Politics & Policy

Skyscraper Paradise — Miami’s Brickell Should Be Urban America’s Future

Brickell skyline (Wikimedia Commons)

Miami — As someone who has visited every major U.S. city, I can attest that there isn’t another neighborhood quite like Miami’s Brickell. The 1.19-square-mile area south of downtown is the sort of gleaming overnight skyscraper zone that just isn’t built anymore in America. Starting as a low-slung neighborhood, it grew to became what it now is thanks to the city’s tolerance of unfettered growth. And rather than bringing Armageddon, as critics of rapid urban development might suspect, Brickell has become an economic powerhouse and an urban destination. At a time when so many other cities suppress development — and suffer the consequences – Brickell symbolizes a mentality worth restoring throughout urban America.

Even into the 1970s, Brickell was little more than an upscale neighborhood of single-family houses. Growth remained incremental in following decades, as it slowly became a mid-rise business district and an alternative to Miami’s then-grimy downtown. But the neighborhood has shot upward in the past 20 years. This began in 1997, when Italian developer Ugo Colombo built the 51-story Santa Maria condos, and continued with various other high-profile developers. Of the 62 high-rises (defined as buildings above 400 feet) built in Miami since then, 36 are in Brickell. Many of these are apartments and condos, as the residential population between 2000 and 2014 spiked from 13,584 to 32,489. The neighborhood has also become a financial hub, with 53 banks, and contains most of Florida’s foreign consulates.

Such growth, in this most international of U.S. cities, has resulted from turmoil abroad — namely, in Latin America. Rich people in Venezuela, Argentina, and other countries are dealing with confiscatory governments and looking for somewhere in the United States to park their assets. Miami has hot weather and nice beaches, and Spanish is the first language on the streets, making it a natural relocation point. Much of the money has gone into the banks and condos of Brickell.

Of course, there are other U.S. cities that have such appeal to foreigners. But the second factor behind Brickell’s growth has been the Miami government, which has accommodated it through a hands-off approach. Neisen Kasdin is vice chair of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), a public agency that recruits businesses to Miami’s core, including Brickell. He said that throughout the boom, the city has avoided strict building-height limitations and lengthy environmental reviews. Instead, developers offer their proposals, pay impact fees, and quickly get approved for vertical construction. This has been reinforced by Miami’s new zoning code, which further deregulates Brickell by reducing the minimum parking requirements for projects. 

The Miami government also funded infrastructure upgrades, setting the framework for new businesses. In recent years, the city has revived the waterfront, improved streetscapes, increased underground sewer capacity, and built a light rail connecting Brickell to downtown. A master plan published by the DDA in 2010 called for further improvements like these.

Brickell embodies a market-oriented model that has long been proposed for cities by fiscal conservatives yet seldom tried.

There are two policies, however, that Brickell developers don’t encounter. One is tax breaks or subsidies, since Brickell’s luxury projects land outside the city’s redevelopment areas. Neither are developers required to set aside certain units as affordable. Rather, Brickell embodies a market-oriented model that has long been proposed for cities by fiscal conservatives yet seldom tried. The government has provided pro-business rhetoric, infrastructure upgrades, minimal land-use regulations, and low taxes, highlighted by Florida’s lack of a state income tax. And companies, already recognizing Miami as a sound investment, have responded to this positive business climate by flooding Brickell with new people, development, and capital.

As a result, Brickell has transformed from practically nothing into an urban destination, showing what happens when cities let builders build. The neighborhood’s most notable route begins when crossing the bridge from downtown over the Miami River and onto Brickell Avenue. This thoroughfare is lined with sparkling new towers, many of them architecturally distinct, such as the Icon Brickell, a three-building complex designed by famed local firm Arquitectonica. Further in is Mary Brickell Village, a small retail complex named after the wife of William Brickell, Miami’s founder. It has long been the neighborhood’s commercial heart, crowded night and day. But in a sign of the area’s upward growth, it will soon be surpassed by Brickell City Centre, a $1.05 billion, luxury shopping and mixed-use complex under construction nearby. The rest of the neighborhood consists of bars, restaurants, and grocery stores clustered within a concrete jungle, and just blocks away from a well-trafficked waterfront.

To those who like dense American cities, the positives of this growth are self-evident. But Brickell is a departure — radically so — from what the development process has become in other destination cities. During their ambitious periods early in the 20th century, New York and Chicago, for example, also grew this way. The Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building were both completed within several blocks of each other in the early 1930s. Both took under two years to erect and were accompanied by other new towers. Nowadays, however, it can be hard to build even one skyscraper, much less an entire neighborhood of them. In San Francisco, recent attempts to build 8 Washington, a twelve-story downtown waterfront condo, spurred eight years of bureaucratic review, protests, a rejection at the ballot box, and $2 million in developer lobbying and campaign expenses, and still no ground was broken. One year later, the project was shot down again, possibly for good, in superior court.

Proposals for high-rise buildings encounter similar obstacles in New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and any other city that combines extreme residential housing needs with anti-development sentiment. The process for opposing development is encouraged by NIMBYs, who object to the noise, traffic, and “loss of character” that the building proposals would entail; and by governments that appease the obstructionists through zoning, affordability mandates, architectural-design reviews, and whatever else will stall or halt construction. But more and more, the anti-development sentiment seems driven also by locals who wouldn’t be directly impacted by the proposed skyscrapers but dislike what they represent. Such shiny glass-and-steel structures, once testaments to America’s entrepreneurial and engineering genius, are now seen as crass monuments to greed, inequality, and globalization.

People who think that way would certainly dislike Brickell. The neighborhood is dominated by young rich people, many of whom are foreign jetsetters or white American transplants, and ridiculously attractive to boot. Much of this crowd spends its weekends sipping $15 cocktails at rooftop bars, dining at the local Cipriani, and attending drug-fueled parties. This conspicuous consumption is evident at street level, where countless Ferraris feature ear-splitting exhaust pipes, and in the waterways, where yachts float by full of bikini-clad women. It doesn’t help that this consumptiveness occurs next to neighborhoods dominated by homeless people and poor immigrants eking out an existence.

But these factors — to the extent that they’re even bad, and not just an exaggerated version of the yuppie playgrounds found elsewhere — should be weighed alongside the benefits that Brickell generates for the whole city. In recent years, Miami has become one of the nation’s leading financial centers, with the second-largest concentration of foreign banks, behind only New York City. The sector employs 35,381 people in Miami-Dade County, at an average salary of $105,583. Brickell, even more than downtown, has become the center of this industry. This wouldn’t have happened without the rapid development, which provided the office space needed for incoming firms. 

Miami’s willingness to allow growth in Brickell, and throughout the city, has prevented it from suffering the extreme housing-affordability crisis found in other cities.

Miami’s willingness to allow growth in Brickell, and throughout the city, has also prevented it from suffering the extreme housing-affordability crisis found in other cities. While Miami’s housing is growing more expensive — as is natural for one of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas — median housing sales prices are still a relatively modest $250,000, compared with over $500,000 in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.,  and well north of a million in San Francisco and New York City. Nor has the city gentrified as much as others have. The high-rise growth in Brickell and other areas, including downtown, Edgewater, and Coconut Grove, has provided a luxury-housing option for rich newcomers. This has largely kept them from moving into adjacent ethnic enclaves such as Overtown, Allapattah, and Little Havana, where it can still be tough to find anyone who speaks English. Contrast this with New York City and San Francisco, which also have their jetsetters but haven’t allowed the construction to accommodate them. As a result, gentrifiers have flooded traditional ethnic neighborhoods — Harlem and Williamsburg in New York, for example, and San Francisco’s historically Latino Mission District.

According to Kasdin, the money generated from Brickell also boosts city coffers, with roughly 40 percent of tax revenue coming from the downtown area. People who buy condos there as second homes and live or use services in Miami sporadically nonetheless pay property taxes. This has helped fund a variety of government services and even inspired private philanthropy, such as from billionaire developer Jorge Perez. Co-founder of the Related Group of Florida, Perez made much of his fortune building condos in Brickell. In 2013, he decided to throw that money back into his city by partially funding a new downtown art museum.

But perhaps Brickell’s most important contribution to Miami is that it has enhanced the city’s walkability and its urban feel, which is something that many people want but that governments generally regulate against. Saturday-night cocaine parties aside, Brickell has become a dense, coherent, community-oriented neighborhood, with bayside fishermen, dog walkers, and sports bars that fill up for late-morning European soccer matches. Indeed, just as Miami’s overall Walk Score has improved to become among the nation’s best, Brickell’s is now rated in the upper-90s, about the same as Manhattan’s. These are changes that Kasdin, who grew up in the city, has experienced firsthand. In the 1960s, his father was forced to close his downtown restaurant because of suburban flight. Now that would be unimaginable.

“The things that people today appreciate [about] Miami [that make it] a great world city — the museums, the restaurants, the sporting facilities — are all supported by the growth in population and investment,” he said by phone. “Brickell, among all the neighborhoods downtown, has been the greatest focus of that.”

Brickell’s future is destined for more urbanism, as evidenced by the numerous cranes and by the orange-vested construction workers who invade the lunchtime delis. This expansion will be essential, as foreign conflicts further drive people to move to Miami, putting pressure on housing and services. Such expansion is also essential for other U.S. cities dealing with this influx. All of them now have underutilized areas, from warehouse districts to hollowed-out slums, that could be deregulated and turned into the next Brickell. That would help grow their economies, housing stocks, and revenue streams. And maybe in the process, it would teach local residents and officials that such unfettered, high-rise growth is not an urban scourge; it is the thing that first made our cities great.

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