What the business community can do about sea level rise

Mark Rosenberg is a busy man: he’s the president of FIU and the chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. And next week the Chamber hosts its annual Goals Conference, where Miamians can go and talk about all — seriously, all — the issues affecting the city.

We sat down with him for an interview that bounced from Latin America to mangoes to sea level rise. Here’s a bit of what he had to say.

If you enjoy this, there’s plenty more June 16- 17. Sign up for the conference here (Use the code NEWTROPIC2016 for a discount).

This is the first part of a two-part interview, and has been edited lightly for clarity and length.

Okay, first off, what does the Chamber of Commerce do? What is its role in Miami?

The Greater Miami and Greater Miami Chamber is one of the oldest if not the oldest private institutions in Miami. Maybe the only older one is the church. The Chamber was created in the early 1900s. Since then it has been a voice for the business community, has been a conscience for the community, has been the best and the highest platform to get thoughtful people together about the community’s prosperity, the community’s challenges.

One of those challenges is obviously sea level rise. It’s potentially an economic blow to the city. Can we turn it into at least something we can work with, or even an opportunity?

By the year 2030 we could lose up to 1 percent of our land mass. On a seasonal basis that could affect another 30 percent of our land mass. That could have a serious disruptive impact upon our channels of distribution and transportation and also we will run the extreme risk by then of significant disruption of our water supplies because of saltwater contamination of our fresh water.

We as an institution have an obligation to put our talent to work to find solutions, whether its mitigation like they’re doing in Miami Beach by raising roadways and having better drainage or finding was to protect our water supply from saltwater intrusion that is inevitable. We’re very much committed to that.

If you think about places like Amsterdam that historically have had serious water issues, there is a whole industry that has grown up around the mitigation exercise. Jobs are waiting to be created to help protect our community and keep it sustainable.

There’s another issue: We’ve been declared as ground zero by the president of the United States for sea level rise. Everybody in this country is going to look to us to see how we are solving the problem. They’re not just going to look to the municipalities to see if they’re going to start raising roadways, if they’re going to start building canals. They’re wondering, “Are they going to have to completely redesign their urban areas?”

But they’re also looking at the banks and financial sector and insurance sector and more generally the real estate sector to see how exactly you manage risk in situations where the property you might finance is going to be inaccessible because of water surrounding it in the period of time the bond or the loan would be out. So I think our business community has a lot of work to do to provide leadership or best practices for how to deal with these issues.

Are you seeing inklings of solutions yet, or are we still trying to figure out what we can solve and what we have to adapt to?

It’s not a linear process, it’s a zig-zag process. I see positive signs that the community is increasingly understanding that we’ve got some challenges. For example, I was recently with Mayor Gimenez at the North Miami Chamber, it must have been four weeks ago, he gave an address about the state of the community and half the questions afterward were about sea level rise from the business community, so I was encouraged by that.

I see mayors now understand that’s gotta rise to their top three set of issues, if for no other reason than that they’ve got to preserve property values. If their property values sink, that municipality will no longer be viable. I see indications of greater awareness and commitment to understanding what our options are. Whether there will be a willingness to take action remains to be seen.

North Beach is considered one of the last affordable neighborhoods on Miami Beach. Developers say many of the older, lower cost apartment buildings can’t survive rising seas without expensive improvements. Clearly it’s costly to make a city resilient. How do you avoid pricing out low-income residents?

You could build a high rise that is affordable. The question is how are you going to manage the height restriction issue? The P&L [profit and loss] has to work and I don’t know how it works unless you have height, but then you will have other challenges, like historical preservation.

It’s not insoluble, but you’ve got to be willing to let developers go vertical and then of course the square footage has to be proportional. I don’t know what the break even on that is, but it’s probably not 12 or 15 stories [which is what’s currently being discussed]. That’s been the issue in Surfside. The way they managed to keep the height restrictions is because they’re not trying to make it affordable.

What was your impression when you first moved to Miami in the 70s?

My impression was based on being raised in the Rust Belt and going to grad school in an industrial city [Pittsburgh] that was in decline. The opportunity to come to a place where the history hadn’t been written, to me that was tremendous. To be a part of something, to create something, and to be a part of that and write the history, that’s what really appealed to me.

I had studied Latin America and I had dedicated my life’s work to the people of Latin America and the Caribbean. To be able to live directly with them was, still is, a blessing. I come out of a diaspora experience, so whether it’s the Jewish community or Cuban or Haitian community, that part I identify with very readily. To me there’s no place I would rather live.

A lighter question: It’s mango season. What’s the best way to eat one?

Just at breakfast, slice them and get them on the plate at breakfast. There’s nothing better than a mango at breakfast. We live in the tropics, we’ve got to enjoy that. Fresh mango at breakfast and a cafecito at 3 and I’m good.

By The New Tropic Creative Studio
The WhereBy.Us Creative Studio helps clients big and small engage locals, through campaigns that use creative marketing, storytelling, events, and activations to build community, conversation, and impact.