Preservation is a losing battle, and nowhere is this more obvious than in South Beach. Eventually, every building ever built will be lost, so preservation needs to be understood as the act of extending the lives of places and buildings we love the most, not the act of preserving them forever. Every thriving place has development pressure that seeks to replace old buildings with new ones that are substantially larger. Anyone who lives in Miami Beach and who wants to visualize development pressure can simply walk outside, look around, and count the cranes that dot the skyline. Preservationists have gotten relatively good at fighting back against development pressure, at least for the best historic buildings, but the pressure is there.
Here on South Beach, we have another threat to the character of our architecture, and it’s not yet clear if this threat can be opposed, at least for some of our buildings. That threat is sea level rise. When Wanda and I first moved here almost 14 years ago, “tidal flooding,” and “sunny-day flooding” were terms we didn’t hear for several years. Tidal flooding wasn’t a thing until 2009 or so. But by 2013, we were having nights like this on an accelerating basis, when the sea level was simply higher than the streets, with seawater spilling into the streets. Inland people debate sea level rise, but not South Beach residents because we have seen it with our own eyes.
Even before the October 2013 flood occurred, the city had undertaken a massive infrastructure project consisting of improved storm drainage, huge underground storage tanks, and massive pumps to pump the water back out into the ocean before it gets to street level, putting us in the same boat as New Orleans: cities with streets that are at least sometimes below sea level. And those pumps work almost all the time, but when they failed after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans flooded and thousands of buildings were lost. So far, the South Beach pumps have not failed, and we have had no further street flooding. But we inevitably will at some point.
And so the city is now raising the streets. Land is highest on the Atlantic side, sloping down to the lowest point on the bay side. Streets are being raised about 3.5 feet on the bay side, which is the existing grade near the middle of the island.
Unfortunately, the city is not raising the buildings. I predicted last year that this approach would cause rain-driven flooding problems, and this has already happened. Here’s why: when the streets are raised but the buildings are not, those buildings may be 3 feet or more below the sidewalk. In a rainstorm, if debris like cardboard clogs the newly-installed storm drains in front of a building, or if mulch washes out of a planting bed to clog the drains, the lower area at the front of the building effectively becomes a swimming pool, and in many cases the only place for the water to run is into the building. The pumps might fail only once ever few decades; this flooding could happen repeatedly; whenever there’s a big storm. The city worked with the insurance companies on the first floods in Sunset Harbor, but the insurance companies will quickly tire of the same story each time floods occur. At some point, the buildings must be raised because they will otherwise become uninsurable. These are discussions we need to be having now. The longer we wait to start talking about how to raise the buildings, the more painful and urgent the process will be. The new administration should make this a high priority, as we cannot avoid this problem indefinitely.
We’ve done this before, and with masonry buildings, not just wood-framed houses. And we should be doing this now on South Beach, as our ancestors did in these two examples: Bay Village in Boston was raised in the 19th century after the Back Bay was filled in. Some areas were raised up to 18 feet, although some of the building main levels became basements. After the Galveston hurricane of 1900 (the deadliest natural disaster in US history) the entire city was raised up to 17 feet, which is the current seawall elevation. So there’s no doubt that we can raise 1- and 2-story buildings.
There’s also no doubt that we cannot raise skyscrapers. For tall buildings, the best solution will probably be to demolish the second level and move the first level upward, leaving upper levels unchanged. The problem is the “Sour Spot” between the 1-2 story buildings (or maybe 3) and the high-rises. Sour Spot buildings that are too tall to raise but too short to modify are likely to be lost. It’s simply an economic reality. With sea level rise happening across the country and around the world, it’s unreasonable to expect anyone to bail us out because this is not a localized disaster like a hurricane. We’re on our own on this.
Walk down Ocean Drive, and you’ll see that some of the most memorable examples of South Beach architecture are in the Sour Spot and likely to be lost because they’re too tall to raise but too short to move the first floor upward. Ocean Drive Sour Spot buildings won’t be the first ones lost, as they’re sitting on higher ground; that’ll happen further back in the Art Deco District at the beginning. But no reasonable models today project a future where seas don’t continue to rise to and beyond Ocean Drive at some point.
When this happens… and there is little doubt but that it will… what will replace these long-loved buildings that form the core of the character of South Beach? If we do nothing to direct the character of the architecture, those replacements will almost certainly be a random collection of “styles du jour” that occur at the times at which they will be built. In short, we’ll morph over time into urbanism no different from any other urban beach city in the US, without the strong character Miami Beach has today that leaves little doubt in any visitor’s mind precisely where on earth they are.
It is rare for a city to have strong architectural character, and it helps create far greater value than exists in more ordinary places. And that strong character draws millions of people to travel from around the world to visit Miami Beach every year. Will that continue once that character is eroded beyond recognition? Sure, the Post Office will be preserved, along with a few other Art Deco monuments, but what city that was thriving from 1920-1945 doesn’t have a few Art Deco monuments? Once the Sour Spot buildings are replaced by random architecture, we will clearly lose great real estate value and great annual revenues to local businesses.
Coding for Character
Architect Trigger Warning: I’m about to trigger some foul emotions in the architectural community. There is a solution, and that is to code for character. This means that leaders in the city must make the choice to build future buildings that become part of a new living tradition of Art Deco architecture. If Art Deco is what people love, why not build more of it? Most architects will fight this furiously, kicking and screaming all the way. Their battle cry is “architecture must be of its time!” The fact of the matter is that there is a strong track record of cities coding for a particular character, and it usually creates great value.
In some cases, coding for character takes the form of an "extreme makeover” such as when Santa Fe chose about 1910 to transform from a town of Victorian cottages to the adobe city it is today. Santa Barbara chose a makeover to Spanish Colonial Revival about ten years later. South Beach, as we all know, adopted Art Deco shortly thereafter. In other cases, places like the French Quarter in New Orleans and Charleston have chosen to code for character in order to preserve their existing character. In every case, strong character has created strong value.
Who should lead this initiative to ensure preservation of the character of Miami Beach into the future? It’s not set in stone. Here, the Art Deco character was established by a community of architects such as Lawrence Murray Dixon. Architects also led the Santa Barbara transformation. Architect-driven initiatives do not have to be large at the beginning. Just a few like-minded designers can band together to get it started. The Sarasota School of the 1950s is another model where there was not a code per se, but rather a collection of architects agreeing to pursue similar architecture. The code, however, is stronger.
The initiative to preserve character can also be led by civic leaders. Mayor Joe Riley in Charleston is a great example of the “strong mayor” model. Leadership can also come from someone on the Commission that adopts the initiative as their own. The Chamber of Commerce can lead as well, as they did in Santa Fe. The bottom line is that there are many people who can step up to the plate and get the initiative rolling to preserve the character of Miami Beach. Who will it be?