High Streets

In Miami Beach, elevating streets is not without growing pains.

By Timothy A. Schuler

In Miami Beach’s Sunset Harbour neighborhood, streets have been raised to mitigate flooding. Some properties remain at the original grade. Image courtesy City of Miami Beach.

Faced with rising sea levels, the City of Miami Beach is lifting itself out of the water’s way—one street at a time. Beginning with the neighborhoods lowest in elevation, the city has raised dozens of streets in the past few years, some by as much as two feet. The $500 million project, which also includes new stormwater pumps, is a coordinated effort to prevent flooding in the long term. In the short term, however, the rapid elevation of the public right-of-way is presenting the city with novel challenges.

Some of those challenges, such as pumps that can fail during power outages, are mechanical. Others are legal. When one restaurant flooded, its insurance company initially refused to cover damages after classifying the restaurant’s dining area as a “basement” since it was now lower than the surrounding grade. (The city installed generators to solve the first problem and advocated on behalf of the restaurant owner, whose claim was eventually approved, to solve the second.) Other challenges involve the design of the public realm. How do the raised streets affect mobility, or the character of a neighborhood? In areas with newer development, the elevation of the street is imperceptible, says Eric Carpenter, the city’s public works director, since new structures are built to higher flood standards. But in places where the new street abuts older commercial developments with a zero setback, the city is often forced to design a split-level sidewalk, which alters the character of the streetscape.

Options for drainage plans, showing properties located below the new street level (right side). Image courtesy City of Miami Beach.

The biggest concern among property owners is that the elevated streets will divert water onto their properties and exacerbate the flooding they were meant to prevent. Carpenter says the city is evaluating each property and that in instances where a building’s first floor elevation is below the road, the city will install drains to connect the property to the municipal stormwater system. But it remains to be seen whether or not such a strategy can work across highly variable conditions. “There’s a hundred different ways that thing can not work,” says Barry Miller, ASLA, a principal at Savino & Miller Design Studio, of the stormwater plan. In general, Miller supports the city’s efforts and commends the city’s leadership for taking action. But he also thinks the approach could be more fine-grained. “They’re using dynamite where they need a scalpel.”

The most significant missed opportunity, according to both Savino & Miller and an advisory panel convened by the city, is a thorough integration of green infrastructure alongside the new streets. Rodney Knowles, the director of Miami Beach’s Greenspace Division, acknowledges that the city was late in weaving landscape strategies into the city’s street elevation work but says his department has begun playing a larger role in the initial design process. Weaving more floodable landscapes into Miami Beach is something Savino & Miller has favored for years. “We have to change the way people are thinking,” says Adriana Savino, the studio’s other principal. “Because the truth is, we live on a sponge, and the sponge floods, and that will require rethinking the way we live here.”

Neighborhoods in yellow will have their streets elevated in coming years. Image courtesy City of Miami Beach.

Timothy A. Schuler, editor of Now, can be reached at timothyaschuler@gmail.com and on Twitter @Timothy_Schuler.

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