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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.

Today’s quote comes from a phenomenal short video put together by our friends over at Street Films and the Project for Public Spaces on the vibrancy and quality of life of the streets of Havana. Although we agree Havana is not the ideal city to emulate, we could learn a lot from the beautiful urban streets, clearly designed for social interaction rather than vehicular dominance. Each narrow street of Old Havana is bustling with life as every ground level structure is opened up to the pedestrian realm. Meanwhile, the wide boulevards provide ample park space, recreational space, and plenty of foliage. The film clearly shows how this type of construction, for people rather than vehicles, promotes neighborhood and societal values, something we should be certainly promoting across Miami. To watch the whole film, click here

“If children playing in the streets is an indicator of the success of a city, then Havana’s streets may be some of the most successful in the world.”
-Ethan Kent

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