PEDESTRIAN PATHWAYS THAT CONNECT COLLINS TO OCEAN ARE
AMONG THE REASONS TO SUPPORT NORTH BEACH DEVELOPMENT
I have read, with great interest, the media coverage on the proposed mixed-use revitalization project for the North Beach section of Miami Beach.
That area, especially the quaint two-block stretch of Ocean Terrace, has a special place in the heart of my wife and me.
We were Ohioans -- used to freezing to death and going stir crazy during the cold, gray winters in the Buckeye State – when we started venturing to Miami each January in the mid-1990s.
Of course, we first landed in South Beach, but knew it was a place to visit, not live. Our next visit included a stay at the Ocean Surf Hotel. The City of Miami Beach had just completed a streetscape project and adjacent Collins Avenue had an eclectic mix of mom and pop shops running from kosher groceries to South American Bakeries.
We were so charmed that we quit our jobs and moved to South Florida on Election Day 2000. Before buying an old house in Little Havana, we seriously considered buying in North Beach.
But sadly, when we looked at it through potential homeowner eyes, not sand, surf and sun vacationers’ eyes, we saw too many blemishes. Little Havana, even though it was far from the rebirth it is undergoing today, won out over North Beach. Sadly, there was just too much seedy activity, vacant store fronts, etc. in North Beach.
Fast forward a dozen years, when dozens of core Miami-Dade County neighborhoods have experienced a renaissance – especially the now world renowned Wynwood Arts District. North Beach has gotten worse. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate its more affordable rents and I certainly don’t want to see homogeneous development with all chain retail.
But present day North Beach just doesn’t cut it. My wife and I visited a few months ago. There were still some cute little shops and restaurants on Collins. But Ocean Terrace, despite its one in a billion two blocks of perfect ocean front location, was moribund. The beloved Ocean Terrace of 1998 had a front terrace full of obviously drunken people. The MIMO buildings were shuttered, but possibly inhabited by squatters.
My wife and I are city people. We love a mix of incomes. We treasure diversity. But some of the characters lurking in the shadows were reason to run for the sedan, not stroll along the beach…or have a cocktail in the depressing, mostly vacant retail base of the ugly St. Tropez Beach Tower on Ocean Terrace.
We made one last stop at the careworn Days Inn. We could see the good bones – the place could be grand – but its present condition was one of decay, moldy smells and neglect to the point where you gave second thought before using the restrooms.
The other day, I read Andres Viglucci’s Miami Herald story. As the best chronicler of urban life and development writing for a daily newspaper today, the feature was the typical balanced, fact-filled, narrative I’ve come to expect from him.
To be candid, I started out very much on the side of NOT favoring the development. I felt the “banal,” as Brother Viglucci called it, St. Tropez had hurt, not helped North Beach. I was predisposed to root for a “no” vote on the referendum needed for the project to go forward.
Then I did my own research. The main developer is a veteran of restoring and repurposing Miami Beach architectural gems. The Ocean Surf Hotel and the former Ocean Terrace Hotel, now the tired Days Inn that gave us the creeps even while quaffing a low price bottle of beer, would be preserved. Albeit, the Ocean Terrace would get an addition at the rear. But both beautiful old buildings would be restored and rebranded as 4 or 5 star hotels.
I began to favor the project. Then I thought of Collins Avenue. I knew the plan called for demolishing a chunk of it. Then I saw the renderings with breezeways (my Little Havana brain sees them as paseos) that lead from Collins to Ocean Terrace. So instead of a super block, the new development would actually create safe pedestrian pathways to the ocean. I was pretty much sold.
Then I thought about the height. The St. Tropez, at 29 stories, is out of character with the area. The new development height would be capped at 20 stories. To be frank, that’s about as tall as I can stomach. But it’s not as tall as the condo tombstone St. Tropez and the design is much better. I really believe the new development will embrace the streetscape – on both Collins and Ocean Terrace – rather than recoiling from it like the ground floor of the St. Tropez (which can barely keep any retail) sadly does.
The preservationist in me still wavered. While I love deco much more than MIMO, I did think about the protected MIMO structures. I wrestled till I decided that no mixed use redevelopment is perfect. And for the numbers to work, the small beyond careworn buildings would have to go. At least the North Beach developers will build underground and concealed parking, so the new architecture can be brilliant and free from ugly parking lots or pedestals.
I also thought about North Beach and how I love it, or at least its potential, because it is not South Beach. I hope that the redevelopment that requires a referendum can serve as an anchor for the area. It can create jobs, stability, vitality, nightlife. This is similar to what is happening near my house on my beloved Calle Ocho in Little Havana.
On a smaller scale than the North Beach proposal, the InTown mixed-use development on Calle Ocho is sparking interest in a reborn Little Havana. InTown is a tiny bit taller than I would love, but I can gladly swap a few more stories of developable space in return for a building that embraces a Little Havana renaissance.
Back on North Beach, some opponents oppose the density increase. Density has never bothered me. I learned very young, back when I was a rookie reporter covering zoning meetings in Ohio, that density is not a bad thing – unless you live on a farm. Even in the suburbs, a bit of density creates vibrancy and conserves land. In a city as dynamic as Miami Beach, density helps increase transit ridership while giving people the option of living their lives without having to own a car.
Is the North Beach proposal perfect? No. Does it solve every problem in the neighborhood? No way. Does it offer the best shot in several decades at creating a mixed-use anchor for the neighborhood? Yes. Does it still have to answer to the Beach’s Historic Preservation and other review boards that will refine and improve the project? Absolutely.
Do I support the vote -- approving a 50 percent increase in buildable square feet -- that will allow this revitalization to move forward? Yes I do.
I don't live on Miami Beach. But if I did, I would vote "yes" on ballot item #54.
Please note this post is purely my opinion and not that of any of the urban design, architecture, transportation engineering, master planning, urban regeneration, academic or nonprofit clients that I collaborate with.