Miami needs to become exceptional, not merely excessive
Written by Michael Lewis on July 23, 2014
How much is too much, how many too many? When, in fact, is bigger not better?
Welcome to Miami, land of excess. This is the place where nobody knows how much of a good thing is too much, where nobody knows when to say “when.”
It’s like the fast-food joints: we supersize everything.
If one new condo tower is good, four must be at least four times as good. Forty must be just plain fantastic. We’ve given permits to far more than 40 that will soon rise, so it will be double-fantastic.
Last week county commissioners decided that the last bit of bare waterfront should go to our fourth Cuban museum – not counting the Cuban history and culture exhibition about to open at Miami Dade College’s Freedom Tower right across the street.
That led one commissioner to declare that next we’ll need to build a museum for the black community.
The same day, the commission decided that Florida International University – just 42 years old and already the nation’s seventh largest public university in number of students – needs a massive expansion by forcing out our only county-wide fair. If 54,000 students is great today, more than 60,000 will be super colossal.
Whatever seems to work here, we seek more and more, bigger and bigger.
In any individual instance, that might be good strategy – just do what already works.
The problem is that the market of additional condo buyers, students, museum visitors or anything else is not limitless.
But Miami has never heard of market saturation. We keep thinking that an endless supply of visitors and newcomers will absorb whatever we happen to be offering in excess at the moment, be it office space or condos or more specialized museums than most of us know exist or seats in classrooms at tuition levels that fewer can afford.
The fact is, however, that our inflow of residents is far slower than it once was. Miami once could sell anything it offered because population was growing faster than the offerings. But that’s no longer the case.
We also ignore vital things that must support our glut of offerings.
Where, for instance, are roads to get all those condo dwellers around downtown? Or transit to get all those students to West Dade for classes at what’s now a fairground?
Where are water and sewer expansions to support everything new – we have today a $12 billion deficit of system needs just to serve current users, so how will we pay for even more?
And, need we ask, where is the money to build the museum and college structures?
Even worse, where are the funds to operate all we build? Each arts center or museum or college addition will seek public subsidies.
We shouldn’t have been surprised that the new Pérez art museum now wants triple its annual tax support or that the Arsht Center only functions because it gets more than $6 million a year subsidy, with no end in sight.
The county made it clear that after construction no tax money would go to the Arsht, just as commissioners last week said virtually the same about a new Cuban museum. But remember that once a building is actually built, there’s no way elected officials will let it die – they always pay and pay.
Remember, too, that most new cultural institutions become big beautiful buildings with tiny endowments. Donations are spent to build, with little left to maintain and grow quality. And museums generally need collections.
Don’t misunderstand: these are worthwhile endeavors, not boondoggles. The question is how much the public can afford to keep financing some board’s dream – even the best dream. That financial support is cumulative: we add every new institution to the public’s annual tax bill. The more institutions we add, the bigger the bill grows.
It’s like the fast-food restaurant: the more you supersize your orders, the fatter you get. The more you supersize the public’s aspirations, the more you pay.
One dream is great, two even better. But dreams are limitless and pocketbooks aren’t.
We’ll know that Miami has grown up when our dreams shift from quantity to quality, when instead of adding to our collection of art museums or ethnic museums or classroom seats we start making what we already have the best in its class.
The University of Miami had the reputation of Suntan U when Tad Foote began a 20-year presidency in 1981. The first thing he did is cut enrollment by raising admission standards, and the university’s quality and national reputation soared. By focusing more resources on fewer students, everyone gained – especially the students.
Unfortunately, the public sector has not followed the roadmap Dr. Foote drew for a private university. Maybe it’s because it’s easier to point out the building you built than the quality you improved.
When our quality someday trumps quantity, Miami will leave the land of excess and enter the realm of exceptional.