The Coastal City That Could: How Miami Is Becoming a Role Model for Resiliency

September 12, 2018
Written by: Susan Cumins

Presented at CREW Miami’s Luncheon Program

MODERATOR: Neisen Kasdin, Managing Partner at Akerman and former mayor, City of Miami Beach PANELISTS: Frances Colon, PhD, Jasperi Consulting, and Mayor’s Appointee to the City of Miami Sea Level Rise Committee; Nitin Motwani, Managing Principal, Miami Worldcenter Associates; Francis Suarez, Mayor, City of Miami; Bernard Zyscovich, FAIA, Founder & CEO, Zyscovich Architects

Resiliency, as it relates to the infrastructure, economy, and population of Miami, encompasses many concepts. To Francis Suarez, Mayor of the City of Miami, it means the ability to deal with shocks like climate change and wind. “Hurricane Irma reminded us that we’re wind-resilient, but we have a long way to go for water resiliency,” he said. “We need to view water as an asset, not an enemy, and not allow others to define us by water incursion.” Nitin Motwani of Miami Worldcenter Associates described resiliency-related adaptations at his firm’s 27-acre mixed-use development; these include improved water and sewer facilities, LEED Gold certified structures, and the addition of electric charging stations for cars, a feature not in the project’s original plans.

To Frances Colon, whose consulting firm provides science, environment, and technology advice to state and national policy makers and universities, resiliency “relate to both ecology and economics. We’re using the technology of drones during king tides to see where water is going, and where it can go.” As a citizen volunteer on Miami’s Sea Level Rise Committee, she also engages with homeowners. She said the city must address the lack of affordable housing, and people eventually being forced out of neighborhoods due to flooding. The word resiliency reminds architect Bernard Zyscovich of a material that stretches. “People are used to living a certain way, but we have to adapt and prepare,” he said. “We have to live with the issues of weather and climate change, so we must modify our attitudes.” He observed that, for progress to be made, all the region’s utility providers, as well as all city and county agencies, must cooperate.

Answering Kasdin’s query about the effect of sea level rise on real estate values, Motwani said every prospective investor in the $2 billion Miami Worldcenter project wanted to know if Miami is being proactive. He assured them that private and public entities and scientists are working together to address it. “We’ve seen no negative effects on the economy. Miami has always been a leader, and our post-Andrew building code is the country’s strongest.” Sea level rise has not affected real estate values, said Zyscovich, but he is concerned about how the insurance industry will deal with rising water. He urged everyone to push back when the press says, “Don’t go to Miami, it’ll be underwater.” He believes rising taxes will drive New York-based businesses here because investors know that Florida is a tax haven–and has better weather than New York. “But infrastructure is a concern. We’ve been wired to build and develop in a certain way. We should look at the Netherlands, where the infrastructure is devoted to dealing with water.”

Regarding ways to combat sea level rise, Colon observed that it exacerbates existing challenges like king tides and storm surges. Residents and municipalities are concerned about water quality, about the effectiveness of pumps, and about the vulnerability of septic tanks to a rising water table. Colon recommends forming a resilience action group that cuts across all agencies, and advocates for the public to be empowered. “We need to mix green (mangroves and other plants) with man-made seawalls, and provide guidelines for homeowners so they can do practical things in their own homes.” Motwani favors creating conversations with like-kind places (Singapore, the Netherlands), and favors coordination of innovative approaches among public and private entities because “private developers cannot do it alone.” He related that when lenders to Miami Worldcenter, one of the largest urban development projects underway in the US, asked about sea level rise, “we showed them what we are doing to handle it. We’re more pro-active than many other cities at finding substantive solution to issues.”

Suarez is aware that the city’s drain capacity is not adequate and that drain measurements need to be improved. He predicts that water and energy self-sufficiency for each home is coming. On a positive note, the City of Miami Beach’s storm water management strategy was recognized for its innovative approach in a report issued by the Urban Land Institute (ULI), part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative.

Kasdin asked panelists about the cost and availability of property insurance, and how we persuade buyers and long-term permanent lenders that it’s safe here. To Suarez, insurance is the canary in the coal mine, although he believes that developers’ million dollar bets on Miami are a positive signal. “The City of Miami is working with government agencies including FEMA. In a post-Hurricane Andrew world, we hardened against wind. Now we’re in a post-Irma world where water and electricity were issues, but we managed pretty well. Dealing with water is the next challenge.” Zyscovich said that developers have been urging the city to address infrastructure so that their projects can endure for generations. “We need to show FEMA and other federal agencies that our strategies are improving the situation, so insurers will keep rates low.”

Differentiating among issues and setting priorities to address each one is the approach Zyscovich suggests. “Surge issues are not same as those presented by sea level rise, so we should deconstruct the elements, then use science and innovation to find solutions for each.”

Panelists acknowledged the vulnerability and threats to social equity that inner city residents face. Some of these neighborhoods were built on rock ridges away from the waterfront. The feeling is that this high ground will have to be shared because it is the only place density can go.