Spring 2006 – A vision for the Brickell community

By Robert Green, BHA Associate Member 1550 Brickell Avenue

Our company developed the 1550 Brickell rental community in the late 80’s, and we continue to own it. Before addressing my vision for the future of South Brickell (south of 15th Road), let me first describe the significant changes that have occurred in the Brickell area during the past two decades.

In the late 1980’s, Brickell’s primary commercial hub was at 8th Street, as three or four office towers had been recently completed. Brickell Key was just beginning to be developed, and there was virtually no residential development north of 15th Road. Also, most of the blocks just north of 15th Road were substantially undeveloped, as that area was considered to be inferior and at the wrong end of Brickell. The recently demolished Sheraton was the only quality hotel on this side of the River.

Although the changes in North Brickell (north of 15th) have been profound during this time, the changes in South Brickell have been very few. In my opinion, we are no longer THE Brickell residential location, as Brickell Key and other North Brickell waterfront sites are now the best residential locations in the city, and the redevelopment of the Sheraton site promises additional high-end development close to the River. Meanwhile, the buildings in South Brickell are typically showing their age and our sales prices are dwarfed by those in the newer developments.

Although it was inevitable that much of the newer development would move north, as that is where the vacant and under-developed land existed, it is not too late for us to improve our neighborhood and, in the process, improve property values in South Brickell. In order to do so, however, we must embrace the changes which have occurred around us and then develop a plan for improving our neighborhood. One such example is that the area around 15th Road has encountered significant development, thereby providing an appealing gateway to our community complete with shops, banks, restaurants and health clubs. Yet, the planning process in our neighborhood (South Brickell) has lagged that of North Brickell because we don’t relate in a meaningful way to that significant and growing hub. For example, there is a relative dearth of residential development in our neighborhood which abuts (or is in close proximity to) this 15th Road hub. From a planning standpoint, that is not ideal because walking should be encouraged at such activity centers. Like all great cities, Brickell is becoming a walking city and we in South Brickell need to share in that very positive experience.

Regardless of how and why we got here, the simple fact remains that North Brickell has many exciting new buildings while we have many older, undistinguished buildings, especially on the West side of Brickell, and very few vacant sites for new development. But, all is not lost, as our community could, with appropriate zoning, become every bit as exciting as North Brickell while retaining its exclusively residential character.

While my comments relate primarily to the west side of Brickell, they could also relate to some of the older buildings on the east side of Brickell. Please understand that I am not suggesting that all of the existing low rise buildings on the west side of Brickell be replaced with high rise buildings, but I am suggesting that a more generous zoning code, which calls for mostly mid-rise buildings, would stimulate new projects, thereby providing a huge upgrade to our community and provide a more fitting compliment to the high rises to the east.

While there seems to be some level of agreement among community leaders that the development on the west side of our community is hugely inferior to that on the east, and should be improved, the solution has been elusive. One explanation could be that our political leaders have been unwilling to battle area homeowners as it is assumed that they might vigorously oppose any zoning change to the west side of Brickell. Although that assessment may be accurate, it is hard to believe that proper development of our populous South Brickell community could be thwarted by so few when no legitimate argument can be made in opposition to such a modified zoning plan.

There is one more idea which would greatly improve our South Brickell community and I feel certain that neighbors would be supportive. Specifically, Simpson Park could become a huge potential asset for our community if it were transformed into an active park instead of leaving it as a wooded, sleepy park which is poorly utilized. Although that change by itself would be a huge improvement for our community, I would suggest that we take it a step further by seeking to include a community center in that park, much like the facility that exists on Key Biscayne or, to a lesser extent, like they have at the Coral Gables Youth Center. We have all heard our community leaders talk about how much they care about preserving our communities and I cannot think of anything that would build on that notion like a community center. If this idea were floated to the political leadership, we would undoubtedly hear legitimate concerns about the cost of such a facility but, in response, I would point out how common it is for cities, including ours, to exact financial commitments from developers for such community needs. There may also be money available from Park Impact Fees, which have been collected from developers for some time now.

Communities don’t just become great, we have to make them great. Sometimes, inertia or political fears dictate how cities develop. But, collectively, we have so much at stake, and I think that the time may be right to ensure that growth in our city includes us. By embracing this vision, our community will be better and so will our neighborhood. Let’s work together to make it happen!

From BHA News, Spring 2006, Vol. XVI, No. 1