Friday, May 19, 2006

hey i am just a city boy, and really not the country kind

This NY Times story on downtown development in Miami caught my eye because, well, I lived in Miami for a few years and I love cities. Though I'm not an urban development specialist, nor do I play one on tv, I have some considered opinions on the subject because I've lived in urban areas pretty much all of my adult life (didn't have much choice about the suburban location of my youth) and when I travel I prefer to stay in cities and wander around.

A few things about the story, which focuses on the furious development of the downtown core and stretching north up Biscayne Boulevard...
Anchoring this effort is the immense Miami Performing Arts Center, due to open in October, which includes a 2,200-seat concert hall and a 2,400-seat opera house.

"Cities like Manhattan, Boston, San Francisco — these are the examples we are using to move our downtown forward," said Johnny L. Winton, a member of the City Commission, adding that some 90,000 housing units were in various stages of construction citywide.
Of course, this being Miami, development is not exactly, uh, well regulated or planned.
But many residents, environmentalists and even developers believe that the growth has been too rapid and undisciplined to support an influx of new residents. They say that buildings are going up without adequate mass transit, parking and water systems or a workable street grid.

{...} So far, the condo development has not been accompanied by a comparable spurt in support services, like restaurants, grocery stores and dry cleaners.

"Big is not better — I don't know if it's even logical, having that density," said Michael Y. Cannon, a Miami real estate analyst. "You can't just build on every square inch of land."

Nancy Liebman, president of the Urban Environment League of Greater Miami, which argues for the preservation and enhancement of public space, agreed. "If we're going to be left with a bunch of empty condominiums, I don't think it will bode well for the future of that area," Ms. Liebman said.
Wait, overdevelopment and empty condos? How can that be? Oh, right...
Many of the condominiums under construction are expected to be bought up by foreigners as investments or second homes in the sun.
The major problem with the number of units that are planned and those that have been built in the last 5 years (South Beach, especially south of 5th street has seen a number of high rises come up) is that so many do go to investors, snowbirds and people from Central & South America who realize that US real estate is a safer haven than their local banks that might get nationalized or in local currency which might be severely devalued overnight.

The end result is twofold -- local investors flip the properties right away, driving up already high base prices, making the units not really affordable to young and/or middle-income professionals. Also, absentee owners who don't rent their units don't really add much to downtown life...they aren't there.

Why the worry about young and middle-income professionals? Because they are the core of urban development...they buy or rent their first home in cities because they want an urban lifestyle. They go out to eat, to bars, to clubs, to coffeeshops. They buy food and clothes in the neighborhood. Exclude them and you also exclude variety...if all you have are a bunch of very-high-income bankers and lawyers you don't have much of a heterogeneous population...it's mainly upper 30s and 40s+, maybe with families but also demanding more upscale and expensive establishments. To wit...
Others say the development is squeezing out the residents of surrounding neighborhoods, like Overtown, Miami's historic black area, with little concern for including low-cost housing. "The development that's happening is gentrifying the current residents right out of the neighborhood,"said Denise Perry, director of the Power U Center for social change, a local nonprofit advocacy organization. "These buildings are being built for a richer, whiter class of people."
I'd take a bit of issue with the "whiter" comment, since Miami has a fairly sizeable educated and professional Latin community (though I guess they generally are paler than the mainly Black residents of Overtown).

Anyway, the point is that vibrant urban areas need a mix of people...young, old, rich, middle and lower income...this is what makes the urban experience. To cater only to a very wealthy and thus economically homogeneous group of people, well, you might as well be building an ersatz urban theme park with a $350K entrance fee.

1 comment:

chris said...

Nice Post. very interesting. i never thought about what young middle income professionals, like myself, bring to a urban area.