The North Beach master plan will try to answer Miami’s biggest question

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There’s something interesting happening in North Beach right now that we should all be paying some attention to: the master plan.

Master plans can be real snooze fests. But this one is kind of a big deal because it’s the first one on Miami Beach to explicitly take sea level rise into account.

As private developers show some serious interest in the area, as rents rise, and as new bars and boutique shops open, the seas are also creeping up — calling into question whether any of that can last. The job of the master plan is to prove that it can.

Some of the proposals — like building elevated first floors so that they can have a “basement” to store rainwater and seawater when the streets flood — sound kind of crazy. But the master plan makes it clear this is the new normal. Streets will be raised like they are in South Beach, probably more than once, and property owners will probably have to raise their buildings along with them.

What happens this time around is going to set a precedent for pretty much all urban planning on the Beach going forward. It might even be applied to other vulnerable coastal areas far from our small but important barrier island.

After more than a year of neighborhood meetings and charettes (a fancy name that basically means a meeting about design), the draft of the master plan is almost finished. Miami Beach hired the planning firm Dover, Kohl & Partners to develop the master plan in 2014. Next month, they’ll present a final draft to the Miami Beach City Commission.

The master plan grapples with a couple key questions:

  • In a neighborhood known for low-scale buildings and a real community feel, how built up should the “town center” (the 71st street corridor) get?
  • How much of the neighborhood should be considered historic (and therefore important to preserve)?
  • How can you preserve the historic character of an area — and its affordability — while helping it adapt to sea level rise? (We wrote a bit more on that earlier in the master planning process)

“At the end of the day, North Beach is a beach town community and that’s how a lot of residents see it and they would like to see it preserved that way. … People like that beachy low-scale character that Ocean Drive has and North Beach has a lot of that left. People are right to be concerned about preserving the character of the neighborhood,” says Hernan Guerrero, Dover, Kohl & Partners’ project director for the North Beach master plan.

That’s led to a lot of debate about how built up the 71st Street corridor (which is actually considered everything between 69th Street and 73rd Street) should be allowed to get. Urban planning nerds (like us) will love reading through the plans for turning it into a true town center.

But while a ton of time has been spent on the first two questions because North Beach residents really love what they’ve got (a low-key neighborhood with a lot of diversity, few big buildings, amazing architecture, and affordable rent), that last question is the one that’s a big deal.

“What the plan is weighing out is a kind of process through which the local designation is moving forward and the city can be sensitive to sea level rise issues,” says Guerrero. “At the end of the day, sea level rise and affordability are some of the biggest issues of our times.”

The question no one is asking yet, at least not on the record: at what point is it irresponsible to keep building in areas threatened by sea level rise?

You can read the full draft of the master plan here