Miami 21 Marathon

The formal public hearing for Miami 21 started at about 10 a.m. Thursday, with a packed commission chamber and an optimistic and sunny address by Mayor Manny Diaz. "This is not just a pretty picture on paper," he said. "It is not a perfect plan … but this will make Miami a city that makes sense."

Miami: The City that Makes Sense. Kinda has a ring to it, doesn’t it?

Organization and uniformity are the centerpieces of Miami 21; the proposal calls for strict building heights, an increase in neighborhood density and the addition of pretty trees and shrubbery along streets. It requires “green building” certification and encourages walking or biking instead of driving. Ultimately, it re-writes the city’s entire zoning code, following the principles of “New Urbanism,” which is a concept of “traditional neighborhood design.” One of the nation’s best-known architectural firms – Duany Plater-Zyberk, which is based here in Miami – was hired more than two years ago to write Miami 21. During Thursday’s meeting, officials threw around such words as “historic” and “unprecedented” when talking about the proposed changes.

Some of the best examples of New Urbanism are found in the tiny (and relatively new) Florida towns of Celebration and Seaside. Celebration is well known as the town largely built by Disney, a Utopian vision of a traditional American village. Seaside is an enclave for the rich on the Panhandle. It’s also where the Truman Show was filmed. Both towns are awash in soft pastel colored buildings, have virtually no crime and the residents love to recycle. Each has stringent architectural and landscaping rules. In other words, both towns are the polar opposite of Miami, whose residents have yet to master the art of putting trash in receptacles and who live in Mediterranean mansions and trailers, sometimes almost side-by-side. We’re a city that has evolved haphazardly, zoning-wise, over several decades.

Miami 21 strives to correct the zoning sins of the past. Still, most people – architects, developers, and regular folks – are wary, if not downright opposed, to the new plan, and they came out in droves to the meeting. Architects didn’t like it because they think their creativity will be stifled when designing buildings. Developers didn’t like it because they think they will be forced to build smaller, more expensive buildings. Regular folks didn’t like it because the plan is confusing and could prevent them from making additions on their homes. Activists are worried that the plan won’t give the city the affordable housing it sorely needs. Everyone at the meeting, including commissioners, wondered whether Miamians would ever give up their cars.

Inexplicably, yet predictably, the name of Fidel Castro was invoked at least once.

Many of the people who spoke were from the city’s Northeast quadrant (that’s the first neighborhood to be affected by the proposed changes; one of the commissioners for that area, Michelle Spence-Jones, was absent from Thursday’s meeting).

A lawyer named Carter McDowell made what was possibly the best point of the day: who’s going to build in this depressed real estate market, anyway? “Miami 21 started when the most bull market in real estate was happening. We’re not in that place any more,” said McDowell. “The real estate market is in trouble. I think it would be foolish to say that it’s not. There’s not any new development. I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of new buildings start. Layering on expensive new regulations is only going to further or kill that market place.”

About 21 hours after the start of the meeting, (well, not exactly that long, but boy, it sure felt that way), a tired funk had settled over the commission chambers. The public comment portion of the meeting was still grinding away, and folks were confused and frustrated – but since many of them had been hanging around commission chambers for hours, they wanted to get their two cents in. At 6:51 p.m., Commissioner Joe Sanchez interrupted a lawyer who was giving his input.

"I need to go to the bathroom," said Sanchez.

Eleven hours and 15 minutes after the meeting began, the commission voted to … delay. Commissioners voted to seek more information on the proposal and come back in 90 days for more discussion. -- Tamara Lush


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