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Miami ponders the impact of years of development


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POSTED: Sunday, November 22, 2009

MIAMI—The office of Mayor Manny Diaz smelled of fresh paint and departure. He had only a few hours left before term limits pushed him out, but when the city's planning director mentioned a development by a large Spanish bank, the mayor's eyes lit up.

“;I'd love to see it,”; Diaz said. “;Will you call me?”;

It was a telling exchange for a mayor who oversaw one of Miami's most extensive physical transformations. The city he served for eight years now has cafes where prostitutes used to strut. There are more trees and art offerings, too, but mostly there are buildings. More than 100 million square feet of residential and commercial space has been added since 2001—mostly towers and not just downtown, but also across neighborhoods with one-story homes.

And in assessing these additions, which range from diamonds to rhinestones, Miami has come to exemplify a deep, national ambivalence about the boom's lasting impact.

This month's mayoral election was in many ways a referendum on the idea that more construction means progress. And as was the case in Seattle, where the incumbent lost in a primary, and in New York, where Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg won, but not by much, the results pointed to retrenchment: Tomas Regalado, after campaigning against grand plans, beat a protege of Diaz's, Joe Sanchez, winning 72 percent of the vote.

“;It was wild,”; Regalado said, describing the Diaz era. “;And many times, irresponsible.”;

The causes, of course, are complicated. In a time of easy credit, experts said, Diaz inherited a laissez-faire zoning code that let developers rule. By legal right, they could build a 40-story building beside a retiree's 1950s ranch-style home. In terms of design, the city could only request alterations.

“;It's a little like the Ten Commandments,”; said Arva Moore Parks, a historian and member of the Miami Planning Advisory Board from 2002 until this year. “;It's just suggestions.”;

Still, there is no doubt that Diaz, a registered independent, welcomed development. He said he came into office in 2001 with a sense of urgency because Miami had yet to experience a revival like New York City's or Miami Beach's. This was a city with a $140 million surplus where rusted-out cars filled empty lots and thunderstorms caused flooding, and politicians talked more about Havana than Tallahassee.

“;We were something of a laughingstock,”; Diaz said, adding, “;I wanted to turn that image around, and I think I did.”;

Those who saw his administration up close generally agree. Several former officials said Diaz, 55, a lawyer, modernized city government. His office did not even have a computer when he arrived; now Miami's police officers have laptops with voice recognition software in their cruisers.

For some residents, the good outweighs the bad. “;I'm thrilled that Miami has become a major international city,”; said Bert Silvestre, 51, a resident of the Roads neighborhood and a senior manager for IBM. “;Development is the price we pay.”;

But for now at least, Silvestre appears to be in the minority. With record unemployment, foreclosures and budget cuts—in an area with one of the nation's largest gaps between rich and poor residents—anger is the norm.

Like many others, John Thomas, 76, had one question: “;Where did all the money go?”; Though he lives on a street with new storm drains, near a park overhauled under Diaz, he criticized politicians as expecting bailouts after “;they spent themselves into the grave.”;

Just as common are the views of Miriam Galliana, 63, who said she voted for Diaz but now believes “;this is not New York City, and it shouldn't be.”;

Galliana lives in Silvestre's neighborhood, in a simple home just off Coral Way. And her opinion has been shaped by what she sees from her front door: a new 13-story apartment building.

“;This was a quiet, nice, beautiful neighborhood, and it's not like that anymore,”; she said. “;It's horrible.”;

Elvis Cruz, an activist with Miami Neighborhoods United, said the building exemplified the Diaz era. He said that because it was in a designated “;special district,”; which allows for more oversight, the city should have insisted that the design “;respond to the physical, contextual environment,”; as the zoning ordinance requires.

“;This is an illegal building,”; Cruz said. “;But the city allowed it.”;

Parks, who was chairwoman during her last four years on the planning board, said the problem of loose enforcement preceded Diaz, though during the building boom, the mechanisms of government were overwhelmed. The planning board sometimes met until 2 a.m., Parks said, and lawyers for developers held more sway than critics. Developers, after all, were major campaign contributors who could drag the city into expensive lawsuits.

Even in the case of the large, controversial projects that did come before Miami's five-member commission and the mayor, “;yes”; votes carried the day. Diaz could have stepped in, for instance, to veto the commission's approval in 2007 of three condominium towers near Vizcaya, the historic museum in Coconut Grove. But he did not. Instead, the development died in the courts last year after preservationists (including Parks) sued to stop it.

Other divisive projects, like the new stadium under construction for the Florida Marlins on the site of the Orange Bowl, also received the Diaz signature. In eight years, he said, he did not veto anything.

He said he preferred transformation. It took four years, but in October, the City Commission approved his ambitious urban blueprint, Miami 21, which will encourage more mixed use and bring stricter height restrictions to residential areas. It also gives the planning board the power to reject projects based on their design and other criteria.

But for many, Miami 21 has come too late, leaving open whether Diaz will be remembered as a visionary or by the nickname he picked up along the way, Money Diaz.

He was, by his own admission, “;a deal man.”; At times, he said, he wondered if he did too much deciding and not enough explaining. His friends said he hated public relations and preferred sharing Scotch in his office with fellow insiders.

It is that culture that has left Miami with a bitter aftertaste. Two commissioners who were often Diaz allies have left office since the election because of corruption scandals, and the city today faces a fiscal nightmare—partly because of pension obligations, partly because of declining revenue from property taxes. Both are now part of the Diaz legacy.

“;In the time of the boom, you could do everything and anything, and no one would notice,”; Regalado said. Now, he added, it is time to emphasize different values: accountability and caution.