, Miami 21 aims to create a more sustainable built environment by replacing the city’s existing conventional (Euclidean) zoning code with the largest known application of a form-based code.

Form-based codes primarily regulate the form and relationship of buildings to each other, and the streets and public spaces they shape. When applied correctly, they can encourage mixed-use development and codify smart growth. In contrast, conventional land use codes emphasize the rote separation of land uses and the primacy of the parking spaces ostensibly needed to serve them. In short, they create suburban sprawl.

Thus, the main thrust of Miami 21 is to move away from such development patterns by retrofitting the city’s auto-oriented corridors and commercial nodes into transit-oriented, mixed-use, walkable neighborhood centers. While more than 100 modern form-based codes have been implemented, the adoption of Miami 21 could truly be a watershed moment in how America’s built environment is regulated. The City of Denver, for example, is also moving to implement its own form-based code.

After years of controversy and debate, more than one hundred meetings, and several draft revisions, Miami 21 was finally brought before the City Commission on August 6th with the blessing of the city’s Planning Advisory Board. More than one hundred proponents swarmed City Hall in an effort to help write Miami 21’s final act. By many accounts, more than 80% of the 100-plus testimonials rightfully asserted that the proposed code offers a marked improvement over the city’s existing land use regulations.

In opposition stood a small (but vocal) group of architects fearing any imposition on their creativity, NIMBYs desiring to protect the status quo, and land use attorneys who gain monetarily from the opaque nature of the existing code.

So what happened?

Commission Chair, mayoral candidate, and known Miami 21 supporter Joe Sanchez shocked the crowd by issuing a “no” vote, which produced a 2-2 stalemate and ended the 8-hour public hearing. Commissioner Angel Gonzalez, who later revealed his support, was in surgery. Proponents left City Hall feeling dejected, if not betrayed, by Sanchez, who is the most likely to uphold the more progressive values of the current Diaz administration. Yet Commissioner Sanchez continues to invoke the specter of potential property rights litigation following a last-minute amendment that called for height restrictions in another Commissioner’s district. The concern was largely discredited by the city’s own attorney during the hearing process, forcing some pundits to call Sanchez out on what seems like a poorly veiled attempt to distance himself from the Diaz administration and thereby steal votes from Commissioner Tomas Regalado—a longtime critic of the Diaz administration, and the owner of the only other “no” vote.

But despite the political theater, Miami 21 is not dead.

“We’re going to bring it back for sure,” said Mayor Manny Diaz at an August 19th bicycling master plan meeting. A recent Miami Herald article also quoted Diaz as citing a city rule that states any 2-2 commission vote is akin to taking “no action.” Therefore, Miami 21 may not have been approved, but it wasn’t technically defeated either.

Making good on his promise, Mayor Diaz, who will be forced to leave office in November, has scheduled another Miami 21 hearing for September 4th.
The drama continues.

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Mike Lydon is Principal of The Street Plans Collaborative and an internationally recognized urban planner. He is the coauthor of Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action, Long-Term Change. He works and speaks internationally on smart growth, livable cities, active transportation, and tactical urbanism. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Tags: built environmentgovernancemiami

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