Neighborhood Transformation

Neighborhood Transformation
CitiStates Report:
The Search for a Sustainable Solution

By Neal Peirce
Web-posted: 3:33 p.m. Dec. 2, 2000


Crawling along a stopped-up Palmetto Expressway late one evening, sandwiched between 18-wheelers, saturated by a day of interviews about sprawl, land scandals, political shenanigans and a torturously stretched environment, webegan to wonder whether the South Florida doomsayers might not be right.

But as we approached downtown Miami, its lights sparkling before us, good-life Gold Coast Florida switched back into view.

It's one of those dramatic scenes that keep drawing the world here: the glistening glass towers of Brickell Avenue, the breathtaking opulence of Palm Beach Island, Fort Lauderdale's revived Las Olas Boulevard, and the region's vast store of azure waters and snow-white beaches. Focus on such sights, and how can anyone think of crisis, or failure?

The answer: by listening to you, who live here every day. Underlying hundreds of interviews, up and down the three urban counties, was a current of deep concern. Specifically, that South Florida's extraordinary growth may not just trample on the area's quality of life but overwhelm the fragile environment and push the region's infrastructure beyond reasonable limits.

We also found many of you daunted and discouraged by politics and rapid demographic change.

Several newspaper readers wrote us -- Get a "No Vacancy" sign and post it a few miles up I-95. South Florida's full, we can't accommodate any more.

"In Dade County," wrote Diane Congdon of Miami, "we have over 2 million people living in an area that, environmentally, should have 750,000 in a narrow vertical band."

Helene Klein of Fort Lauderdale suggested a commission to "study the carrying capacity of the ecosystem that supports South Florida." She would empower the commission to stop all new development permits until it determines key questions:

"How much water can the ecosystem provide at replenishable rates? How much air pollution can the system absorb, considering our tree canopy and wind dispersal patterns, still leaving us healthful air to breath?   How much wetlands acreage to absorb and cleanse storm runoff? How much wildlife habitat? ..."

The quandary, of course, is that no region of the world has found a way -- short of war or rampant urban decline -- to curb growth. In the words of Anthony Catanese, president of Florida Atlantic University: "It's not a question of how many people are coming   It's a question of quality and livability. And sustainability."

What we do know is that the combined populations of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties has ballooned by 111 percent -- to 4.7 million -- over the past three decades. And that millions more people are expected --as many as 1.8 million more by 2020, according to University of Florida projections.

The key question is how to modify Florida's 20th century development mode -- land speculation, draining, developing, taking profits and running to the next subdivision site -- for a less perilous, more environmentally benign future.

We heard the best answer yet proposed is the concept behind Eastward Ho! Conceived in the '90s, it laid out a strategy to capture a meaningful share -- at least a third -- of the region's future population increase along the urbanized coastal corridor where there's already good infrastructure.

The real goal of Eastward Ho!, has been to create more choice for South Florida's communities, says Ben Starrett, a former state planning official responsible for the program and now director of the Growth Management Partnership program of the Collins Center for Public Policy.

"Some people love the suburbs and their cars," Starrett said. "The region should accommodate them. But a lot of people are sick and tired of long commutes and stale places. They want to live in walkable, diverse neighborhoods where they can live full lives without using their cars several times each day. We need to provide real choices to those people."

Roy Rogers, an executive of Arvida, developers of the widely-hailed Weston development in Broward County, thinks market realities are about to transform South Florida's housing industry.

Standard development will continue wherever it's permitted, as in portions of Palm Beach County and southern Miami-Dade, and on the "bits" of remaining available land in Broward County.

"But it will get riskier," Rogers said. "The price of housing will increase fast. For young couples, it will often be unaffordable. Prices of land, all costs of development including environmental impact solutions, will rise."

As affordable housing becomes an acute issue, Rogers anticipates government-directed inclusionary zoning to force portions of developments for low-to-moderate income families.

Starrett also expressed concern about the "equity" issue and the possibility of the broad-scale displacement of existing residents as their long-neglected neighborhoods become "hot" for redevelopment.

What then of Eastward Ho!? Rogers thinks it had only modest success when it was introduced in the '90s, and that there were serious reversals like placing the National Car Rental Center out on the Sawgrass Parkway, cut off from the region's historic development spine.

It may still be a challenge to induce some developers to go back into older towns and cities, Rogers said. "But there are law firms, banks, an array of entities that sniff this is going to come, and it will be profitable. They want to be there when the market, not government, drives it."

Eastward Ho!, with its goals of savings of land and infrastructure outlays and its friendliness to Everglades protection, does have wide appeal. More than 60 percent of South Floridians were in favor, less than 20 percent opposed, in a 1998 survey encompassing all three counties.

A big, insufficiently debated issue is the infrastructure cost of a spread pattern. Robert W. Burchell of Rutgers University, arguably America's foremost expert on fiscal impacts of land development, ran the numbers to compare costs -- typical sprawl versus more land-conserving, compact development -- in the three urban counties plus Martin and St. Lucie.

He found that if sprawl prevails, the cost for local roads, sewers, and the like would be $6 billion more by 2020 than if the development were to focus on existing communities.

Who would pay that bill? South Floridians.

And in tax-sensitive Florida, there would be repercussions. A likely victim could well be taxpayer willingness to pay the local share of costs for buffers and conservation zones written into the multi-billion dollar Everglades restoration plan.

"Even a sacred cow like the Everglades can have a price on its head and be sold out," says Shannon Estonez, Everglades coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund. If that happens, she predicts, water will become more scarce, contamination more widespread. Flooding will come more often. And the already precarious Florida Bay fisheries industry will likely collapse.

Still, some people scoff -- "Eastward Ha!" Florida's simply too addicted to constant land development to stop the constant outward thrust of development, they argue. Besides, they contend, even if Broward County has now developed clear to the Everglades, pressures will rise to make more chunks of agricultural land "available" for development in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach. With enough cash, goes this line of argument, the farmers will sell out.

The danger that farmers will sell, making subdivisions their last crop, is real. Yet the situation is more complex than that. Miami-Dade County, for example, is America's ninth largest agricultural county in total production, raising more than 200 crops on 83,000 acres with $1 billion in yearly sales divided between fruit, vegetables and ornamental shrubbery. We met Miami-Dade County farmers anxious to stay in business, growing winter crops in the rare temperature zone that's sufficiently warm. But there's immense uncertainty about future markets, competing with South American and other U.S. regions.

Palm Beach County has significant winter vegetable crops with massive sugar cane production; indeed sugar production accounts for more than 400,000 acres of the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee. Total or partial lifting of the embargo against Cuba could permit Cuba to sell subsidized sugar in the U.S. and devastate Florida's sugar cane industry.

Florida's delicate ecology is hanging in the balance.

Any significant building on South Florida's present agricultural lands could make it much tougher to save the Everglades and Florida Bay.

The same environmental stakes are involved with the debate over development of former Homestead Air Force Base. There's strong support for turning it into another regional airport -- an idea supported by Mayor Alex Penelas and most of Miami-Dade political leaders, plus the Latin Builders Association, who reportedly have a hammerlock on the likely cornucopia of construction contracts.

The issue's real: severe capacity limits at Miami International.

Environmentalist Richard Grosso of Nova Southeast University Law School (and spouse of Shannon Estonez of the World Wildlife Fund) argues Homestead is so close to Biscayne National Park that building a heavy-duty airport there "would be like building an airport two miles from Yosemite."

Another issue: why "go south" many miles to Homestead, with large new roadway demands, when the regional focus of growth is clearly the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Palm Beach corridor?

The basic development challenge for South Florida is to focus as much development as conceivable eastward. Fail to do that and pressures will remain all the more intense for high-intensity development on agricultural lands and toward the Everglades, or a big "Northward Go" push -- waves of subdivisions pushing northward.

"Northward Go!" carries this peril: declining suburban property values. The object lesson here comes from Atlanta, a region gobbling up peripheral land for development at a faster rate than any other metropolis in world history. Result: Atlanta became the traffic nightmare epicenter of the South. Atlanta-area gridlock has left real-estate values stagnant in the outer counties, even while the values have actually risen in the city and closer-in counties.

South Florida could face the same fate. The region is scheduled to gain more than 1 million new jobs by 2020, at least half of that in the southern part of the region. But if Northward Go! occurs, with vast numbers of new homes built in Palm Beach County or even further north, the commuting burden on the main north-side freeways could prove horrendous. Traffic on Florida's Turnpike will likely become as dense as it is on Interstate 95. There'll be no place to hide from heavy traffic.

Down the road, values in the far-North suburban neighborhoods, as well as the western suburbs, may well sag, stranded and inaccessible.

Inexorably then, one is led bask to the imperative of coaxing, cajoling, incentivizing a significant chunk of South Florida's growth and development to lands near and along the Eastward Ho! corridor -- the corridor where, just over a century ago, the region was born.