My Miami Story Conversation Recap

A review of the #MyMiamiStory Conversation hosted by MiamiGrid and Anima Domus.

Each year, the Miami Foundation asks people across the county to host a series of parallel conversation on Miami and our place in it. My 2016 My Miami Story conversation is what sparked me to start Miami Grid, and in that spirit, I was thrilled at the opportunity to host another. The conversation was broken into 3 sections: Resilience, Prosperity, and Fairness. Below is a summary of the thoughts shared in each of those sections among the 24 people in attendance, who resided all over the county.

Showroom at Anima Domus used for the conversation


This question was broken into 2 parts: climate change and crisis management. In the opening, members of the group expressed hope in Miami to withstand the effects of climate change. They also believe that a whole street by street raising plan in the city is not the only solution. Mitigation and floodable areas must be paired with hardening of infrastructure systems, in order to create a more resilient and livable city. There was also fear that climate change gentrification could push low-income persons into lower lying areas, while real estate in higher elevation areas would be desirable for those who can afford it. This can be solved through a pairing of mitigation and density increases in lower lying areas, in order to fund street improvement projects.

In terms of crisis management, the first thing on everyone’s mind was Hurricane Irma. A lot of people discussed issues with the city and red cross management in terms of evacuation zones and shelters. With a number of evacuation zones, and the inability to leave the county with such little notice, many turned to shelters and found them inadequate. FPL was also discussed, and the group agreed that, although expensive, burying lines is a necessary truth in the place we live. The group discussed the Miami Forever Plan, a bond issue on the ballot in November, as a good step towards mitigating flooding. Flooding is a concept which we are all too comfortable with in our daily lives, especially with King tide coming to a close. The group agreed that infrastructure must be put in place to fix this, as it cannot be a normal part of life here in Miami.



We opened this conversation with a stat from the Miami Foundation Report: Miami has the largest small business start-up rate of any comparable city. Many spoke about Miami’s connection to immigrant families, and how they are more likely to start new businesses. Some also questioned the stat as inflated, based on foreign capital usually utilizing the creation of a company for simple real estate investments.

We spoke of quality of life issues for a while, as these are connected to prosperity and economic development. The ones we reviewed were parks, transit, and culture. In parks, we discussed the unevenness around the county. Many areas that are wealthier or incorporated tended to have more programming and budgets for parks. Unincorporated Dade seemed to be the most underserved in terms of both programming and number of parks. Within transit, we discussed what goals were. Some were defeatist about Miami’s prospect with transit. Most felt that Miami would not truly be a metropolis if this is not fixed, and some were part of the Transit Alliance working to make a change. Finally, Culture was discussed optimistically. Although we discussed the lack of small cultural events, the group was hopeful that they are increasing, and ordinary Miamians are leading the charge.



Finally, we discussed fairness beginning with affordable housing. We agreed that Miami must be a place where everyone can afford to live. We discussed the county measure for upgrading density in exchange for affordable units as a good thing. We also discussed this in terms of transit. If there is affordable housing down south or out west, and it takes over 2 hours for someone to commute to their job on the beach, that creates an unsustainable city.

In the final moments, we discussed elected office and officeholders. Miami has a high voting rate, but some discussed that they’d like to see a change in their leadership. Through better knowing our leaders, and talking to them directly, many discussed ways in which a difference can be made.

We ended with the following message:

Vote, pay attention, plan cultural events, fight sea level rise, and keep talking. 


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FPL in a Post-Irma Florida

Everyone’s favorite punching bag brought power back to 99.9% of households within 1 week. While that is nothing to sniff at, it is important to ask how the system can be designed to work better, instead of designed to fail better.

Power lines 1
Workers after Irma in Coral Gables

The City of Coral Gables announced today that it will study a plan to bury power lines in the city. It is estimated to cost upwards of $250 million, a figure almost equal to the total annual expenditures of the city. Any other year this would sound like a preposterous proposal, but with the context of Irma, it appears to be the only logical conclusion. The voters, after 4-8 days of overheated boredom, are ready to shell out an indeterminate amount of special assessments in order to never have to live through it again, and that is understandable.

The Miami Herald detailed in an article last week the complicated struggle that occurs between homeowners, city government, and FPL over the battle between distribution lines and trees. The distribution lines are simply strings hung between tall poles in front of your house, usually in the municipal right of way. The municipality usually wants to plant trees in that limited right of way to add shade and beauty. FPL wants it as clear as possible in order to allow for easy maintenance and low risk. Homeowners usually want to plant trees close to that right of way for privacy and noise mitigation. These three goals are in contrast with one another, so the compromise must be in the maintenance.

Generic Tree Maintenance Diagram from Todd Weena. See FPL protocol below.

Cities are supposed to maintain their trees so that they do not overpower the right of way, and FPL is supposed to trim trees that are infringing upon power lines. This simple description of responsibility becomes anything but simple when you magnify it to 5 million people. Maintenance schedules are not followed; Some homeowners do not like their trees trimmed due to privacy or aesthetics; FPL and municipalities often ignore calls from concerned citizens about overgrown trees encroaching on lines; Cycles of recessions move properties through states of disrepair that allow trees to overgrow without maintenance.

Power Lines

After Irma, 4.4 million FPL customers were without power, representing 90% of its system in the state, along with 2,000 fallen poles. For context, Wilma brought down 12,000 poles, but only 75% of state customers lost power. Why the discrepancy?

After Wilma, FPL raised $3 billion from its profits and new costs on its customers in hardening its system. However, to many customers’ dismay, hardening the system is not about preventing outages. Hardening is simply about restoring them faster. After Wilma, most got power back in the second week, while in Irma they achieved 99% restoration after 1 week. That is the actual result of hardening of the system. Hardening involves changing poles to concrete and steel in order to prevent massive failure. The predictable and almost designed failure is for trees to topple and hit power lines, causing the widespread outages that were seen.

With all of this information, it would appear that Coral Gables is correct. The only way to allow for a peaceful right of way, more curb appeal, larger trees, and fewer outages is burying the lines. The question simply boils down to cost. Right now, FPL gives a small discount to those that want to bury their lines. This discount should be larger and take in the present value of the lowering of needed maintenance vs. a standing distribution line. These storms will continue to grow, and as mentioned in a previous article, an event like Irma is predictable and manageable if planned in advanced.

City of Miami Commissioner, Ken Russell, called on citizens to report power line damage on the app NextDoor, helping to speed up the cleanup process.

Not all cities will be able to afford this system. This will have to be a local decision. For cities that want the canopy, and want to spend less on maintenance, it appears to be something they should consider. In the meantime, state legislators should create and enforce proper oversight over FPL’s tree program and new construction of power poles, requiring them to be resistant to Category 5 winds (as they are in the Keys). They should create a grant program for burying power lines if municipalities want to bring money and coordination efforts to the table. Finally, we all should take lead from Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, who spearheaded a community-wide effort in Coconut Grove to map out where the fallen trees that were effecting power were. Using the app NextDoor, FPL was able to see in real time, photos and information regarding fallen trees. Without a dollar spent, he helped to speed up recovery efforts in his neighborhood and FPL should be working on creating an app of their own.

If citizens want to get involved through voting, tax increases, or by providing information, we need to create avenues for them to do that. If not, every storm will simply be a reiteration of the same complaints and failures.

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EVENT: My Miami Story Happy Hour, hosted by MiamiGrid and Anima Domus

Join us for this special collaboration between MiamiGrid and Anima Domus!


Life in Greater Miami is captured in stories from the 2.6 million people who call this place home. My Miami Story adds your voice to the countywide conversation hosted by the Miami Foundation about who we are, where we’re going and what we can do to get there.

This conversation will be centered on Miami’s urban development, and how we can grow more resilient, prosperous, and fair as a city.

Refreshments and light snacks will be served.

Register online here.

Irma: A Storm 25-years in the Making

South Florida has been preparing for a storm like Irma since Andrew hit in 1992, and our efforts have paid off.

“We dodged a cannon,” said Miami Beach mayor, Phillip Levine on CNN. Although that may be true, it took more than meteorological luck for the minor outcome rendered from Hurricane Irma in South Florida. The majority of the damage, thankfully, appears to be related to foliage and signage, unlike the damage seen in the islands, and on the west coast of the state. While it may feel like luck, smart regulation, planned preparedness, and large infrastructure projects have drastically lowered the overall damage in the region, and have been preparing us for a storm like this for a long time.

Irma was a massive dress rehearsal for the worst case scenario. 3 days out, the hurricane was a Category 5 storm headed directly towards Miami from the south, with 200 mph gusts. It eventually hit Marco Island, on the west coast of Florida, as a Category 3 storm and spun up the center of the state. South Florida felt Category 3 wind gusts with Category 1/Tropical Storm sustained winds. This was a welcome deviation from the predicted outcomes, but the real story is not in the outcome but in the process.

While Irma was only named a few weeks ago, preparedness for her has been a 25-year event. This year marked the chilling quarter century anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, an event seared into the minds of Miami natives (see photos of damage above). It is the original sin of Florida hurricanes, causing the costliest storm cleanup in history when it struck in 1992, essentially flattening entire communities with its Category 5 sustained winds. With this context, South Floridians began bracing for an Irma-like storm over two decades ago.

After Andrew, buildings codes, condo association documents, infrastructure projects, and more began to change in response. Building codes required large scale changes, such as concrete construction and roof structures that included tie-downs. Zoning also began to acknowledge permeable surface and evacuation zone planning. Cities developed crisis management infrastructure and planning that had never been seen before. Condo docs began requiring shutters and hurricane preparedness requirements brought up and voted on by residents. Nationwide, entire industries were changed to accommodate hurricane preparedness from insurance to windows to government agencies. The South Florida Water Management District alone spends over half of a billion dollars annually on flood mitigation, and the region has been a model for storm preparedness for decades.

normandy2isle lnew cmg
Grocery stores and Gas Stations are required to carry generators to make for quick openings after a storm event. This represents one of the effects from Hurricane Andrew. Above is a line in front of a grocery in Miami Beach after Hurricane Irma.

Irma preparations began in full swing a week before she was estimated to hit. Water was absent from shelves and gas lines ticked in at up to an hour long. Zones A and B in Miami-Dade County were under mandatory evacuation, and Zone C was later added to the list. To put that in context, the evacuation order included the entire areas of Miami Beach, Pinecrest, Coconut Grove, and all of the Florida Keys. People either drive or flee north, or shared homes with their friends out west. FPL was in full crisis management, as millions would inevitably lose power across the state. They prepped lines and were the first vehicles out on the road after the storm. Florida Department of Transportation managed the highway evacuations, and although there were delays, almost all were able to get to their final destinations before the storm, whether by land or air.

The process worked. The seriousness the storm offered was met with an equal measure of preparedness. The deaths in the state will measure in the tens, not hundreds due to the seriousness and preparedness of its citizens, government, and businesses.

Massive Hurricane Irma Bears Down On Florida
Storm clouds are seen over Fisher Island as Hurricane Irma approaches on September 9, 2017

This was a triumph, at every level, and inspired confidence that for the next storm, South Florida will rise to the challenge. The storms will only intensify as oceans warm; Their surge effects will multiply as seas rise; And calls for abandoning efforts to manage and mitigate their effects will amplify as defeatists who lack creativity or morality will grow; But despite this, we should continue to be creative and comprehensive in protecting our homes and cities. This month neighbors, city officials, and contractors will clean roads, yards, and businesses, and next month rebuilding efforts will commence. Hopefully the month after that we will take stock of what we did right, and what we did wrong and continue preparing for what comes next. For we have learned that preparation is not something that happens in the week before the storm but begins decades prior.

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Houston’s Harvey, an Urbanist Perspective

Blame is counterproductive. Let’s talk solutions.

Before I begin this piece, I want to say how heartbroken I am over the devastation in East Texas. I personally lived, studied, and worked in Houston for 5 years, and have come to claim it as a home. I could not be prouder of Houstonians today, as more and more stories of courage and selflessness are being shown in daylight. This is the inspirational response we need to meet in our planning efforts.

Houston Flood Plain map

In looking at the map above, many would not recognize its shape as Houston. The map of Houston is usually drawn by the pinwheel form of its highways, but truly, Harris County is a physical representation of a tree diagram of bayous, flowing into Galveston Bay in the Southeast corner. A large percentage of the water that falls onto Houston has to make it to that Bay, in order to escape the city streets. The strategy of this is very important and should be essential to how the city is planned, built, and zoned.

Anyone who lives or knows about Houston understands that that last sentence is a joke. Houston has no land use zoning or planning efforts. However, it does have codes related to permeable surface and density, and that is that we should be talking about. Houston has always had a flooding problem but in the last large flooding event in 2016, the Tax Day floods, about a quarter of the rescues occurred outside of even the 500-year floodplain. In the last 5 years, Houston has had 3 100-year flood events, that theoretically have a 1% chance of occurring.

In the past, the Bayou’s and prairie land have done a decent job of draining the city. Most of the water goes to the bayous, with a smaller portion draining into the soil. However, the city has had unprecedented growth, and with that growth unprecedented concrete. While Houston has no zoning, it does have strict parking codes that require a high number of spaces. It also has a very poor level of permeable surface requirements, creating large runoff issues, blocking soil that already is among the slowest draining in the country. A study found that water in the Brays Bayou watershed over the last 40 years has increased 26%, while water runoff has skyrocketed 204%. This is a manageable problem and a necessary burden on new construction that must be imposed. While none of this would have prevented all of the issues with Hurricane Harvey, which dropped Houston’s entire annual rainfall on the city within a week, it would have made the problem smaller, and other flash flooding events moot.

Precipitation Chart
Rainfall counts as of 8/29 vs. Avg Rainfall line

Harvey’s rainfall was both historic and predictable. With the heightening frequency of flood events and the escalation of tropical systems due to climate change, a storm like Harvey’s was inevitable. Houston has known about this, and has been preparing for flooding events for decades but has only scratched the surface of necessary improvements. The city spends $100 million annually in flood mitigation efforts and has used it in hydraulic systems, floodable highways, and water reservoirs. That may sound like a lot, but South Florida spends $664 million annually on water management and still has issues. Houston’s soil and drainage situation begs for more permeable surface and the addition of usable underground water storage tanks. There are opportunities for Public-Private partnerships to sell unpotable water directly to consumers, for large developments to create water features, and for architects to create micro-mitigation solutions to make homes and commercial buildings more valuable. Policy must also follow suit; Perhaps a cap and trade system of permeable surface? Or a series of city-funded competitions combining quality-of-life projects with mitigation efforts? Extraordinary thinking and solutions are needed to save cities all along the Gulf from predictable and frequent catastrophe.

Houston’s annual GDP is nearing $500 billion dollars and its population remains the fourth largest in the country. Its problems are not insurmountable, and ignoring them has ripple effects for each and every one of us. This week, amazing acts of courage will fill our TV screens and make us stop in awe at the incredible bravery. A DEA officer taking his small motorboat out and saving 40 people. A woman who met a stranger at a gas station and is housing 16 people in her unflooded home. And a Houstonian, known as Mattress Mack, who opened his 2 stores for victims escaping the flood, and currently has 400 people sheltered, and is providing them with food and water. There are countless stories like this of extraordinary people doing extraordinary things, and if they can do it, then I think Houston can find its way out of this in the long term as well.

PS: If you wanted to donate to help people on the ground right now, here is a list of local charities you might consider.

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Review: North Beach Masterplan

The North Beach Master Plan is a learning experience for many towns along the Eastern Seaboard. In it is a plan for resiliency that has many hits, and a few key misses.

North Beach is a dense and vibrant residential community on the northern edge of the City of Miami Beach (from 63rd to 87th St). It includes 3 islands, a dense, historic, low-rise residential fabric, classic large condo buildings along Collins Ave, a slew of mom and pop retail, and the Normandy Isle Bridge to the mainland. It also recently approved a large scale master plan in order to add resiliency to this thriving community.

Trolley Map to illustrate the location and geography of North Beach, Miami Beach

The North Beach Master Plan was approved October 2016 with a unanimous vote from the Miami Beach City Commission. The 189-page document is the result of months of community meetings, and work from town planners Dover Kohl. It includes 5 main points in its executive summary:

  1. Make a Town Center
  2. Provide more Mobility Options
  3. Protect and Enhance Neighborhoods
  4. Better Utilize Public Lands
  5. Build to Last

Let’s peek into each of these categories, and use North Beach as an example for small towns along the eastern seaboard.

1. Make a Town Center

All great small towns revolve around a town center. North Beach’s has always been an informal street, 71st St, leading to the Normandy Isle Monument. The master plan proposes upzoning this area to allow for building up to 175′, creating a more pedestrian friendly streetscape, and adding a central green on the current 72nd St. parking lot. The main detriments to this plan are the hodgepodge of owners currently in this area, usually owning about 7500 sqft each of land. In order for this project to be successful, large acquisitions need to be made and financed. Buyers would need assurances before taking such risks, and the city needs to get more involved and possibly offer commercial lease incentives. In addition, The master plan calls for use of the Byron Carlyle Theater site, currently owned by the city, as a catalyst. The programming and maintenance of this site are crucial to illustrating that a project can work there.


Miami Beach trolley is a free service. 


2. Provide more Mobility Options

Anyone that has been to North Beach knows that the area has a serious parking problem. This is why a major part of the resiliency of the town is a transportation question. Most of the building stock in the area is pre-1970s, meaning that most were built without parking. This has caused an absurd amount of street parking needed in the area that can only be exacerbated through public transit and building updates. Ironically, it is this concentration of older buildings has kept rental prices low, making North Beach a great location for those working in hospitality and entertainment throughout the city, with 26.2% of residents not having a car. Thankfully, Miami Beach has been improving its trolley system, and new bike lanes and denser retail should incentivize some in the area to ditch the car for other means of transportation. The master plan calls for dedicated bus lanes, bike lanes, and extended sidewalks. New businesses in the area should also help to create a car free community, as many could potentially walk to work. Miami Beach has always been a walkable city, and one of the areas in Miami where living car-free is a viable option, and the master plan reflects this.


Historic Districts
Miami Beach Historical Preservation Map


3. Protect and Enhance Neighborhoods

Although it has a fairly sterile name, this has been one of the most contentious items of this plan due to its connection to historical preservation. A large portion of North Beach is designated or subject to historic preservation laws and regulations. This may be the single biggest obstacle to truly creating a resilient community here. No one wants to destroy the character and density of this thriving residential community, however, living conditions are worsening and the sea level is rising.

The practical implications of this create an opportunity for development. The master plan suggests creating 2 specific historic districts as a precursor to upzoning, but this plan has not been approved by the council. It also casts too wide of a net and does not allow for enough development or freedom. Select parts of this district can and should be saved, but large parts of it must be upzoned in order to survive. In doing this, it gives historically designated buildings an ability to sell air rights around North Beach. This would give the historical buildings funding to improve while creating an economic engine in the residential areas. This burst of construction should add needed parking, infrastructure funding, and buildings that can last a lifetime.

MiMo Architecture in the Area
4. Better Utilize Public Lands

Most do not know that the city owns a lot of land in North Beach in prime areas. Most should be kept as pocket public space for relief from the density. A lot of these pockets should also double as floodable zones, as many are in low lying areas along the bay. The city also owns a string of parcels along the North Shore Open Space Park. This area can act as a functioning transition or buffer zone between the park and the residential fabric. This plan calls for these to be various public use facilities, but this is an opportunity for fundraising and private partnerships. The city should implement a competition that brings low-density commercial property and public space to those parcels on long leases. This would bring income to the city, while also leaving options open for the future. The city should also not just pick the best lease proposal, but the proposal for the property that would best utilize the site, injecting use and life to the buffer between the park and the residences.

5. Build to Last

This is self-explanatory, but zoning laws should reflect the 50-year sea level rise estimates, and the city should be working diligently in combating the known risks of climate change. Without this, there is no future for Miami Beach.

North Beach is a community with incredible potential and life. This master plan is a step in the right direction, but should not be written in stone. Smart leaders and community members should still take an active role in shaping their neighborhoods based on new information and ideas. All plans are works in progress, and this process is an example for vibrant towns everywhere.


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The EB-5 Paradox

EB-5 Visas have been an important post-recession tool in Miami for raising money, but have also fueled unaffordable housing in the City.

The EB-5 Visa is a US immigration program where foreign persons can gain visas or green cards through investing in US ventures. In order to qualify, a candidate must invest between $500,000 and $1 Millon (depending on the area) into a venture that creates at least 10 jobs. If you want more information, see the stock footage filled video below created by a financial institution called GreenAccess that specializes in the program:

The program has raised $14 billion of investment in the US since 2008 when developers and start-ups began targeting this program at the start of the Great Recession. Since traditional sources of capital dried up, new ways were needed to fill the gap between traditional loans and raised capital. Since the great recession, the program has only increased in volume, especially in Florida. In 2011, the program brought $10.5 million in capital funding. In 2013, that number increased to $150.5 million and growing. This represents a large part of the capital funding of real estate projects in South Florida, but furthermore, is determining the types of projects developers are building.


The definition of “investment” is not well defined for this program, and there is no restriction as to financial return or payment from developers, causing a lot of fraud and misleading in the program. The programs operate through regional centers, like GreenAcres who made the video above, usually private, that are approved by the US Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services. These offices farm for EB-5 candidates all over the world, and connect them with projects in the states. They handle the financial planning and holding and take fees for those services.

Render of Paramount World Center

In Miami, most of these investments land in luxury real estate projects. These are projects that are planned with EB-5 Visa investment and buyers in mind. In other words, developers create a building product that is a good candidate for easy investment that translates into a sale of a condo. For example, the Paramount World Center will give a 0.5% return on investor capital, which is essentially nothing, and at the end of construction, your investment secures you the option of buying a condo. Other projects such as the Hollywood Circle development raised 1/2 of their total project cost, or $100 million, through the EB-5 visa program. Other popular programs for this include restaurants and hotels.

The problematic investments occur in the luxury real estate space, where developers reserve massive blocks of their buildings for EB-5 visa applicants while ignoring qualified buyers in the states. This program allows developers to get essentially free money for financing, along with a qualified buyer, by signing a single piece of paper early in the process. This program is essentially incentivizing the building of luxury residential units over market rate ones, pushing up the market in cities that do not need it.

Congress is currently reviewing the program closely, as they have been kicking it down the road for the last year. They have passed multiple stop gap extensions, the next of which expires on September 30th, 2017. Many opponents, usually from states that do not benefit from the program, want to end it entirely or significantly increase the minimum investment amount. While supporters want to see it continue, many believe that it has opened itself up to fraud and needs reform, but would like a compromise increase that does not kill the program entirely.

Currently, the program has a 2 tiered investment minimum, having a lower minimum for investment in areas of needed economic development. This rule is not well enforced and could go a long way in helping to stifle the luxury investment pipeline. If it was enforced,  $1 million would be the minimum in areas of high employment, while the standard $500,000 would remain the minimum in areas of low employment. Congress must get creative in enacting policy that both raises the threshold, while not eliminating the good parts of the program, that truly create jobs and foster new business. There must be a middle ground where meaningful investment can occur while not over inflating real estate markets with foreign dollars in major cities, leaving locals with few options for good housing.

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