Q&A: Ana Gelabert-Sanchez
Ana Gelabert-Sanchez (full profile) is the former planning director for the City of Miami, and is a Harvard University Loeb fellow. Governing Senior Editor Zach Patton talked to Gelabert-Sanchez about her role in designing Miami 21, the nation's most ambitious New Urbanist zoning code. Miami 21 builds on Gelabert-Sanchez' strong record of supporting walkable, livable development. Here is an abridged and edited version of the interview:
You've been involved in urban planning in Miami for 25 years. Was that career path always an aspiration for you?
I got into urban planning in kind of a roundabout way. I started with architecture, and I was always interested in design. I practiced architecture for a little while, but I really wanted to have an impact in a bigger area, in more of the public realm. I was interested in civic spaces; I was interested in parks. Architecture -- at least then -- was just about private property. You were limited to your site.
I thought landscape architecture would be able to provide me with that. So I came to Harvard and studied that.
One summer I went to Brazil and had an internship with Roberto Burle Marx and that was fascinating because he was the one landscape architect who had taken landscape into another realm, into the arts.
I finished landscape, started working in a firm which was pretty landscape-focused. I quickly realized, though, that there was another step to it: I could combine the architecture and landscape. I was offered the possibility of working on the Downtown Master Plan for Miami, as a consultant. I had no municipal experience. The experience I had was mostly private. I thought I would be there for two years, and then suddenly it was 25 years later and I was still there.
You must have liked it.
Here was a world where you could combine architecture and landscape, because you understand how the pieces fit. It all rolled into urban design. I realized, this is what I can do, and I can have the impact I always wanted.
Are you originally from Miami?
No. I am Cuban by birth. I left Cuba a long time ago and I grew up in Puerto Rico. We were there for 15 years or so and then we moved to Caracas, Venezuela. My whole family are architects: My father is an architect, my mother is an architect, my brother is an architect. Except for my sister, who is a copywriter, we all went for the same deal.
Describe the way planning worked in Miami when you first started getting involved with the city in the late 1980s.
We had many master plans. We had master plans for the waterfront, the Miami River, and those neighborhoods where the residents understood it and asked for it. But there were many parts of the city that were left behind, that didn't get addressed.
All of a sudden, the [1990s development] boom came, and what we found was that what we were seeing in the built environment was really the result of a not very good zoning ordinance. It was pretty much anything goes. It was one-size fits all.
At the time you had the commercial corridors, which were the main streets, and then right behind them -- and I'm telling you, no more than 100 feet -- a single-family home. A commercial property could have 150 units per acre. Height, in most cases, was unlimited, and they don't tell you what can be a blank wall, where the access has to be -- those type of things. You may end up -- in fact, we did -- with buildings that are 15 or 20 stories tall next to a single-family home.
The code was not regulating as it should have been, and it wasn't planning for growth and development and conservation.
So you set out to create a new building code?
With Miami 21, we were able to look at the whole city -- not the downtown only or the waterfront only. It became more comprehensive. This city has not been great about saving the things we have. In Miami 21, we were able to recognize that there's a need for affordable housing, there's a need for open space.
This gives us a blueprint for the future. It's going to give us the quality of life and the walkability we have been striving for. Before, we were only able to do that a project at a time, a master plan at a time. But Miami 21 really does that throughout the city. It will transform the way that Miami builds, and shape the way we grow for the next 50 years.
You spent four years working to sell the city on the new code. Did you get a lot of pushback from the private-sector construction community?
There was a lot of the sky-is-falling type of thing from the developers. The land-use attorneys were very concerned with their idea that we were taking their property rights away from them. But we explained, "You might be gaining in other areas because you can have different uses."
Once the developers came to us and we explained the code, and how, if they followed the code, we weren't going to require a public hearing. They were like, "No problem." Change is always a hard thing for people. But once you explain to them the benefits, people are okay with it.
Once [owners of commercial property] understood they would be able to have more uses, they liked that. For them, it wasn't how high or how much [can I build], it was what can I build that would allow me more flexibility, especially in these economic times?
At the end of the day, people are happy with Miami 21. We will see the economy picking up again, and I think that's when they're going to be happiest.
Miami 21 was formally adopted in May 2010, and you left your post with the city to accept a one-year Loeb Fellowship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. What does the future hold for you?
I am not sure yet what's going to happen a year from now. The Loeb Fellowship is a community of professionals that all have something to do with the built environment, and we get the opportunity to do research on things that we would like to be working on. I'm interested in studying how other cities have transformed themselves, and what policy changes have they put in place?
I went to the city thinking it was going to be two years, and it turned into 25. So it was time where I felt like I had done what I had to do, and I'm moving on to another part of my life.
Photo by Tom Salyer