As condo express slows, fire up the infrastructure engine
By Michael Lewis
We never welcome an economic hiccup, but the crashing halt of downtown Miami's condo express couldn't have come at a better time.
When developers finish building what they've already started in a suddenly flat market, the construction party will take recess. That's good: It gives us a chance to catch up in two ways.
One is to allow all that's risen or is rising to pass from speculators to end users before more condos appear. That stabilizes the market.
But far more important, the boom's end gives us a sliver of a chance to catch up and add infrastructure that was vital before these units were built in the first place.
What could we have been thinking not to add roads, mass transit, sewerage, schools and hurricane-evacuation corridors before we let everybody and his brother build and build and build?
Even more basic, how could we have allowed new construction when this county was near the limit of water it could draw for drinking, bathing, flushing toilets, watering lawns (if any remain), running chiller plants and every other use of clean water?
Nothing is wrong with any one condo tower or, indeed, any 10 of them. The problem is that we have let tower on tower on tower rise first and only afterward thought about planning for the needs they create.
The city is in the midst of its Miami 21 program to blueprint rezoning of neighborhoods - a terrific idea to control growth that was launched just as growth peaked, leaving little to nothing downtown that could be controlled. There's no reason not to continue Miami 21, but it's more than a tad late.
It's the same countywide. The county commission voted last week to begin a countywide dialog on future land use. Good idea that requires alacrity, because again, the development horse is already well out of the barn door.
In downtown specifically, look at our report of last week. By 2030, the county expects a 150% increase in residents north of the Miami River from 14,000 at the outset of this decade to 35,000. Worse, in the Brickell area, population is expected to skyrocket from 7,000 to 35,000 in the same period - a 400% increase.
What new roads will we add in that period? Schools? Sewerage? Transit? You can safely bet that those facilities won't increase 150% north of the river and 400% south of it.
Meanwhile, we have no firm county plan to increase re-use of water we pump from underground from one gallon of every 20 to six or nine or 12 of 20 - the range of growth that will be vital to sustain a county planners say will grow by 37,000 persons yearly.
What will 70,000 downtowners do for drinking and bathing and flushing and watering and car washing and cooling if we cannot add to our water supply without draining underground reserves?
Buildings are rising. People are coming. And only now are we starting to plan.
What could we have been thinking about?
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz has been in the spotlight as his city has boomed around him. He isn't due all the blame for lack of self-control in letting every single project rise any more than he's due all the credit for a boom that was not of his making.
But when he welcomes the US Conference of Mayors here in 2008, he will point with pride to a rising skyline. Let's pray that he can also point with pride to progress - not just planning, but progress - in belatedly adding the infrastructure to handle our unprecedented boom.
It's a pity that as we welcomed growth, nobody in power had the courage to step forward and ask: How much is too much?
That's why the wreck of the condo express is not unwelcome. Sorry about the pocketbook pains a slowdown brings to stung speculators, but nothing goes straight up forever.
However, as the market catches its breath - whether for months or for years - government should be racing to catch up on the infrastructure that we ignored as we collectively grabbed the quick buck.
Not all the speculators were condo builders or buyers. Put government, too, on the list of speculators, willing to extract a property-tax bonanza from condomania without the pain of infrastructure development.
Here comes the pain.