Saturday, December 26, 2015

When South Beach became 'a victim of its own government'

"Government is inherently incompetent, and no matter what task it is assigned, it will do it in the most expensive and inefficient way possible." —Charley Reese, newspaper columnist


A half century ago, not a whole lot of imagination was needed to promote the 7-square-mile sand bar known as Miami Beach as a sunny and inviting tourist destination.

Those who worked at the city's Visitors and Convention bureau simply waited until the first snowfall up north, and then sent off envelopes to northern newspapers that were stuffed with cheesy "cheesecake" photos showing pretty young girls frolicking in the Atlantic Ocean.

At the same time, advertisers were showing a Miami Beach that was hip, cool and young.

But by the early 1970s — at about the same time Disney World opened — Miami Beach's business leaders and elected officials were becoming increasingly concerned that the southern tip of Miami Beach, with its elderly Jewish population, wasn't nearly as hip, cool and young as they wanted it to be. So in 1973, they decided it was time to "redevelop" the area. What happened over the next nine years was a classic example of governmental incompetence on a grand scale.

In the 1970s, Miami Beach as a whole began to face a difficult situation. The opening of Walt Disney World in Orlando in 1971 began to shift the attention of Florida-bound tourists away from the Miami area, and new Caribbean resorts were attracting more visitors as air travel became easier. These new destinations elsewhere were drawing tourists away from Miami Beach, and the community had no other industry to rely on. The city’s newer hotels still attracted visitors, but South Beach had become almost entirely a retirement community for seniors, many of them Jewish and poor. The whole city was beginning to get a reputation as a retirement haven for those of modest means rather than a destination resort. The steady stream of retirees from the northeast coming to South Beach wouldn’t last forever, however, since younger generations didn’t have the same attachment to the place shared by those who remembered it from the 1930s, and retirees were increasingly beginning to move to other parts of South Florida instead. Over time the elderly population in the southern part of the city would necessarily dwindle as people died off, so something would inevitably have to change about the neighborhood, but no one was quite sure what that was or what it would or should look like in the future. Some people had ideas, however.

One idea, popular among local developers and the city commission, was that the city needed classic urban renewal involving the demolition of older, often smaller-scaled buildings and their replacement by new, often higher-density, modern developments. This urban renewal strategy was first embraced by the federal government as national policy in 1949, and over the next two decades many municipalities nationally had effected massive-scale clearance and new construction projects. Not surprisingly, some in Miami Beach embraced an urban renewal strategy as the means to revitalize the city. In 1973 the Miami Beach city commission created an independent redevelopment agency tasked with reviving the fortunes of the city. The obvious place for any redevelopment to occur was South Beach, with its aging population and old buildings, and in 1975 the commission declared the area south of Sixth Street “blighted” and imposed a moratorium on new building or major improvements to existing buildings in the area. This cleared the way for the redevelopment agency to develop a master plan for the area, which they named “South Shore,” and in 1976 the plan was ready. It was astonishingly ambitious and involved tearing down almost all of the existing buildings in South Beach south of Fifth Street and replacing them with soaring condo towers, office buildings, and an elaborate network of canals creating numerous islands. The planned luxury hotels, exclusive residences, and a convention center provided no place for the existing residents, few if any of whom would be able to afford the new housing included in the plan. There was little planning to relocate them either.

The renewal plan was controversial from the start, and the redevelopment agency was dogged by constant political problems that dragged the process out for much longer than anyone expected. As the 1970s wore on and the building moratorium continued, the existing buildings in the South Beach redevelopment area continued to deteriorate. The area’s blight designation, a considerable conceptual stretch when it was declared, became a self-fulfilling prophecy. As one state agency after another raised objections to the South Beach redevelopment plan, the revitalization it aimed to deliver—by demolishing the existing fabric and building an ambitiously scaled new neighborhood—seemed less doable and appropriate. [Source.]

In 1978 Dade County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Testa approved bonds for the redevelopment project, calling living conditions in South Beach "sub-human."

"Approximately 47 per cent of the population live in abject poverty, some of whom survive on a diet of cat food," Judge Testa wrote. (By the early 80s, Miami Beach would replace Las Vegas as the nation's  "suicide capital.")


700 block of Ocean Drive in 1980. (Click to enlarge)

In 1976, a year after the Miami Beach City Commission declared the area south of Sixth Street "blighted," Mother Jones magazine dispatched a writer to take a look at the redevelopment project and the effect it was having on the area's residents.

Miami Beach Tries to be Venice

by Ann Banks

Sylvia Shapiro isn't especially worried. The latest plan to develop the South tip of Miami Beach into something "not unlike Venice" shows a canal where her apartment should be. But Shapiro - whose red hair is now graying - has seen plans before. During the quarter century he has lived in Goodman Terrace, an apartment building in Miami Beach's oldest public housing project, half a dozen development schemes has come and gone. This time might be different, Shapiro realizes, so she never misses an open meeting or a public hearing on the latest threat: the South Beach Redevelopment Agency has $377,000 to draw up plans that would transform the area into a network of luxury hotels and condominiums, all connected by an intricate system of canals.

South Beach in the 1960s.  (Click all images to enlarge)

South Beach is a 230-acre enclave at the lower end of the island of Miami Beach. It is home to more than 5000 old people, many of whom live on Social Security. They retired to Miami Beach from northern cities, bringing with them their urban habits of strolling, of schmoozing with neighbors on the front porch, of talking politics on street corners. In contrast to most of Miami Beach, where residents seldom venture beyond the cool confines of central air conditioning, South Beach has a thriving street life. The list of recent local issues reminds one of what life is like when there is no money to cushion the shocks of aging: Can opticians advertise competitive prices for eyeglasses? Will the city begin to charge 25 cents admission for the public dances in the park that have always been free in the past? Do traffic lights stay red long enough to allow someone with an arthritic gait to cross in safety?

Photograph by Flip Schulke (ca. 1970s)

For the majority of the elderly in South Beach, redevelopment is not yet a hot issue. It's too far in the future. Park bench conversations are more apt to center on whether or not to pay an 8% across-the-board rent increase voted by the rent control board.

Lady in Lummus Park. Photograph by Andy Sweet. 

Meanwhile the South Beach Redevelopment Agency keeps on planning. The latest scheme calls for leveling every building in South Beach, save for a few recently constructed high-rises. Although a Miami Herald puff piece on the redevelopment plan describes South Beach as a "blighted landscape," in fact it has unique architectural character. The three-and four-story white hotels with contrasting trim that most of the old people call home form the densest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the country. In their place the Redevelopment Agency proposes to construct an archipelago of seven islands connected by a pedestrian walkway and 20 acres of canals. Along with luxury hotels (one with a boat-in lobby), a sports complex, a 450-boat marina and the fleet of water taxis, the plan features a "fisherman's wharf area" of restaurants, shops and open-air cafes. If that sounds like Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, it's not surprising. The firm hired to work these wonders was San Francisco's Wurster, Bernardi and Emmons. The planners jet in from the Coast every other month (on alternative months the South Beach redevelopment brass fly there), which helps explain how the plan alone is costing so much.

Photograph by Flip Schulke (ca. 1970s)

The architects' drawings are classics of the genre, replete with potted palms, rustic wooden signs hanging in front of posh shops and elegant power boats moored at the sides of the canals. Venice would blush. Although the Redevelopment Agency has made pious noises about "helping all those who now live in the area to remain if they choose," one looks at the drawings in vain for an old person among the chic couples strolling the plazas and leaning against the tastefully designed trash containers. 

Model of proposed redevelopment of South Beach. (1976)
via Miami Beach Digital Archives. (Click to enlarge)

The plan has all the earmarks of what the New Yorker's Calvin Trillin calls a Grand Urban Scheme. The main characteristic of a Grand Urban Scheme - as distinct from grubby piecemeal enterprise - is a central concept that is so bold and dramatic that its proponents can present themselves as visionaries, as people who dared to dream. For an idea of truly breathtaking foolishness, scissoring a hurricane-prone island with canals makes about as much sense as spanning downtown St. Louis with a useless Gateway Arch.

Another distinguishing feature of Grand Urban Schemes, at least as they are practiced in 1976, is that bulldozers are preceded by something going by the name of "community input." You want to Citizens' Advisory Board? You'll get a Citizens' Advisory Board. You want an Old Person on the Advisory Board? You'll get an Old Person.


But for all the good it does, we might as well be back in the days of John D. Rockefeller rearranging the landscape of the town of Pocantico. In South Beach the numbers tell the story better than all the enlightened can about community participation in the relocation policy making.

The plan calls for a total of 7,300 luxury hotel rooms and upper- and middle-income residences. A planned low-income housing area (to be located in the least desirable section near the parking garage) will contain all of 750 apartments - only a few more units than have been allotted to boats in the marina.

For developers and the city fathers, the relative poverty of South Beach offers a welcome second chance to exploit the area. The northern end of Miami Beach, once the ruby in the navel of Florida's Gold Coast, has lost its glitter. The famous hotels are now faded and scruffy; cut rate camera stores have begun to dominate the commercial strip. For an area that has prided itself on being Big Time, that is indeed bad news.

As for the natural environment, there is hardly enough of a beach left to turn a cartwheel on. For years, the hotel owners have fought with environmentalists (in Miami anyone who stays outside longer than it takes to walk to the car qualifies as an environmentalist) over whether Miami Beach should sign up for federal aid to prevent beach erosion. Since the aid was contingent upon allowing limited public access to the reclaimed beaches, the hotel owners were mostly opposed. Better no beach than a beach full of non-paying riffraff. A belated compromise has been reached, and a $47 million restoration is about to begin.

But that is why it is especially ironic to hear what Redevelopment Agency Director Steve Siskind has to say about the plan. He told the Miami Herald that "Miami Beach has not actually taken advantage until now of the main elements here. The sun, the water, the air - these are the things we would utilize." The reason for the canals is to "develop the island image of Miami Beach." Now that the city fathers have finally discovered the natural elements, they hope that by enhancing them they can "stimulate private capital to invest and upgrade their facilities further north" on Miami Beach.

And all for a mere half billion, about three-fourths of which will come from private developers. The Agency plans to raise the rest through tax increment financing, a funding method that Steve Siskind calls "a revolutionary way of creating money." Under this plan, the tax revenues from the new hotels, etc. will go directly to pay for new development until the entire project is completed. What this means, in effect, is that the public subsidizes the developers by providing expanded city services at no cost. A state constitutional amendment that would mandate this Ponzi scheme is on the November election ballot. If the referendum could be defeated, alternate financing proposals are under consideration.

Meanwhile, the Redevelopment Authority wants to let Sylvia Shapiro's apartment house deteriorate. Redevelopment officials have asked the Miami Beach Housing Authority, which operates Goodman Terrace, to withdraw requests to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for money to modernize the public housing units. The Redevelopment Authority wants to acquire the Goodman Terrace property in exchange for "some other tract" it will offer for a new housing project. Sylvia Shapiro can't believe that HUD will let the developers get their hands on the property. "They've tried before," she says.

But in the long run Goodman Terrace doesn't have much of a chance. Surrounded on three sides by sand and water, it is too tempting a morsel for the second generation of Florida developers, the ones who are coming to realize that with proper Machiavellian planning perhaps it is not necessary to destroy the beaches in order to "save" them.


In 1982, six years after the Mother Jones article appeared, Michael Kranish, a 24-year-old Miami Herald reporter, was assigned to write a series of stories about the city's plan to raze South Beach. He spent four months talking to residents whose lives were in limbo because of the redevelopment plan.

Photograph by Gay Block. 

South Beach - Where Dreams Die

Miami Herald Staff Writer
August 29, 1982

It is the south side, an unlikely collection of old buildings and older people, a landscape the hotelmen and politicians wanted to change -- forever.

Upset that the last 30 years have turned the south side into a mecca for thousands of elderly poor New York Jewish garment workers, city fathers in 1974 decided to tear down South Beach's decaying southern quarter, relocate the 6,000 residents, and restore the faded resort's lost luster.

It was to have been the biggest urban renewal project in America.

Today, reality mocks the dream.

A lethal combination of political infighting, governmental indecision and 20 per cent interest rates stopped the project three times in six years. A much less dramatic plan proposed this month, which eliminates a network of Venetian canals and doubles the number of new condominiums, would take another decade to complete. It will be debated Wednesday by the City Commission.

But nine years of planning and delays have eliminated one debate: The once-stable though poor neighborhood has been devastated, a victim of its own government.

Collectively, South Beach today is the sickest, poorest and oldest population in America.

Photograph by Gay Block.

It is a 1.74-square-mile-world that runs beach to bay, 21st Street to Government Cut, 232 blocks and 103 alleys, densely packed with 50,000 people. Fifteen thousand of them are elderly Jews, including 10,000 Tsarist-era Eastern European refugees, the greatest such concentration in the world. They mix today, uneasily, with 13,000 Latin American and 6,000 Mariel refugees, with little more in common than their shared dependence on a government check.

To stop "unplanned development" in the redevelopment area south of Sixth Street, the city imposed a building moratorium in 1973. Major repair of old hotels and apartments was banned. Buildings slid into decay, forcing out the elderly renters, bringing in an underclass -- criminals, dope users, the poor, unemployed Mariel refugees. Property values stagnated, increasing by only one-third the Dade average. Elderly condo owners couldn't sell. The crime rate doubled.

The city in effect pulled out.

Miami Beach closed most of the parks. The city stopped the Pier Park dances that drew 1,000 nightly revelers. It refused to disburse federal low-interest property improvement loans. It denied free federal medication to many residents.

Now, like a miracle cure that induces only a worsening sickness, the government-fostered decay has infected the other three-quarters of South Beach.

"It's a terrible thing, a tragic thing for these people," says Miami Beach City Manager Robert Parkins, who assumed his post four months ago. "It's the kind of thing that you look back on after nine years and say, 'How could that have been allowed to happen?'"


By city order, nothing flows and nothing flowers

Miami Herald Staff Writer
August 29, 1982

Since the day in 1976 when Miami Beach announced plans to redevelop its southernmost tip, many city services and most of the federal money that once flowed steadily into the area have stopped.

The city has allowed a public housing project to violate building codes. It has refused to fix a leaking roof at the police station. It has given only superficial maintenance to its streets and utilities.

It stopped spending federal poverty-prevention funds in its most poverty-stricken area. It denied federally supplied medication to half of the residents who said they needed it.

It has prohibited new construction and major repairs in the area, permitting apartment buildings and hotels to deteriorate.

The pattern is clear: In planning for and assuming redevelopment's success, Miami Beach has allowed publicly supported life in the area to fail. That, in turn, has driven away most of the residents and businesses able to leave.

The city has even stopped planting flowers.

"We've been holding off on anything south of Fifth Street since 1976 until we know what is going on with redevelopment," explains nursery foreman Frank Guarin, in charge of planting 500,000 flowers for the city each year.

It is the same in most places: Everybody is holding off.

But the city has no choice but to continue holding off until redevelopment is either declared a success or dies, City Manager Robert Parkin says. To spend money to improve an area destined for condemnation would be wasteful.

It started in 1973 when the City Commission, led by then- mayor Harold Rosen, declared a construction moratorium that still exists south of Sixth Street, later declaring the area so "blighted" that only redevelopment -- and the power to condemn all buildings at once -- could save it. Today Rosen admits the area wasn't that blighted then, but is now because of the construction moratorium.

A 1979 University of Miami study of the 372 structures in the redevelopment area found that 80 per cent of the buildings were in excellent or good condition, 14 per cent in fair condition, and only 6 per cent in poor condition. In fact, 20 new condominium buildings were constructed between 1968 and 1974. All but three would be torn down.

Rosen believes the area would "probably have come back on its own," but would never have developed into the wealthy playground that city leaders envisioned. Rosen said the "awesome power" of a moratorium has extracted a "tremendous price" from the area's residents and landlords.

The unusual impact of redevelopment is best seen on Biscayne Street.

Before redevelopment was planned in 1976, the street had a community center, a $1-million pier filled with fishermen, and a bandshell that drew 1,000 nightly dancers. It also had a movie auditorium, a children's park, a boys' camp, a handball court and a basketball court.

In the last two years, the city has closed all of those places.

The city administration, with approval of the majority of the City Commission, made a fundamental decision in 1976 to withhold many services from the redevelopment area.

Miami Beach gets $2 million per year from the federal government to "prevent or eliminate blight." But the city decided in 1976 it would be a waste to spend money in the officially declared most-blighted area, because it was slated for redevelopment. So the city excluded the redevelopment area from a "strategy area" that gets the Community Development Bloc Grant funds. The city's strategy area is roughly between Sixth and 21st streets.


On Friday, Dec. 17, 1982 — three and a half months after Kranish's stories ran in the paper - the Miami Beach City Commission voted to kill the redevelopment project for good.

Beach building ban lifted, plan to raze South Beach abandoned

Miami Herald Staff Writer
December 18, 1982

Admitting that nine years of planning to turn South Miami Beach into a world-class resort have only hastened the area's decay, the Miami Beach City Commission voted unanimously Friday to put an official end to the $1-billion project.

The commission voted 7-0 to lift the moratorium that has prohibited construction since 1973 -- a moratorium that was supposed to ensure the minutely planned development of a canal- laced "new Venice," to be the nation's most ambitious urban renewal project.

Instead, the moratorium furthered the 255-acre area's deterioration, because the 372 buildings south of Sixth Street could not be substantially repaired for nine years. Half the area's 6,000 elderly were gradually replaced by street criminals, refugees and other low-rent tenants.

The City Commission, which had steadfastly endorsed redevelopment, was forced to abandon the project because the Miami Beach Redevelopment Agency last week failed for the fifth time in six years to find a "master developer."

In place of the moratorium, the commission voted unanimously to impose a restrictive building code for six months. It, in turn, will be replaced by a zoning code that will be defined during the next six months. The action removes the six-year-old plan to evict the residents and demolish the buildings.

"The moratorium is now officially lifted," Mayor Norman Ciment said after the 7-0 vote. "Private enterprise can start the redevelopment of South Beach."

Commissioner Leonard Haber, a redevelopment supporter since 1973, said: "It was a grand idea that could not be implemented in time. A lot of people think we're going to have a wake here today...I think it will be a resurrection with private enterprise."

The commission promptly fired the board members of the Redevelopment Agency, including negotiator Stephen Muss, owner of the Fontainebleau Hilton Hotel, who originated the redevelopment concept in 1976 and tried unsuccessfully to attract a master developer for six years. Muss and members Marwin Cassel and Max Serchuk could not be reached for comment. Chairman Irwin Sawitz resigned last month.

"I'm glad to see the moratorium lifted," said agency member Norman Braman. "We certainly didn't get the job done. It can't get any worse down there, so I think it can only get better."

The commissioners retained the agency as an entity and named themselves as new board members. The commission still hopes to use the agency's power to set aside tax revenues to help build new sewers, streets and utilities on South Beach.

The commission ordered an audit of the agency's books and prohibited executive director Gideon Kellerman from authorizing expenditures. The agency has spent about $10 million since 1976 on planning and legal fees.

"This is the first time I've been happy in nine years," said property owner Robert Reilly, who unsuccessfully sued the agency three years ago to lift the moratorium. "After all these years, the residents don't trust the commission, so I just hope this means this is the end."

Joseph Kassoff, who bought a new condominium just as the moratorium was enacted and who has protested for nine years that he shouldn't be evicted from his oceanfront building, said he is worried that another moratorium will be imposed because the commission did not abolish the redevelopment agency. He noted that the original September 1973 moratorium was also supposed to be lifted after six months.

Property owners also expressed concern that the interim building restrictions would still prohibit construction.

But Arthur Courshon, chairman of the commission's ad hoc redevelopment committee, said the restrictions should be "interim in the most literal sense of the word. The moratorium clearly should be dropped, unequivocally, period."

After countless meetings on redevelopment that often were filled by anger and disagreement, the mood Friday was somber and businesslike. Commissioners said they had no choice but to kill the plan so long hailed as the city's savior.

It was to have been the nation's most ambitious urban renewal project. The area south of Sixth Street, surrounded by Biscayne Bay, Government Cut and the Atlantic Ocean, was to be razed for a canal-laced Venetian resort. Every building and every sign was supposed to be planned down to the minutest detail.

In writing the project's obituary Friday, the commission said it did not succeed because of high interest rates and political infighting. The project's fourth bidders, First Boston Inc. and The Rouse Co., pulled out of their agreement with the agency Oct. 8. The agency rejected the fifth and final bidders last week because none met the legal requirements to be a developer.

Former Mayor Harold Rosen, who helped set the redevelopment plan in motion in 1973, attended the Friday meeting. "It has been nine long years... the commission did the right thing. They had no other choice," he said after the vote.

By building a 400-slip marina on Biscayne Bay and an 18-acre park along Government Cut, the commission now hopes to spur private redevelopment in the area. They hope to provide further stimulus for private growth by auctioning off an 18-acre parcel of publicly owned bayfront for a restaurant/shopping complex.

The city's consultant, Dr. Robert Freilich, said redevelopment would now occur with the participation of the area's property owners but warned it would be a long process. Said Freilich: "It will be another 10 years before we have finished redeveloping South Beach."

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