Thursday, December 31

Miami 21 set to shape the city's future

View from Condo in the Brickell Neighborhood
I've spent the last week staying in downtown Miami and poking around the city. Miami has been in the national spotlight recently because of the the October adoption of the Miami 21 zoning code. After five years of public meetings, the City Council approved a new form-based code that encourages a walkable streetscape to replace the old system that strictly separated uses. Miami is the first big city in the U.S. to make this shift, but Denver and a few others are following closely behind.

Anthony Flint praised the Miami 21 code in the Boston Globe as a "blueprint for sustainable urban form," and many others in the planning community have expressed enthusiastic approval. Last spring, the U.S. Conference of Mayors presented Manny Diaz with an architectural award for Miami 21. Of course, certain elements have been watered down from the original intentions of DPZ, the planning firm leading the rewrite, especially the crucial issue of minimum parking standards around transit stops. However, most of the commenters I've come across think it's a step forward. Even the folks over at New Geography gave some words of approval, albeit couched in skepticism over its implementation.
"New Urbanism won this victory because there weren’t any compelling counter-arguments to their basic argument for urban hygiene. And Miami 21 comes at a time when the city has been egregiously abused at the hands of the free market; its citizens disenfranchised and suffering from an environment of ugliness, traffic and congestion."
Calle Ocho, the Main Street of Little Havana
Not surprisingly, the local reception has been more controversial. Neighborhood groups wanted less intensity, and developers wanted more intensity. Both claim to have been left out of the process. The local AIA chapter opposed the code, claiming it would stifle creativity and put a damper on "world class architecture." This makes a certain degree of sense considering that some mainstream architects have been among the most vocal critics of New Urbanism over the years. Supporters of Miami 21 thought the controversy had been successfuly navigated until the new mayor, who had been the sole opposing vote on Council, was able to pass a 3-month extension on the start date. The can of worms may be opened back up again.

My limited experience with walking around some neighborhoods of Miami revealed to me the need for such a code. The demand for walkable urban living was clearly evident in the recent condo boom, which still clearly has to grow into itself for a few more years. The Brickell neighborhood went from being mostly a financial district to housing over 17,000 people. Local bloggers tell of the dangers of walking in a city oriented around the automobile, but many are trying nonetheless.

The ground-floor urban fabric and pedestrian experience has yet to catch up to this market demand. It's interesting that the public focus during the Miami 21 seems to be mostly about building height restrictions, while the meat of the code deals with what happens on the street level. Some transit is in place, but many of the stops are fronted with empty lots, parking garages with no liner buildings, or stark office towers with little street presence. There seems to be very few mid-rise areas. The downtown is filled with tall buildings that abruptly transition into single-story dwellings throughout the rest of the city.

Whenever the next building boom kicks back in, the City of Miami should be well prepared to shape the new growth into a sustainable and attractive form. And the rest of us have an opportunity to see how it all takes shape.


LH said...

Daniel, thanks for your take on this. I will be keeping my eye on Miami. I've never been, but I've heard it's gorgeous, and clearly it is a draw for many. The challenge will be to figure out how to transition away from its current auto orientation; not easy, given how much and where Miami is overbuilt. (A little Philadelphia pet peeve here: Miami got 10X more foreclosure transition money from the feds because of some ill-conceived formula, never mind that most of Miami's foreclosures are brand-new condos and most of Philly's are old rowhouses truly in need of rehab.) The code seems a step in the right direction, but it's nice to get a planner's take on the matter. Thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...

Isn't it funny that so architects who don't seem to know what to do with the freedom they have complain that they are being stifled. Stifled? Really? _That's the problem?_

The creative and competent architects I know--you know, who design pleasant buildings that age well--are big supporters of Miami 21.

Sean Tubbs said...

Thanks for this, Daniel. To be honest, I never quite grasped what form-based zoning is until your article. The Charlottesville Planning Commission will study in 2010 how such a system might look here.

Eric Orozco said...

Miami is a puzzle, indeed, Daniel -- a battleground of competing utopias, which has resulted in many planning absurdities. The monorail, circling monotonously over eerily depopulated downtown streets, is a symptom of this anomaly. My misgiving about Miami21 is that it appears to be code-centric ...where is the actual integrated plan? Am I just not reading the website carefully enough to find the comprehensive plan element? I see "related categories" listed, but I hope the code is not so disembodied that it merely substitutes one utopia of lists for another. Ignore things critical to healthy economic development and good luck getting your Photoshop visions. How Miami envisions and deals with structural issues, namely, its position in the global economy, how its multi-modal transportation strategy evolves, what saner development types will aim to deliver, etc, are elements that I would be stressing upfront. It would help to see a vision statement and an outline of main goals and principles...

Having said that, this is a great development for cities, and hopefully Miami will gain the flexibility it needs to be a creative enterprise city. It is an important magnet for cultural production, and being released from the shackles of use-based codes it can perhaps gain the flexible urbanism needed to be a true economic powerhouse. Miami has the potential to be a LA/NYC-like cultural magnet of Latin America. It already is almost.

Daniel Nairn said...

Yeah, the metro mover is pretty neat, but it doesn't seem to be coordinated with land use very well. The closest station to our hotel was a full five flights above ground, and the elevator basically dumps you out behind some buildings by their loading docks. I took the northern Omni loop and found some of the stops surrounded by vacant lots on all sides. A security officer asked me what I was doing there, and told me it wasn't safe. Not exactly reassuring.

robin de portilla said...

Miami 21 is an impressive code - already being used as a model by other cities in the United States. As a Miami resident, I worry what it means that the new mayor is against it. The fact is, it already passed and he is still trying to put a stop to it. I walk around my city and people think I'm a streetwalker. It's sad.

Anonymous said...

Daniel: The reason why there are so many empty lots in those areas where you were is because they are owned by a developer. They have been looking to get the funding called the "Miami World Center" since 2001ish. Those were the lots by the Freedom Tower. (

The other lots by Boulevard shops and the Omni stop are owned by the Miami Herald and are in a pending land deal for a developer as well.

With developers and speculators buying up and demolishing land, the former Miami Arena getting bulldozed, the expiration of the Omni Mall--the structure adjacent to the Omni stop (which has since been renovated as Class A office and retail spaces), you just have to close your eyes and see it in use 10-15 years.

I grew up in Boston and agree they aren't logical, but that public transport infrastructure went in place around 25 years ago. Hell, how old is the T? In due time, the Metromover may make sense with new devlopments.

Ironically, Miamians are too fond of the luxury of their car's AC regardless to leave their cars June-October.

muebles cuenca said...

Well, I don't really suppose this is likely to have effect.

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