Why Coastal Towns Must Thrive Now to Survive Later

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satellite image of South Beach showing streets that have been raised, those planned to be raised, and those high enough not to need to be raised in the near future.

   The age of the sleepy little low-lying coastal town is ending. If a town with streets close to sea level hopes to survive into the distant future, it must plan to thrive in the near future. Anything less makes it a candidate for being a future ghost town. Here’s why:

   The image above is my adopted hometown of South Beach, which is only about a third of the City of Miami Beach. For the first few years after Wanda and I moved to Miami Beach fourteen years ago, “sunny-day flooding” was a term we never heard, nor did we ever see the phenomenon.

   But beginning somewhere around 2009, we began to notice occasional puddles along streets on the lowest (Western) side of the island on days when there had been no rain. And by the time of the autumn King Tides of 2013, West Avenue was as deep as 18” in seawater. Google “octopus in parking garage” for an idea of what it was like. Here’s a video I shot on the worst night, when the waters of Biscayne Bay were literally higher than the streets.

Adapting to Sea Level Rise

11th Street on South Beach in the process of being raised to adapt to sea level rise

11th Street being raised

   Since that time, Miami Beach has begun a long-planned raising of the lowest streets, coupled with installing giant pumps and underground storage tanks. The blue streets above are 4.5 feet or more above a normal high tide, and should be dry for at least a century, depending on which scientists’ projections of sea level rise you use. The red streets above are less than 4.5 feet above a normal high tide, and need to be raised. The green streets have already been raised, although raising creates challenges as well.

   Why have so few streets been raised? Because Miami Beach ran out of money to raise them. Obviously, many millions more need to be spent on raising streets, and that’s just South Beach. The rest of Miami Beach will roughly triple the expenditure. And we’re likely going to have to come up with most or all of it ourselves; we’re not counting on anyone to come in with a huge pot of money and save us.

   Where will the money come from? Simply put, the city must thrive. We need to be doing everything we can now to transform sleepy neighborhood centers into vibrant places people want to come to, especially on the weekend, surrounded by interesting neighborhoods with neighbors who support the centers as well. Vibrant places generate far more tax revenue than sleepy places, and without that tax revenue, we simply won’t get all the streets raised in time. There are several ways of helping the city thrive. This post looks at characteristics of thriving town centers. Next, we’ll look at characteristics of neighborhoods surrounding those thriving town centers.

Thriving Town Centers

   The most flourishing town centers on earth share a number of characteristics, and these should be patterns for coastal towns as their centers ramp up into economic engines that can help sustain them as sea levels rise.

Town Character

throngs of tourists strolling on Lincoln Road in early evening light

   South Beach is “The 21 Most Exciting Blocks on Planet Earth.” New York City is “The City That Never Sleeps.” Seaside, Florida is “Capital of the Design Coast.” Unless your coastal town’s name is Palm Beach, you probably don’t have enough money in town to adapt to sea level rise without attracting visitors willing to come and spend money with you. If you want to live somewhere on the ocean and don’t want visitors, make sure it’s somewhere 25 or 30 feet above sea level so you don’t have to worry about adaptation anytime soon. Otherwise, figure out how to attract a lot of tourists willing to spend more than cruise ship passengers, who will not keep your town alive. To attract enough visitors who spend well, your town needs to be known for something. You won’t do well enough with visitors who just randomly happen upon your town along the highway; you should have a character of place that people want to experience.

   Inexplicably, there’s a growing movement in South Beach to change the town character from The 21 Most Exciting Blocks on Planet Earth back into the sleepy little ethnic retirement community it was in the 1960s and 1970s. NIMBYs in nearly every neighborhood association are trying to get rid of the visitors, and cannot tolerate any noise at night. We will not survive very many decades into the era of sea level rise if these NIMBYs succeed. (NIMBY means Not In My Back Yard. The NIMBY’s big brother on steroids is the BANANA: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything. Both are deadly to thriving towns.)

Arteries, Not Arterials

Miami Beach tourists walking along Lincoln Road as twilight descends beyond brightly-lit storefronts

   Vibrant Bay Streets, Main Streets, or High Streets are like arteries in a living creature, pumping the lifeblood of commerce and culture: people who are mostly on foot, enjoying all the things that line the street. But don’t confuse arteries with arterials. In the world of traffic engineers, arterials are the biggest and fastest automobile thoroughfares in town, and they are highly corrosive to all good things within a block or two in either direction. Instead of the sidewalk cafés and small-scale shops of Bay Street, arterials are usually lined with muffler shops, convenience stores, and drive-through fast food joints. Avoid these like the plague if you want a place that will thrive enough to pay the sea level adaptation bills.

wretched Alton Road frontage on Miami Beach

people rarely walk between fast-moving
traffic & parking lots

   Sadly, Miami Beach completely blew this on Alton Road, which could have been a great urban avenue lined with eating, drinking, and shopping establishments and thronged by people, like some of the other main streets of South Beach. And Alton is this way, for about a block south of Lincoln Road, but beyond that, it’s the same mind-numbing parking-lot-in-front-of-strip-center of suburban sprawl, with cars screaming by just beyond the sidewalk. The Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association staged an heroic battle with the Florida DOT for years to make sure their Alton Road rebuilding project increased Walk Appeal. And it looked like they had achieved a hard-won victory with the design until the DOT did a design switch at the last moment, inexplicably aided by City Hall. Until Alton is re-coded and rebuilt as a much slower avenue rather than the arterial automobile sewer it is now, Alton will contribute nothing to the vibrant character needed to help us pay for adaptation. Come and see it, then go home and do the opposite.

Building Character, Not FAR

Detroit strip center designed by Mies van der Rohe

   Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is a planning standard commonly used by NIMBYs to oppose a project because they’ve forgotten what really matters. The most important thing is not FAR (usable interior square footage divided by site area), but the character of the buildings and how they support or corrode the streetscape. Every NIMBY wants to reduce FAR in order to build as little as possible on every site because the core assumption is that whatever the developer builds will be bad, so let’s at least limit it so we have less bad stuff.

   The building in the photo above has an FAR of about 0.20, so the NIMBYs should love it. Never mind that it’s a completely banal and boring strip center… even though it was designed by the most celebrated Mid-Century Modern architect: Mies van der Rohe. This highlights the fact that the real problem arguably isn’t the developers so much as it is the architects. The refusal of my profession to design lovable buildings has spawned more NIMBYs than anything else in the past half-century. In this, the NIMBYs are not wrong.

Espanola Way meets Washington Avenue on South Beach bathed in late afternoon sun

   Española Way in Miami Beach, on the other hand, has an FAR of just over 2.0 on several of its blocks. That’s ten times as much FAR as Mies’ strip center, and the architecture isn’t anything special. So using the NIMBY standard it must be ten times as bad, right? Have a look at these two images; which would you rather have as a neighbor?

   FAR is an incredibly blunt instrument. Building character is what really matters. Some of the best urbanism in the world has an FAR of 3-5, as does some of the most hideous. The only definitive thing FAR tells us is whether a place has enough intensity to be a thriving neighborhood center or town center if the architectural character is good. Española Way’s FAR is enough for a neighborhood center frequented mainly by locals. For a great town center that will pull visitors in from elsewhere, you really need to get into the 3-5 range of great urbanism. Otherwise you simply don’t have enough stuff there to entice someone to travel to your center and spend money in your town.

   Miami Beach is considering a measure in next week’s election to increase the FAR of an area Dover-Kohl has planned to become the town center of North Miami Beach. This should be a no-brainer for anyone interested in the long-term survival of Miami Beach. Unfortunately, the measure is receiving the normal complaints of “it will increase traffic,” but the complainers should look at South Beach. We have enough density here that over 40% of residents don’t even own a car because you need one so infrequently. Increase the density of the North Beach town center enough, and you’ll almost certainly see the same effect there. And it will help Miami Beach survive long into an uncertain future.

   One more thing: these principles hold true in new places as well as old. With so many parts of the Caribbean Rim facing a huge rebuilding challenge after this year’s devastating hurricanes, these things should be considered there as well if the rebuilt places hope to survive long into that same uncertain future.

   ~Steve Mouzon


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© Stephen A. Mouzon 2018