I know we have already mentioned this topic this week, but considering the Herald continues its negative spin campaign against the zoning rewrite I thought a healthy counterpoint was in order. Herald columnist Ana Mendez writes in her column today that she thinks that the code is a little too complicated for a layperson to understand.

She writes, “Its true zoning codes are difficult to write. And no one wants to minimize the important role that government plays in assessing the public’s needs and translating them into hopelessly complicated, impenetrable legal gobbledygook. But there has to be a better way.”

Now, as an urban planner and architect I agree that the language can be difficult at times, but the fact is that anyone with a high school education can figure it out (not to mention that all of the terms used are defined in the first chapter). Part of the problem is that we have to translate good urban design (which is a field that lends itself to drawing more than writing) into legal ‘gobbledygook’ so that land-use attorneys and developers don’t find loopholes in otherwise straightforward regulations.

Codes (Miami 21 or any other land use code) have to be written in language that is not simplistic, and that will hold up to scrutiny in court. Menendez quotes from the code:


Lots facing streets on more than one (1) side shall have designated Principal Frontage(s) and may have Secondary Frontage(s). Unless otherwise designated by a Special Area Plan, a Principal Frontage shall be that facing the street of higher pedestrian importance or intensity (i.e., traffic volume, number of lanes, etc.)

Which is another way of saying that you define the front of a corner lot as the one that faces the busiest street, but you can’t say that in a legal document because if you did then you would have all sorts of follow-up questions like:

  • How do you define which street is most important?
  • What do you call the other less important front?

Unfortunately, I think that this criticism of Miami 21, along most others, is less about the code than about blaming it for things that are beyond its control.

Here are a few of the arguments against Miami 21 that I have read both on the Miami 21 website and in various articles over the past two years:
-> “Miami 21 is the first urban application of a smart code in the US. It is an experiment that has never been tested.”

Actually, Miami 21 is not the first form based code to be applied to a major urban center, Philadelphia is in the process of passing a form based code, and I think we would all agree that as far as successful urbanism is concerned Miami pales in comparison. Form based codes have actually been around for a long time. Think of any good city (Chicago, New York, Philly, Boston) and their downtowns were developed with codes that were form based (as opposed to use based).

-> “Miami 21 is hated by architects and urban planners.”

Actually, having been written by urban planners and architects this one is not really true. The Herald loves to point out that architects dislike the plan, but really only a vocal minority of self-crowned celebrity architects dislike the code as a matter of ego than of substance. One architect in particular (whose name will remain anonymous except to say that it begins with Z and ends with h) says that the code infringes on his creativity by imposing height restrictions. Without going into some lengthy discussion on aesthetics and philosophy, lets just say that where this designer is concerned, creativity is overrated. Miami 21 holds faithful to some pretty basic premises (active street fronts, eyes on the street, etc.) and allows a lot of latitude after that. If you need your building to stand out like a huge phallic symbol, go to Dubai. Never mind that the the latest draft of the code has all but relaxed the height restrictions in certain T-Zones to be what they are in the existing code.

-> “Miami 21 will not allow me to rebuild my house if it gets destroyed.”

First of all, as with any zoning rewrite there will be nonconformities. The whole point of the code is that the existing code is allowing some pretty awful stuff to get built, and the new code will make some of that illegal. That’s the nature of any zoning code. I live in a 1940’s med style house that is illegal by today’s code because its too close to the sidewalk. Go figure. At any rate, the new draft of the code explicitly states that nonconformities in R1 zones will be grandfathered in. Period.

-> “Developers hate Miami 21.”

This one is my favorite. Developers love Miami 21 because it gives them greater development rights than they had before. The code was drafted using the existing regulations as a base. That means that all of the development rights have been preserved or augmented. All the code does is say that you have to meet the street in a way that will promote healthy urbanism. It’s not complicated.

-> “Miami 21 will allow tall buildings next to single family residences along Biscayne in the NE part of town.”

This one is true much to the chagrin of community activists such as Elvis Cruz who have long protected the area. Unfortunately they aren’t entirely using their thinking caps as to what they get in return for this extra height. Along parts of Biscayne you can build a 3 story building that would reach a height of 50’+ that would be adjacent to 30′ homes.

There are two parts to this that people need to understand.

1) We are trying to encourage pedestrian friendly development along in this part of Biscayne and part of that involves defining the street as a public space. With a street as large as Biscayne is, you need something more than two stories to make that happen. I don’t think that 50′ is all that egregious a transition to a single family neighborhood (especially in comparison to what is allowed now).
2) We need to start thinking of our eastern edge as the place where more intense development needs to happen. We cannnot hold the UDB line and be NIMBY’s at the same time. Saving the Everglades means that growth has to be in someone’s backyard. Biscayne Boulevard deserves buildings that are more than 3 stories.

Remember this: Miami 21 is a lot better than the existing code, and if we let this opportunity pass we are the ones who suffer. This is not some abstract concept in a book, this is about the kind of city in which we want to live and raise our families. I for one will not give up.

8 Responses to Miami 21: Is it really that hard to understand?

  1. Anonymous says:

    This is an excellent rebuttle.

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  2. Anonymous says:

    I enjoy your blog so much - such intelligence and give and take. You are correct. The bottom line with Miami 21 is that it might not be perfect, but it is sure a big improvement over the existing code.

    Unfortunately, in Miami today, it is too easy to take pot shots when people try to develop solutions to problems. Rather than join the discussion and improve upon the proposed solution, there is a wringing of hands and an automatic negative, close down the mind approach. You are a refreshing exception to that rule.

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  3. da lizza says:

    thanks… that was very informative.

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  4. Johnny R. says:

    Excellent article. I have to agree with the previous reader, why is everyone so negative in Miami? I believe that the county commission, and the development board in Miami are ruled by big money investors that do not care about our city. We need smart planning, parks, schools, and TRANSPORTATION.

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  5. RICHARD says:

    No other US city has rezoned using DPZ’s code, period. (Old cities with good mass transit have little to do with Miami when it comes to rezoning it.) Some cities using new urbanism principles which are rezoning, find they do not need to use DPZ’s confusing terminology, but use the words everyone has used and understands. DPZ wants us to use their words to help them brand their theory (reworked from a theory in use by planners for 30 years). Almost no other good size city is rezoning their entire city, but the few which are chose NOT TO USE DPZ. … except Miami. So, what about all this makes Miami 21 “cutting edge”?
    Pretending that new urbanism, or old urbanism for that matter, and DPZ are the same, is confusing, and false.
    This plan is bad and needs major revisions. New urbanism has many good elements and we should use them in a new plan. Miami 21 misses the boat and is not progressive. We know this before implementing it, time to revamp a bad plan.

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  6. RICHARD says:

    ps - to clarify - no other larger city has adopted either DPZ’s use of transects for zoning categories, nor allowed them to rezone, within their entire city. (W Palm Beach’s downtown enacted a much milder plan 12 years ago and since has rescinded it, since no one liked it. Biloxi was also displeased with DPZ’s work) DPZ’s application in existing cities is not impressive, contrary to their hard working PR efforts to confuse the public.

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  7. response to Richard says:

    You obviously have been listening to Zyscovich too much. Look at the facts- I agree New Urbanism, real urbanism, form based codes, traditional towns… they are all trying to create a renewed sense of place, a sense of community, of neighborhoods… the real problem is the politicians that continue to degrade our communities by placing high rises where they should not be for developers profits, the poor areas are fed that high rises are the only answer for jobs, Coconut Grove is told they need to be more conforming to Miami and MiMo is told they need density. Why? let the residents speak and let the planning staff make their voices heard not every new consultant that walks into town claiming they have the fountain of youth. Don’t get hung up on T-this or T-that- who cares what they call it. We want our neighborhoods back. Leave Downtown- Downtown, leave Coconut Grove the “village” atmosphere, make MiMo the next renovation of existing building like South Beach utilized, unfortunately Edgewater has been lost where you live- it’s not coming back and was just upzoned again in Miami 21- It’s a speculators place that will rival Park West for the most vacant land in the future, a war zone of competing greed. Let’s fight for what is left- the design district, winwood, little havana, coral way, west omni/ PAC. Demand that CRAs spend money for transit not tunnels, paved streets with ADA access not stadiums, a downtown that is alive at night not Beruit. Stop peddling over transects or W. Palm vs Miami, This is our city! f— the rest and those that run away to live somewhere else. Bring solutions not rheteric and hold those in office accountable!!!

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  8. Tony Garcia says:

    excellent response. couldnt have said it better myself.

    “the real problem is the politicians that continue to degrade our communities by placing high rises where they should not be for developers profits, the poor areas are fed that high rises are the only answer for jobs”

    yup. 5-6 story buildings are more than enough to create great urbanism. don’t need high rises everywhere.

    and ps. this is the most important comment made:
    “Don’t get hung up on T-this or T-that- who cares what they call it.”

    the point is that the new code has more zoning categories to allow smaller increments of development. Currently we go from R2 (duplex) to R3 (Multifamily Medium-Density Residential) to R4 (Multifamily High-Density Residential). The jump in height between these categories goes: 25′ (R2), 50′ (R3) and 120′ (R4) - no finesse, no gradual stepping down. By measuring height in stories, and by providing more increments (in T4 and T5) Miami 21 allows greater flexibility in achieving transitions between categories: T3=2 stories (25′), T4=3 stories (42′), T5=5 stories (70′), T6-8=8 stories (112′), T6-12=12 stories (168′), etc.

    “Bring solutions not rheteric and hold those in office accountable!!!”

    here here

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