Are the mega-condos of Brickell the key to urban vitality and innovation or are they just cul-de-sacs in the sky? In a keynote speech during the 20th Congress for New Urbanism in West Palm Beach, author Richard Florida challenged the idea that the “rush to density” will unlock and release the potential of our cities.

“This rush to density, this idea that density creates economic growth,” is wrong, Florida said. “It’s the creation of real, walkable urban environments that stir the human spirit. Skyscraper communities are vertical suburbs, where it is lonely at the top. The kind of density we want is a ‘Jane Jacobs density.’”

Vertical cul-de-sacs? Photo courtesy of Paul Morris.

In her influential book, Death and Life of American Cities (1961), Jacobs objected to neighborhoods that were made up exclusively of high-rises and instead preferred neighborhoods with buildings that are a mix of different building ages and types – Greenwich Village in New York City, for example. When you consider cities around the world, it is in those types of neighborhoods where you will often find the arts districts, the best music venues, the creatives, the authentic, the local businesses, the innovators, the vitality – and a sense of place and community.

I live in Brickell, in a rented condo on the 23rd story of building built in 2007. It soars for ten more stories above me and sits atop an 8-level parking pedestal where every car has a happy home. It’s surrounded by other residential towers of similar stature. Now, I enjoy Brickell primarily because I can walk for nearly all of my basic human needs – groceries, a barber, a slice of pizza etc. It’s also well-served by MetroRail and Metro Mover, both accessible from my doorstep. It’s a rare Miami neighborhood in that regard. But increasingly, I find myself questioning if Brickell is a “walkable environment that stirs the human spirit” or merely just a semi-walkable streetscape in the shadows of impersonal towers functioning as suburbs in the sky.

No mega-towers needed - "Jane Jacobs" density in Greenwich Village is plenty vibrant.

In many ways, the mega-condos of Brickell share several of the undesirable characteristics of a suburban gated community – despite being the densest neighborhood south of NYC along the east coast. It’s largely impossible to know more than few people in a 50-story building, if you know any at all. The “inclusion” of a parking space (which can drive up the cost of a unit anywhere from 15-30% according to parking expert Jeffrey Tumlin) acts as an incentive to drive, therefore damaging the pedestrian realm. The buildings and their residents, by nature, are segregated by income. The anonymity does not encourage civic engagement – in the recent city commission elections, the Brickell zip codes recorded an 8% turn-out.

That means 92% did not vote.

Meaningful public space in Brickell is severely lacking. With no central plaza, no signature park, no outdoor public room, no farmers market or gathering place, most of the “public” realm is centered around commercial “third places” (Starbucks) or reduced to the street and sidewalks. The latter is problematic because Brickell’s sidewalks are terribly neglected and the streets full of maniacal drivers. (Sometimes you’ll even see a maniacal driver on the sidewalk).

Portions of Brickell, especially Brickell Avenue, are dark and full of uninviting blank walls and underpasses. The “pedestrian shed” in Brickell is actually quite small. Aside from disjointed commercial sections of South Miami Avenue, a walk around Brickell is a particularly unrewarding experience. (Crumbling sidewalks, perpetual construction with worker disregard to pedestrians, dark streets, curb cuts galore, bullying motorists, busy arterials with scant crosswalks, the desolation of vacated office towers after business hours)

Brickell Green Space is a project to lobby for a new park in the neighborhood. (Courtesy of BrickellGreenSpace.com)

The businesses attracted to Brickell are beginning to look a lot like those implanted in suburban shopping malls – national franchises like Blue Martini, Fado, P.F. Chang’s – which would be acceptable if there were actually some other businesses opening besides restaurants. The 800-lb gorilla in the room no one seems to be talking about is the future Brickell CitiCentre, a 4,600,000 square foot retail, hotel and condo behemoth and the largest private construction project in the United States at present.

For better or worse, this project will fundamentally transform the neighborhood, if not the entire city. On one hand, it will mitigate the retail deficit that exists in Miami’s urban core. On the other, we can expect plenty of national franchises, thousands of parking spaces and plenty more traffic on the dangerous and uninviting “urban arterials” of SW 8th and SW 7th streets. Ultimately, it may be a series of towers that function more like a suburban shopping mall rather than a seamlessly integrated edifice into the urban fabric with an active pedestrian realm.

Rendering of the Brickell CitiCentre. Courtesy of BrickellInfo.com

It’s obvious that areas like Wynwood, Midtown and the Design District are the emerging centers of Miami’s arts and creative community. Brickell is beginning to seem like a stark contrast to those neighborhoods; identified as a weekend playground for suburbanites, wealthy South Americans on vacation to their second homes and disengaged young professionals. As the housing stock continues to increase in those aforementioned neighborhoods, the divide will become ever more apparent.

The longer term prospects for the Brickell megatowers are arguably quite bleak, as flimsy homeowners associations will face massive maintenance costs and liabilities in an era of expensive energy in their giant-scaled buildings – an increasingly urgent situation that smaller, human-scaled buildings will have an easier time confronting. When these towers require broad renovations, the limitations of their enormity will truly be exposed.

The key to long-term vitality in a neighborhood is whether it’s inhabitants are truly fulfilled with their surroundings. 

To quote Richard Florida, “The quality of a place itself is the single most important factor in people’s fulfillment. There are four parts to this: the degree to which a community: values its history; is walkable and mixed-use; values arts, both street art and high art; and integrates the built and natural environment.”

Aside from Brickell’s walkability, it seems to be failing on the other fronts Florida mentions. Valuing history? Entitled residents are using an ancient burial ground as a toilet for their dogs. Street art and high art? There are no art galleries in Brickell and the only “street art” is the incessant sidewalk spray paint indiscriminately spewed by utility and construction companies. Integrates the built and natural environment? Another fail – all that exists in Brickell is the built environment. (The Miami Riverwalk project would be nice if completed in my lifetime)

There are some improvements on the way – Triangle Park, if ever completed, will be a welcomed, albeit small, neighborhood plaza. There are plans to overhaul South Miami Avenue and 1st St to be more pedestrian and bicycle friendly in the coming years. However, it’s relatively unlikely these projects will significantly change the underlying social construct of a skyscraper-burdened place.

I increasingly find myself leaving Brickell on my bicycle in search of more authentic urban experiences found elsewhere in the city. Actually, I need to leave Brickell just to go to a bookstore or bicycle shop….

….usually found in “Jane Jacobs” density.

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20 Responses to Miami’s Suburbs in the Sky

  1. Kyle says:

    I think Brickell will get there, we just need to be patient yet proactive about saving land now for parks and public spaces. IMO, Brickell CitiCentre is a good project that’ll bring shoppers to the heart of the city, instead of driving out to the suburbs. It’ll also encourage shoppers to come by Metro since it’s right next door.

    I agree with you that Brickell definitely needs more public spaces. The city has done some important efforts recently with the Miami Circle and the park at 1814 Brickell, but these are too tiny to satisfy the needs of such a fast-growing population. We need something like Union Square in Manhattan, or a central park where people can gather. We need public spaces in Miami.

       5 likes

  2. M says:

    In your “Integrates the built and natural environment” comment, you forgot about Simpson Hammock Park. It is one of my favorite places in Brickell and a great place to get into a bit of nature, probably much more so than the forthcoming Triangle Park or the new city park at 1814 Brickell.

       2 likes

  3. carlos says:

    i think a key component that brickell needs is more accessibility to stores that are found in other part of the city, things like a coffee shop, local bakery that is not publix, bike shops, smaller stores that are found all over miami. If brickell wants to be improved in needs more than just chain restaurants, it would needs more local places and like the article explained more open spaces where people can walk their dogs and hang out. another big issues is the lack of courtesy to pedestrians by all the drivers that pass through brickell speeding.

       3 likes

  4. Steve says:

    Great article. This was a constant topic of discussion at CNU-20 last week. I agree that the skyscraper seriously needs to be reconsidered as a sustainable form of development. One of my favorite cities, Washington D.C., has a high restriction, which for all its issues has created an incredible pedestrian and transit friendly city. Block after block of human scale development is a joy to stroll through, rather than the canyons of blank facades and utility protrusions that are the reality of high rise construction after the star-chitects have left the project and the engineers have taken over.

    Back in the ’70s here in Denver, the city embarked on a misguided “Skyline” project, tearing down most of our historic stone 4-5 story buildings downtown, in the name of progress and the idea that any great city must a skyline. The only neighborhood where the historic urban fabric remains is the LoDo neighborhood, which was recently named one of the great neighborhoods in America by the American Planning Association. The issue is human scaled urbanism doesn’t usually pencil out for the developer sitting on a vacant parcel of land, waiting for their big pay day.

       3 likes

  5. Jimbo99 says:

    I liken them to prisons. You must use a valet to get your car, so you’re at the mercy of that, so the building can monitor when you come and go. You can’t control who moves in above or below or for eiother side and while concrete floors and ceilings might minimize noise, the drywall between places really doesn’t. Next you have those garbage chutes. All it takes is one neighbor to create a mess in front of the chute door, the chute’s themselves get nasty and filthy. Ever get the neighbor that walks their garbage to the chute and then doesn’t put their trash down the chute ? I’ve seen that first hand. Sorry, give me a separate free standing building over the condo life everytime. Oh yeah, then there’s the damn associations. Always someone that has too much time on their hands wanting to tell you what you can and can’t do. And then has the audacity to charge you for that unsolicited list of requirements.

       3 likes

  6. BCG says:

    Just my thoughts…I beleive the problem which has already been created in Miami 21 is the opportunity for density is so high, so anyone sitting on any land has the anticipation that they will be able to sell it to a developer for big time money as a result of the potential development heights.
    Now the City can’t even afford to purchase vacant property since property values are jacked up.
    Ideally, expanding the baywalk/riverwalk, utilizing area under the metro-rail as plaza, dog park, area, and pushing for vacant land to be purchased.
    Homeowner groups can do a large part in pushing the issue, and even providing assistance with maintenance of new park space.

       1 likes

  7. John says:

    All development in the city should be required to have ground floor retail that hugs the street with limited parking. We may have a ton of skyscrapers with thousands of people moving in, but unless we have an urban ground level with shops and no blank walls or garages, we’re not going to get the urban world city we can be.

    Miami has everything in place to be a top world city; we can’t fall short. We must demand only the best in urban design now, we’re not the quaint suburban Miami of 1950 anymore.

       3 likes

  8. Devin says:

    You Nailed it on the head BCG. How can we expect Miami’s core to grow and densify while still harboring the unique characteristics of the urban environments Jane Jacobs writes about if our codes don’t promote opportunities to mid-tier developers and entrepreneurs. How do we expect to build communities by continually pushing out the mom and pop. We really need to think about what true urbanism is and not force the issue. Appreciate and embrace what we have and add to the dialogue, not replace it!

    Brickell has a gem in Tabacco road, but the city allows its surrounding context to become derelict. The people have the power to do what’s right and lets hope we can save this last bit of true urban space before another citiCenter steps on its site!

    Thanks for the article Craig.

       1 likes

  9. Kyle says:

    Tobacco Road was sold to a Colombian investor two weeks ago, so the future of that beautiful stretch of Miami Av is questionable now. I’d love to see the architects design a structure that keeps the historic buildings on that property and just building over and around it. It’d be a nice juxtaposition between old and new, and a new type of historic preservation for the city.

       3 likes

  10. Rima says:

    I never understood the appeal of Brickell. When I bike along Brickell Ave, I find it to be terribly narrow, in a bad shape, and overall uninviting. Plus, there is not even a single coffee shop that I know of on Brickell where locals could gather. Just gleamy high-rises and luxury condos. No street-level life at all. Not sure why people want to live there. It feels very isolated and lonely. Just like the burbs.

       3 likes

  11. B says:

    Right on the mark with this one! In many respects, Brickell is becoming like a more dense version of Aventura, not a true urban environment. For the year when I lived in the Loft 2 Downtown, I actually ended up driving more often than now that I live up in Aventura. My day-to-day needs are easier to access on foot, and I can get to the beach by bus faster than I could living downtown. I realized that it’s not worth it to pay downtown rents and live in essentially a condensed gated community. Most pedestrians at Mary Brickell Village have just parked their car, and the new parking garages of CitiCenter are not going to help the situation at all. Does it not occur to developers that the whole point of living in the city center is because you wouldn’t need to own a car and have a dedicated parking spot 356 days a year?

       2 likes

  12. Felipe Azenha says:

    B,

    Developers are required to provide parking due to parking minimums stipulated by Miami 21. Miami 21 would be better off establishing parking maximums rather than minimums. I believe many developers would choose not to include parking in their developments if they had an option. A parking space costs about $15k to build- this cost is then passed on to the renter or the owner-which directly increase the cost of owning/renting.

       3 likes

  13. John says:

    B- You can’t compare Aventura to Brickell. Aventura is literally a vertical suburb, Brickell is just now growing into its new self, an urban self, you just need to give the area more time.

    Every week there’s some new restaurant, shop, a supermarket, new apartments, whatnot, it’s amazing. Few, if any, city in the US can say this. As the streetscape projects are completed which make the road safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, and more ground floor businesses open up, it’ll continue to urbanize.

    Look at it this way, I’d rather have all the growth in Downtown (vertical suburb or not) than have it be horizontal suburban sprawl out in West Kendall. At the very least, at least we’re helping our environment, but that doesn’t mean we should settle for crap design either.

       5 likes

  14. IDH says:

    One of the biggest issues with the design of downtown Miami is the planning never included the idea of connectivity. As I read some of your comments you agree. It all falls on the shoulders of Miami’s Urban Planning Department. I don’t understand how experienced urban development planning professional never took in consideration that grocery stores, movie theaters, restaurants, post offices, parks, etc. would be needed. In actuality I don’t think they did forget but that’s another story. How could you miss all the things that thriving downtown areas like Chicago, San Francisco, D.C., and New York have? The city has just failed in vision. The politics of the city has held Miami hostage in mid 20th century urban development design. There are key sustainable means of urban planning that they could adhere to in order to save and modernize existing structures, create more connectivity through out the city, and increase better usage of the transit system. The question is with ideas like Miami21 how well does that work with all these new high rises that don’t include much commercial space for leasing? The city of Miami needs to get it together.

       2 likes

  15. Steve Hagen says:

    Great review on Brickel…Not the place I want ot live….A green people park will help……Miami’s attitude is pack them and stack them, be it high high, moderate or low income….Livability is
    forgotten….

       0 likes

  16. TransitDave says:

    I have to agree with many of the observations about life on Brickell, where I lived from 2005 to 2010, during which it became more of a neighborhood, but still has a long ways to go to match DC, NYC, or other livable downtowns. On the other hand, it’s the most urban place in the SE United States, and the weather, eye candy and views from the buildings just can’t be beat. All this and a short drive to South Beach. Anyone will tell you that it’s a great place to visit; it’s up to us to make it a great place to live. Keep up the good work……

       3 likes

  17. [...] good friend Mike Lydon linked to a review of sorts of Miami’s Brickell neighborhood, noting many of the urban design deficiencies of the place. [...]

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  18. Brad k says:

    Great article and comments. It’s time to have frank, honest discussions a about the failures of our planners and “development” experts to create a true urban environment. The Manny Diaz vision of development doesn’t work but the “block by block” strategy being practiced north or the river does.

    Contrast that to the spin piece in the Hrrald about Brickell being “red hot” and be becoming some sort of international dining destination. Gimme a break! When they stop spinning patting themselves on the back and start to experts and the community, then maybe we’ll see some real progress.

       2 likes

  19. Kesley says:

    Everything you mentioned in your article is what Brickell is supposed to be. A “high class” neighborhood for the executives that work nearby or snowbirds with enough money to buy a second home. I do agree the latter though does nothing to contribute to the community since they are not actually there for most of the year.

    But if you want a vibrant arts scene, then go to Wynwood. The beauty of Brickell is the density and the endless glass skyscrapers. Maybe Wynwood can turn into something like Greenwich village in the future. But there is no need to “downgrade” Brickell.

    A park and more walkability would be nice though.

       1 likes

  20. [...] Middle. Miami is full of condos and single-family houses – and yet provides nothing for the middle. This lack of [...]

       0 likes

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