Economic Development

Miami's Visionary Zoning Plan

When it comes to building and construction, Miami has always been a wide-open town. That's about to change. Last month, the city council approved a...
by | October 31, 2009

When it comes to building and construction, Miami has always been a wide-open town. That's about to change. Last month, the city council approved a new zoning code whose likely effect on development throughout the community is already drawing national attention.

Ardently promoted by Miami Mayor Manny Diaz but drafted in large part by architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the code embraces the New Urbanist principles that made her and Andres Duany, her husband and professional partner, famous. The new code, known as Miami 21, seeks to encourage street-level pedestrian activity and reduce automobile dependence. The hope is that neighborhoods will fit to a comfortable scale, with plenty of shops out front and buildings that conform to fixed height limits with upper-story setbacks from the street. At the same time, the goal is to create corridors with enough density that public transit will be viable. But the most important idea may be the decision to focus on entire neighborhoods, rather than individual projects.

New Urbanist codes have been adopted in various places around the country for new projects in previously unbuilt areas (greenfields), and for specific areas undergoing redevelopment, such as riverfronts. But Miami is the first city of any size to attempt to apply these principles throughout its borders. Advocates of the approach are making grand claims about its potential not only to transform much of the landscape but to make Miami far more environmentally friendly, as well. "A whole city is changing its strategy consistent with this idea of preventing climate change," says Armando Carbonell, of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Many builders and architects support Miami 21, recognizing that the city's old plans were badly out of date. But not everyone is happy. Some developers warn that despite its laudable goals, the scheme's new restrictions could hamper construction. They charge that it is inflexible in some ways and yet inconsistent in others. "Everything they say about it is absolutely fantastic," says one of the critics, Miami architect Kricket Snow. "But in many cases, the code doesn't actually do what they claim it will do."

There's one more major problem--"our economic condition stinks down here," as Trudy Burton, of the Builders Association of South Florida, says. Miami is one of the most overbuilt cities in the country, home to thousands of foreclosed condos. The fact that there are essentially no projects on the drawing board means it's going to take a particularly long time to find out whether the proponents or the doubters are right about Miami 21's merits.

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