The Miami Herald
Issues & Ideas
May 22, 2005
A Frenzy Of Condo-Building Will Remake Much Of Miami In This Decade. The Likely Result: A New Skyline, More Congestion And More Wealth.
By Andres Viglucci and Matthew Haggman
In downtown, from Brickell Avenue north to the Edgewater neighborhood, up the Miami River and down historic Coral Way, great chunks of Old Miami are fast disappearing in a cloud of dust. In its place, the New Miami - a dense, steel-and-glass forest of condo towers - is rising from the rubble.
The scope, scale and speed of the transformation are breathtaking.
More than 114 major projects, most of them high-rise condos, are under construction or in the planning stages in the urban core along Biscayne Bay.
Citywide, developers are proposing more than 61,000 new condominium units - eight times the number built during the past decade.
The projects encompass the tallest skyscraper in Florida, a 74-story spire higher than any residential building south of Manhattan, almost four million square feet of new retail space (nearly as much as two Aventura Malls) and parking for more than 100,000 cars.
"You have a wave of development underway here in Miami that is unprecedented, bigger than anything, bigger than Hong Kong in the boom years of development,'' said former Portland, Ore., councilman Charles Hales, a transportation consultant working on a plan for a Miami streetcar line.
Not since the post-World War II housing boom that multiplied Miami-Dade County's population fivefold, to more than one million people, has the region experienced anything comparable. But that took almost 20 years.
"We are building an instant city; what should take 15 years will take three,'' said Michael Cannon, a Miami real-estate analyst.
The boom struck suddenly, unexpectedly, first a trickle of projects, then a torrent. Cash has poured in from Latin America, New York and, increasingly, Europe, the result of converging market forces - slashed interest rates, a cheap dollar - and a worldwide infatuation with Miami among the chic and moneyed.
It all amounts to a multibillion-dollar gamble, outdoing in risk and bravado the 1920s boom that made Miami a modern city: That given waterfront location, a sunny climate and a hip, international culture, intensive downtown residential development can catapult Miami into the first rank of world cities.
Elected officials, in particular Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton, are counting on the boom to reverse downtown's long decline, to turn its seedy blocks and outlying neighborhoods into a scintillating, working urban hub with a vibrant street life.
"Just five years ago we were broke; we had zero development,'' Winton said. "I'm going to bet you that when we're done - I don't know when that will be - historians will identify this as the most significant and rapid transformation of an American city.''
What precisely will the boom deliver? It's too soon to tell, experts say.
But this convulsion of development is already remaking not just Miami's skyline, but its streets and neighborhoods and likely its population, too.
If it stays on track, the boom promises a fundamentally different Miami - more urban and congested, but also more cosmopolitan and, given the high prices the condos command, probably wealthier.
It also raises serious concerns. In the absence of a ready plan, how will the city cope with thousands of expected new residents and the traffic they will generate, given antiquated infrastructure, limited public transit and a shortage of parks and open space? Will Miami residents, among the nation's poorest urban dwellers, be displaced or priced out of new housing?
That is, if the planned condos actually get built, sold and occupied.
As the boom takes on the feel of a gold rush, real estate analysts, bankers and even some developers fear it's a mirage, a bubble fueled by speculators looking to resell condo units for a quick profit, and not by true buyer demand.
If developers build too much, and speculators can't find buyers for resale, the boom could bust, leaving Miami littered with vacant and bankrupted buildings or, worse, unfinished towers and bare lots.
SIGNS OF FUROR
For now, though, signs of the furor are everywhere.
Sales centers for multimillion-dollar condos that tout the merits of high-rise living sprout up across the city. Brokers push Miami condos in far flung locales, from Caracas and Bogot