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.’”
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.
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)
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.
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.
Subscribe via Email
Find us on Facebook
- Mike Moskos on Event: Donald Shoup-The Godfather of Eliminating Required Parking
- Matthew Toro on ‘Mixed’ Land-Use in Miami-Dade
- Adam Old on ‘Mixed’ Land-Use in Miami-Dade
- Mike arias on County Announces New Vision for Pedestrians and Cyclists: Vision Zero 305
- Matthew Toro on Commercial Land-Use in Miami-Dade
- ivo on County Announces New Vision for Pedestrians and Cyclists: Vision Zero 305
CategoriesAccident Architecture bicycles bike lanes Bike Miami Days biking Biscayne Boulevard Brickell bus Climate Change Coconut Grove complete streets Downtown Miami FDOT High Speed Rail Metrorail Miami Miami-Dade County Miami-Dade Transit Miami 21 Miami Beach Museum Park News Parking Parks Pedestrian Pedestrians Pic o' the Day Planning Real Estate Development Rickenbacker Causeway Sprawl Streetcar Traffic Transit Transitography Transit Oriented Development Transportation Tri-Rail Uncategorized Urban Design Urban Development Boundary Urban Growth Urban Planning Walkability
- Walk, Bike, Transit Advocates Lose Sunday Parking Vote April 17, 2014Despite a grassroots campaign to retain Sunday parking meter charges it only approved two years ago, the San Francisco MTA agreed with Mayor Ed Lee to drop the charges, hoping that voters would approve two transit funding measures in November.
- Why Don’t More Conservatives Support Smart Growth? April 17, 2014A self-identified conservative who supports the “broader vision of smart growth” has identified a reason why more conservatives don’t support smart growth: the political economy of sprawl.
- Pittsburgh Land Bank Approved—With Compromises April 17, 2014Pittsburgh recently approved a land bank to acquire properties when owners fall behind on property taxes. The question about how much control to grant an independent authority, or maintain with the City Council, remains controversial.
- Is Cleveland Too Negative? April 17, 2014A recent opinion article by Richey Piiparinen of the Center for Population Dynamics at the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University says “Cleveland's negativity is a challenge to the city's future.”
- New Urbanism Gets a New Leader April 17, 2014Lynn Richards, formerly of the U.S. EPA's Office of Sustainable Communities, is set to become President of the Congress for the New Urbanism in July. In this interview, Richards says that forging new alliances will be a key goal for her.
- Bike Lanes, Maybe, But Let’s 'Lose Yourself to Dance' April 17, 2014Being on the street used to be a dance, but not so since the automobile took over. Is there a way for all modes to coexist through a mutual ethic rather than compete for a street’s right of way?
- A Comprehensive Examination of the Bay Area Housing Crisis April 16, 2014The Google Bus protests got the media’s attention, and the Ellis Act has politicians' attention, but the Bay Area’s current tech-housing-gentrification crisis is a big, complicated mess.
- What Does 'Feminine' Mean to Women Who Bike? April 16, 2014Women are less likely to ride bikes than males in the United States, and part of the complicated issues of gender and biking have at least partly to do with perceptions. A recent article examines what it means to be “feminine” while riding a bike.
- Capital Beltway Peak Toll Tops $11 April 16, 2014Use of the 495 Express Lanes, a HOT variable toll, has been fetching a pretty penny this year for commuters looking to escape the notoriously congested Capital Beltway. The ongoing experiment in commute pricing should recede before a tipping point.
- Details on the Drastic Legislative Efforts to Block BRT in Nashville April 16, 2014Although other states prohibit the use of state funding for public transportation projects, Tennessee state legislators are moving toward an outright ban of bus rapid transit projects anywhere in the state.
- Walk, Bike, Transit Advocates Lose Sunday Parking Vote April 17, 2014