Reflections on the first year of Miami 21

Tony Garcia, New Urban Network

We can all breathe easier one year later — the doomsday predictions offered by land-use attorneys during the final push to implement Miami 21 never materialized. No financially crippling claims from aggrieved property owners, no chaos, no financial hysteria. Life continued in the Magic City, uninterrupted by Miami 21, a city-wide reform of zoning based on the SmartCode. The code was never going to make a revolutionary change from one day to the next — good or bad. As most of us in the land-use world know, our work takes generations to mature, and is measured in such small increments that we don’t even realize that urban change is happening until we look back on where we started.

Miami took a giant leap last year when Miami 21 was implemented; not because of any one specific provision of the code, but because adopting the principles behind the code represented the beginning of a culture shift in Miami. Those of us who live here know Miamians love their highways and their parking. It is no small feat for Miami to embrace a code that states as one of its goals: “Rebuilding the City’s commercial Corridors to function as Mixed-Use, transit–oriented, walkable centers ... .”

In spite of the ongoing economic doldrums development has continued, and one can already see the impact the code is having on city’s landscape. The shift is most notable outside of the urban core, where small residential projects are being built in accordance with the code with noticeable impact.

In the instant gratification category, count the death of the “snout house” as one of the most visible successes of the code to date. You’ve seen these structures before: a duplex or attached home whose façade is dominated by a protruding, snout-like parking garage. This type proliferated under the previous code, and seriously detracted from a successful pedestrian realm. Unfortunately, they are now common around Miami-Dade, and transformed many quaint Coconut Grove streets into McMansion-scaled alleys.

Miami 21 tackled this problem by restricting the amount of parking in the second layer to 30 percent of the total building frontage. In a typical 50-foot-wide city of Miami lot, with 5-foot interior side setbacks, the max frontage allowed for parking is 13 feet. Problem solved.

The series of photos attached shows how this policy affects housing construction: At top is a Coconut Grove snout house, built prior to Miami 21. The middle and bottom photos were built according to the new code. Miami 21 doesn’t legislate good design, but it does impact street frontage in a meaningful way.

Even with this visible accomplishment, the code is still under attack by politicians, developers, and community groups. Current proposals to amend the code include lower heights (and floor-to-floor maximums), relaxed signage regulations, and a watering down of the bonus system. These are not improvements to the code, and will work to degrade its legibility and efficacy.

Other much needed tweaks, like reductions in the excessively high parking requirements, are stalled and have very little chance of getting off the ground. Political pressure from elected officials and residents continue to inflate parking needs, while at the same time critics have noted that current parking regulations are not different from the suburban standards under the previous code — the fault of neighborhood opposition to lower parking — and not at all in keeping with the principles of the Smart Code.

One year later all Miamians should be grateful that we have Miami 21. It has set the stage for the transportation mode-shift this community needs and deserves. Now we need County Hall to advance the decade-old promise to aggressively expand premium transit to reach our goal of a truly connected, multi-modal metropolis.

Anthony Garcia is principal at The Street Plans Collaborative in Miami, Florida.