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Reconciling Rising Sea Levels and Luxury Development in Miami Beach

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Welcome back to Property Lines, a column by veteran real estate reporter Alexei Barrionuevo. Each week on Tuesday, Barrionuevo will report on housing trends, real estate deals, and major business moves right here on Curbed.

A sign announcing a flood-mitigation project in South Beach. Photo by Alexei Barrionuevo.

In Miami Beach, city officials have installed nine of the pumping stations——gleaming silver symbols of hope and real estate preservation—that are tasked with pumping salty water off the streets and back into Biscayne Bay. For elected officials, the pumps, a blend of shielded electrical panels, concrete, and protective bars, represent hope that they can stay ahead of rising sea levels, preserving water views and beach access for billions of dollars in homes and fancy condos.

While scientists don't all agree on the timing, few deny that the seas are rising faster than in past centuries due to climate change. In places like Miami Beach, currently riding a high-end real estate boom, and New Orleans, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina a decade later, sea level rise is the issue the real estate industry would rather sidestep, even though there are already signs that insurers will make it prohibitively more expensive to live in coastal areas.

"Sunny day flooding," like what I experienced between West Avenue and Alton Roads two years ago—where I found myself having to ride a bicycle through a virtual moat to get to my neighborhood Walgreen's, with my feet spread in the air to avoid the splash—simply can't happen if Miami Beach is going to continue to sell condos for ever-rising dollars-per-square-foot.

A functioning pump station in South Beach, near Biscayne Bay. Photo by Alexei Barrionuevo.

Moderating a panel on sea level rise last month, I was struck by the thorny choices cities will now have to make as the sea-level rise issue becomes ever more complicated. Some of these issues are cosmetic: should they cover up the mechanical infrastructure they are building to deal with the water, or dress it up as "art"? Others are deeper: should they embrace the water itself, as the Dutch have? Should they even allow developers to keep developing?

Both Miami Beach and New Orleans have sought counsel from the Netherlands, where living with the threat of rising water is a way of life. In New Orleans, the Dutch approach to handling the water that surrounds its country has become a source of inspiration.

David Waggonner, an urban and environmental architect there, wants New Orleans to accept that it is a delta city and do away with the high concrete walls on top of its levees. In the Netherlands, people "invite water into the city," meaning water is everywhere, he told The Atlantic in a recent profile. Not so in New Orleans, which today manages its rainfall through a series of walled-off canals, gutters and high-powered hydraulic pumps.

"New Orleans has these weird canals where you cannot see the water," Roelof Stuurman, a Dutch groundwater expert, told The Atlantic. "In Amsterdam and Rotterdam, we are happy to see the river."

Through a series of conferences called the Dutch Dialogues that began after Katrina, Waggonner and Dutch water experts have transformed the way that city approaches stormwater management after the hurricane. In April, the city launched its "Resilient New Orleans" strategy, with urban water management, including the storing of excess water in the landscape, as one of its goals.

A map showing the planned and existing pump stations in Miami Beach. Map courtesy City of Miami Beach. Click for big.

In Miami Beach, city officials say they have little choice but to install pumps. In Amsterdam, the under-sea bed isn't nearly as porous as in Miami Beach, where the substrata is made of limestone, forcing engineers to devise a system of "back-flow valves" to prevent salty sea water from flowing back onto city streets. Many more than nine pumps will be needed to stem the rising tides. Planners expect to install between 60 and 80 pumps over the next few years, said Joy Malakoff, a city commissioner. A map (↑) detailing the locations of future pumps across the seven-square-mile city looks like a leaky cruise ship covered with patches.

Pumps alone won't be enough—especially when they can't always be counted on to work. When an electrical transformer blew out last month during a heavy rainfall, it took out five pump stations. "Luckily, it was low tide, but we still saw a lot of water backing up into the system," said Eric Carpenter, the city's public works director. Florida Power & Light got the pumps back on-line in about an hour, but the city had deployed crews to plug in portable generators, just in case it took longer.

A street-raising project along Purdy Avenue in Miami Beach. Photo by Alexei Barrionuevo.

Miami Beach is also nearly tripling the height of its sea walls to just under six feet and bringing its lowest-lying streets up as much as two feet. Construction crews were working on a street-raising project last week in a section of South Beach next to the Venetian Causeway.

At the same time, architects like Rene Gonzalez, the designer of the 18-story condo building Glass, are working on plans to elevate single-family homes along the Biscayne Bay, built largely on the concept that storm waters should be able to "flow through" an uninhabited part of the house at sea level, in order to minimize damage.

Miami Beach is planning to spend upwards of $500 million over the next five years on the pump stations and street-raising projects. "We are quite certain we are going to buy ourselves another 30 years, and we are hoping we are going to buy ourselves another 50 years," Carpenter said.

Why not just build less and start evacuating? The idea of slowing new development is a non-starter. "Real estate and new development are the lifeblood of our economy," Carpenter said, which makes sense when you consider that Miami Beach's mayor, Philip Levine, is a developer himself.

So don't expect to see fewer Faena Houses or soaring towers with cantilevered glass pools like the penthouse at the Mansions at Acqualina in Sunny Isles Beach (price tag: $55 million, but reportedly under contract). Developers will build as long as they perceive demand, and the city allows them. Besides, new development will have to be built on higher elevations and with higher sea walls to conform with the new code, making the replenishment of dated buildings a good thing, Carpenter said.

For now, Miami Beach is planning to battle back aggressively against sea-level rise, and to integrate the visible tools to control it (the pump stations) into the fabric of the community. To that end, the commissioners asked Florida International University and the architect William Lane, who designed the iconic lifeguard stands on the beach, to work on schemes for "screening" the pump stations, which could stretch to over 10 feet off the ground. In residential areas where pumps will be located, including the celebrity-heavy North Bay Road (yes, it will get some pumps), tall landscaping or architectural treatments might be used, while on street medians planners may turn to "artistic" screens, she said.

Not everyone thinks hiding them is a good idea. "What if we don't screen them?" wondered Arta Perezic, a 24-year-old junior architect at Rene Gonzalez Architect, who recently moved to Miami from New York City. "By leaving these pumps unmasked and just letting them stand proudly in our city maybe we could let them be more of a monument to saving our city," she said. "We could think of a new way of presenting these pumps to become part of our built environment that isn't about hiding them."

They are, after all, "essentially saving us, temporarily, at least, from flooding."
· Can an Innovative Plan of Stilts and Canals Save South Beach From Rising Sea Levels? [Curbed Miami]
· Property Lines [Curbed]