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MiamiBy Ken Rivadeneira

Few cities are more threatened by rising sea levels than Miami. So from government measures to buy time to dramatic plans for reinvention—floating homes, anyone?—Miami is confronting the challenge of climate change.

  • Harold Wanless believes that the rate of rising sea waters is greater than what the U.S. government projects. Photo by Al Diaz/Miami Herald/MCT via Getty Images
  • Hermès is just one of the 70 luxury retailers in the Miami Design District. Photo by Sergi Alexander/Getty Images
  • South Miami mayor Philip Stoddard believes that preparedness is the key to dealing with climate change. Photo by Monica McGivern

When Miami incorporated as a city in 1896, oil and railroad magnate Henry Flagler, who masterminded the effort, had crews working day and night to complete a winter hotel and build a community seemingly out of thin air—which gave Miami its nickname, Magic City. Or so the legend goes, if you believe early 20th century tourism propaganda. In reality, Magic City was a marketing slogan coined by E.V. Blackman, a real estate speculator who didn’t even see the town until long after he’d conjured the term. But it stuck.

The nickname wasn’t entirely misleading then, just as it isn’t wholly unwarranted today. The omnipresent labyrinth of cranes and traffic cones around Miami-Dade County, the 36 distinct communities we generally refer to as Miami, is a constant reminder of the city’s perpetual state of transformation. Today the region possesses one of the world’s priciest aggregations of real estate, attracting investors and residents globally and fueling the area’s $300 billion economy. Its waterfront property alone is estimated to be worth nearly $15 billion. Yet most of the waterfront lies only a few feet above sea level, making it especially vulnerable to flooding, hurricanes and the rising seas.

Talk of sea-level rise and climate change here tends to produce one of three reactions: skepticism, alarm or complacency. Not many people fall into the first category anymore, though Miami-Dade County mayor Carlos Giménez, until fairly recently, held doubts about the severity of the problem, while Florida governor Rick Scott, has actually forbidden his staff from using the phrases “climate change” and “global warming.” But regardless of the cause, most everyone acknowledges that the seas are rising. One only need witness the increase of tidal flooding, aka “sunny day flooding” because it occurs without any rainfall or other storm activity. It’s a consequence of Miami’s location atop a permeable limestone aquifer; as seawater rises it literally seeps from underground and appears on the surface, creating saltwater flooding even in communities that are miles from the coast. All forecasts project this threat to worsen; the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates it will cause a loss of $3.5 trillion in assets by 2070.

  • The Knight Concert Hall, part of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Photo courtesy of the Adrienne Arsht Center
  • Pérez Art Museum Miami. Photo by Barry M. Winiker
  • Tidal flooding can cause extensive damage in Miami Beach. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“South Florida is a lovely place to live as long as we can, but it’s going to get messy,” says Harold Wanless, chair of the geological science department at the University of Miami in Coral Gables. Wanless is on the alarmed side of the debate. “Even if we could build levees here, they’re not going to save us because our limestone is so porous.” His research shows that Miami has always been directly affected by sudden rises in ocean level—Biscayne Bay was once marshland—and he points to the melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica as a sign that another such event is imminent. “The U.S. government projections for sea-level rise this century are for 4.1 to 6.6 feet. But the rapid melt of a major ice sheet is not in the models,” he warns.

Although Wanless predicts a more cataclysmic increase in sea level of  between 10 and 30 feet, even 4.1 to 6.6 feet could be devastating for Miami, where the average elevation is 6 feet above sea level. Some parts, including downtown along Biscayne Boulevard, are as low as 2 feet.

  • A rendering of Amillarah Private Islands, a Dutch Docklands project in Aventura. Courtesy of Dutch Docklands
  • Drainage pipes and water pumps are installed in Miami Beach to help control “sunny-day flooding.” Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
  • Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine (left) and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio during the United States Conference of Mayors in Miami Beach, June 2017. AP Photo/Alan Diaz

Yet this remains one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in America. There are at least 36 properties either recently completed or nearly finished in Brickell and along Biscayne Boulevard that will put more than 10,000 new condos on the market. They bear starry names such as Aston Martin Residences, Missoni Baia and SLS Lux—worthy complements to the nearby Miami Design District’s roster of eye-popping luxury retailers that includes Hermès, Dior and Valentino. Not to mention the recently opened $300 million Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, the $220 million Pérez Art Museum Miami and the $470 million Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

Tidal flooding occasionally affects these parts, and it’s often compounded by heavy rainfall. But the problem became more than a sporadic nuisance across the bay in Miami Beach, which sits on a 7-square-mile barrier island. “Half of our city was flooded so many times a year. It was really going after the confidence of the investor community and attacking our quality of lifestyle,” recalls Philip Levine, the two-term mayor of Miami Beach, who is poised for a gubernatorial run next year. Levine has received national attention for being one of the first mayors in the country to implement a comprehensive plan to combat sea-level rise. His $500 million effort involves raising streets by 2 feet to curb flooding, installing water pumps to drain floodwater faster and improving seawalls. “People’s cars were being ruined—they weren’t able to go down certain roads during certain days,” Levine says. “When you experience it firsthand like that, you become a true climate-change believer.”

Levine’s measures are not without criticism, as they amount to stopgaps until a solution comes along. “What they’re doing is misleading people into buying property thinking they’re going to fix it. Nobody’s going to fix this,” Wanless says. “Communities refuse to recognize this because they’re afraid of affecting the tax base and lowering real estate values.” That much is true—municipalities need tax revenue to fund any infrastructure initiative, and that means encouraging people to live here. But even if you don’t think Miami is a generation away from becoming Atlantis, there are other unintended consequences to Levine’s plan. Floodwaters pumped back into the bay may be filled with pollutants that cause environmental damage. And raised streets have put businesses below grade and turned them into basements, according to FEMA guidelines, nullifying their previous flood insurance policies. “The system is not 100 percent perfect. We’ve got to tweak it,” responds Levine, whose staff is working with the federal agency to clarify the language that insurers use.

  • Two historic homes on Star Island have been elevated in the past two years. Photo from Getty Images
  • Built at an elevation of 11.5 feet above sea level, Monad Terrace includes a lagoon that may reduce the impact of surface flooding, as well as vertical gardens, which reduce heat buildup from reflected light. Photo courtesy of JDS Development Group
  • Built at an elevation of 11.5 feet above sea level, Monad Terrace includes a lagoon that may reduce the impact of surface flooding, as well as vertical gardens, which reduce heat buildup from reflected light. Photo courtesy of JDS Development Group

Tomás Regalado, mayor of the city of Miami, was slower to act but has recently taken steps as well: In March he proposed a $192 million bond to improve flood control systems, water pump stations and infrastructure to protect the city from sea-level rises. Farther inland, the city of South Miami’s mayor, Philip Stoddard, has a different take on life in South Florida: Enjoy it to the fullest and get out in good financial standing. Worried about the day when banks will no longer offer 30-year mortgages,  “I want to make sure my residents don’t wind up destitute,” Stoddard says. And while South Miami lies at a higher elevation than other Miami-Dade municipalities, it too experiences sunny-day flooding that may eventually lead to saltwater intrusion into septic systems. Stoddard, who is also a biology professor at Florida International University, is concerned about protecting infrastructure and preparing residents for the inevitable. “What’s a reasonable investment cycle? The ocean is not coming tomorrow or next year. But I don’t want people to come here saying, ‘Hey I didn’t know.’ We will need an exit plan,” he says. In spite of the challenges, Levine’s measures have restored confidence in his city, which is responsible for 55 percent of Miami-Dade’s $25 billion annual tourism industry. Developments are still in the works and hotels continue to renovate and expand. The owners of the Betsy, a historic beachfront resort on Ocean Drive, recently spent tens of millions to expand into a second building, doubling its room count to 130 and covering an entire block of South Beach. “I’m very happy about the city taking steps to deal with the problem,” says Jonathan Plutzik, a Betsy owner. “It’s not today’s problem, but we have our eyes open.” Like many residents and Mayor Levine, Plutzik hopes that by mitigating certain symptoms, such as tidal flooding, the city can buy time until a permanent solution is found.

But what if Miami changed its infrastructure entirely? Though it sounds like a multibillion-dollar pipe dream, innovators are devising ways South Florida could coexist with the incoming tide. The Dutch, in particular—those masters of dikes, levees and land reclamation—have a few pointers. One idea is the creation of communities that implement “floating” homes and buildings that would be impervious to surging waters. Delft-based developer Dutch Docklands, which has built floating neighborhoods in the Netherlands and has projects in the Maldives and Dubai, has put forward plans to build homes on a man-made lake in Aventura, north of Miami, using technology similar to that of offshore oil rigs. Structures would be built on a platform that is tethered to the seafloor; that platform would go up and down with the tides. “Basically it’s your own private island,” says Frank Behrens, a representative for the firm. Though Dutch Docklands has purchased the lake, it faces an uphill battle to lobby for a zoning change that will permit it to build a model of these homes, which would sell for around $12 to $15 million—obviously not a mass solution. “People don’t understand yet what we can offer,” he says. “We are bringing the best technology and knowledge available in the world with water management and flood resilience.”

Another possibility would be to control water levels with deep-injection wells, such as those used in the extraction of natural gas. This controversial practice of pumping excess water deep underground—underneath the limestone aquifer—has been proposed to manage water levels in Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, and it has caught the attention of some in the community. “I don’t think the technology is there yet,” Levine says, “but that’s something we have heard about.”

A more conventional approach is the age-old practice of raising structures. Miami Beach already has passed new building codes requiring new construction projects to be 6 feet above sea level. Monad Terrace, a luxury tower from Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel, is located in a flood-prone zone of the city but features a design that puts it 11.5 feet above sea level and incorporates a lagoon that can reduce the impact of incoming floodwaters. Meanwhile, the Miami Design Preservation League, the nonprofit that established South Beach’s Art Deco District, is weighing the possibility of elevating historic structures; over the past two years, two early 20th century homes on Star Island have been moved to higher ground with hydraulic dollies.

These and other nascent ideas draw everything from enthusiastic interest to raised eyebrows. “The question is, how much levitation can you afford?” wonders Stoddard. “Technically you could change our infrastructure, but I don’t think much of the county can afford it.” But the ideas are there, being urgently explored—and whichever solution sticks will make someone a lot of money. There was a time when Henry Flagler, the father of Miami, thought it ludicrous to extend his railroad to the swampy banks of the Miami River. A year later, the Magic City appeared.

  • Cityscape

    WHERE TO WORK, INVEST AND PLAY IN MIAMI

The Beacon Council

This economic development partnership helps companies qualify for business incentives such as tax credits, workforce training programs and brownfield redevelopment refunds. 80 SW Eighth St., Suite 2400, Miami, Michael Finney, president and CEO, mfinney@beaconcouncil.com, 305.579.1300, beaconcouncil.com

The Miami Foundation

With more than $300 million in assets and an extensive grant-making program, this 50-year-old nonprofit provides donors and advisors with custom charitable funds and administrative assistance in philanthropic efforts. 40 NW Third St., Suite 305, Miami, Javier Alberto Soto, president and CEO, info@miamifoundation.org, 305.371.2711, miamifoundation.org

Rokk3r Labs

This incubator-accelerator hybrid founded by former execs from Merrill Lynch and Beats Music partners with entrepreneurs in the gaming, music, artificial intelligence and other digital convergence sectors. Its venture fund, Rokk3r Fuel, then injects early-stage capital. 2121 NW Second Ave., Miami, 305.259.6637, rokk3rlabs.com

Forte dei Marmi

Opened in January, this rustic restaurant owned by two-Michelin-starred chef Antonio Mellino celebrates authentic Italian cuisine with handmade pastas, sauces and exquisite Mediterranean fish flown from Portugal and cooked less than 24 hours after being caught. The private arts club upstairs offers members an exclusive, relaxing space for cocktails. 150 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach, 786.276.3095, fdmmiami.com

Kiki on the River

This new Greek spot by former Estiatorio Milos chef Steve Rhee offers a laid-back tavern vibe with modern décor and expert takes on Aegean cuisine such as braised octopus and keftedakia (Greek meatballs). A favorite among celebs and Miami’s cognoscenti, the restaurant marks a turning point for this neighborhood formerly populated by aging fish markets. 450 NW North River Dr., 786.502.3243, kikiontheriver.com

La Petite Maison

Recently opened in Brickell, Arjun Waney’s first U.S. outpost of his French cuisine concept is a hit with the power lunch crowd. 1300 Brickell Bay Dr., Miami, 305.403.9133, lpmlondon.co.uk/miami

The Betsy

This beachfront boutique hotel offers live music, poetry readings, art exhibits and an in-house library. This year it opened a new wing with a rooftop pool that encourages relaxation rather than excess. 1440 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach, Jonathan Plutzik, owner, jplutzik@thebetsyhotel.com, 305.531.6100, thebetsyhotel.com

East Miami

Sprouting from the Brickell City Centre complex, this first U.S. property for Hong Kong–based brand East is ideal for business travelers, but its terrace pools, 40th-floor cocktail lounge, and access to shops at City Centre make it suited for leisure trips as well. 788 Brickell Plaza, Miami, Giovanni Beretta, GM, giovanniberetta@swirehotels.com, 305.712.7000, east-miami.com

Como Metropolitan Miami Beach

Far enough from South Beach to get a quiet night’s sleep, but close enough to walk to the action, this Art Deco hotel features one of the best rooftop pools in Miami Beach. 2445 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, Henry Giovanni Scott, GM, 305.695.3600, comohotels.com/metropolitanmiamibeach

Bal Harbour Shops

A lush open-air setting near the ocean, this longtime shopping mecca rivals Paris and Monaco with shimmering boutiques for the world’s leading luxury brands, including Balenciaga, Panerai and Tiffany & Co.
9700 Collins Ave., Bal Harbour, 305.866.0311, balharbourshops.com

Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science

The new 250,000-square-foot home of what was the Miami Science Museum features among its biggest attractions a three-story aquarium filled with fish and sharks, a 250-seat planetarium and an outdoor deck with a recreation of the Everglades. 1101 Biscayne Blvd., 305.434.9600, frostscience.org

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Industrialist James Deering’s ornate estate in Coconut Grove provides a glimpse into the early years of Miami, when it was a winter resort for wealthy northerners and an experiment in Mediterranean Revival architecture. The villa implements native coral and limestone in its construction, and gardens with native vegetation. 3251 S. Miami Ave., 305.250.9133, vizcaya.org

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