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METROPOLIS - October 2005

"Watered Down Urbanism"

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Metropolis magazine spread

Metropolis magazine spread

Metropolis magazine spread

Watered Down Urbanism

A new development in Miami beach combines contemporary architecture and New Urbanism. But how does this play out in a ranging real state market?

When I pull up to Aqua's elliptical gatehouse—designed by New York architect Walter Chatham—a valet directs me to park in front of the Spear, a new 12-story apartment house named for its designer, Alison Spears. With its blue window almost popping out, the building sits on the eastern edge of this ambitious development located on a small island between the gaudy towers of Miami Beach and the multimillion-dollar homes across the Intracoastal Waterway. Nearby scaffolding covers an 8-story wall of the Chatham, the architect's contribution to the 8.6-acre development. Behind the Spear tower—in yet another act of architectural branding—stands the Gorlin, a mid-rise created by Alexander Gorlin.

To the south I see what developer Craig Robins is touting as the Miami breakthrough: rows of densely packed pastel-colored town houses laid out in unmistakably urban fashion. What's intriguing here is Aqua's attempt to fuse two philosophies that have been at war with each other for almost 20 years. In 1978 Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, of DPZ, took a parcel of land on Morida's Gulf Coast and created Seaside. Full of updated versions of wood-frame collages, the community is laid oul according to traditional town-planning principles. Seaside not only gave birth to a movement but became a lightning rod symbolizing New Urbanism's strengths (its reinvention of city life) and weaknesses (its near obsession with neotraditional styles). "About fifteen years ago I took a trip there with lan Schrager," says Robins, once a major player in the preservation movement on South Beach and more recently in the Design District north of downtown. "I got the idea of doing something similar, but in a Modern idiom." Robins—who does not lack ambition—also saw it as an opportunity to reconcile the rift between contemporary architecture and New Urbanism: "The first time I visited Seaside I was blown away by what they had done—I felt that the principles at work there were universal."

Robins had long coveted a site on Allison Island, in Miami Beach. Surrounded by Indian Creek in the mid-beach section of the city, the island was home to some aging hospitals, including the one where he was born. A development on this site provided the opportunity, Robins believed, "to capture the spirit of Miami Beach and bring density to a region that had never been available before." So he hired DPZ as master planners. But unlike other recent New Urbanist projects—such as the San Diego lofts designed in a rigorous Modernist tradition by Smith & Others, which appeal to the young and not so rich—Robins's $250 million development was aimed squarely at the wealthy, its construction coinciding with an unprecedented boom in upscale housing in South Florida. Six years ago, when Aqua was started, this market looked simply promising, but as Robins told Multi-Housing News, "Miami is being filled with architecturally unremarkable high-rises that are selling views from shoe boxes." As of August the three midrise towers at Aqua were sold out; at one point Robins took the remdining 12 town houses temporarily off the market for "inventory control"—real estate speak for keeping them in reserve in anticipation of higher prices in the future. In fact, during the development period values on the island increased 25 to 50 percent.

Catering to this raging market, however, limited DPZ's ability to fully realize Aqua's original urban intent. "Craig's vision began to change because the level of investment began to increase,"DPZ's Ludwig Fontalvo-Abello says. "His company, Dacra, said we needed X number of units to turn a profit, and in this market they had to be bigger. So everything got bigger. The town houses had to have two-car garages. We lost roughly twenty percent of our units as everything increased in size."

Selling real estate at this end of the market had other planning implications since many buyers in this demographic are interested in vacation homes and investment havens. Consequently only a third of Aqua's buyers will call the development their full-time home, which diminishes the likelihood of it turning into an authentic urban place. Moreover, the suburban neighbors objected to a mix of commercial uses, so Aqua has no retail and little urban purpose. Homeowners paying up to $7 million for town houses must still use their cars for work and shopping. When these residents set out on foot, it will be to visit the pool, spa, or clubhouse. Life will not provide the close human contact associated with living in the traditional row housing of Philadelphia and Boston—or even the impromptu meeting areas young residents experience in the close-knit housing projects of downtown Seattle and San Diego. At Aqua bonding between neighbors won't be too different from the social interaction found in luxury resorts: "country-club urbanism."

The project did not start off this way. Robins wanted a mixed-use loft-style community. But early on the same homeowners to the west objected, so DPZ had to rethink what sort of development could be squeezed onto an island that lay between the often ugly high-rise towers along the beach and the neighboring homes across the Intracoastal. Their solution was to create what DPZ founding principal Plater-Zyberk, dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture, refers to as a "transect" between the two existing housing types. Smaller apartment buildings—only 12 stories high—flank the eastern side of Allison Island, referencing their taller counter-parts along the ocean. The four-story town houses are sited to the south and west, facing the suburban homes across Indian Creek. Now complete, Aqua produces a harmonious transition in scale, a subtle down-sloping of the skyline.

DPZ's plan exhibits an impressive density unlike anything found in South Florida. "We have some unique housing projects in Miami, such as the French Normandy village that was built in Coral Gables in 1926, but none of these early developments featured housing with common walls," says Aristides Millas, professor of architectural history and design at the University of Miami. "This is not a prototype to be found here. There is no precedent for this."

New York real estate marketer Steven Rockmore was hired to advise what sort of product the purchaser of a multimillion-dollar home in the Miami market would demand. One expectation was private access to the water. But Robins rejected that recommendation, insisting that "the whole design was meant to ensure that people could walk all around, and that included the waterfront." The marketing guidelines did impact the interiors: most of the 46 town houses—which range in size from 5,500 to 6,700 square feet and in price from $2.65 to $7 million—include a separate bedroom suite with its own entry tliat could serve either a maid or other family members. Robins knew that incorporating these amenities was not enough to close the deal with the affluent buyer. The product needed extra cachet, and he saw the answer in adding name designers. By the time he was done, Robins had recruited ten architects from New York and Miami.

It was a strategy that proved more effective for the three mid-rise towers. "My building was built exactly as it was designed," Gorlin says. "I had been to Seaside, and I was used to the New Urbanist polemic, where scale and relating to the street are very important. But I was also mindful of the flashiness of many Miami apartment towers, where every side looks the same." His solution: the Gorlin is shaped like the front section of a ship, with overhanging shaded balconies on the southern end forming its prow. Gorlin broke up the interiors into four quadrants, a device that—along with smaller details such as roofing the penthouses with concrete airfoil spoilers—lightens the building's mass and assists it in complementing the smaller neighboring town homes.

But with the town houses the architects had to conform more strictly to the guidelines set out in DPZ's urban plan. "I knew it had to be different from working with an individual client, where you have a more intimate relationship with their daily needs, and you design accordingly," Miami-based architect Suzanne Martinson says. "Here you're developing a generic experience that you think someone buying it would enjoy."

The goal of uniformity—ensuring that each house at Aqua would complement the other to create a harmonious streetscape—had been incorporated in the building code that Robins and DPZ submitted to local authorities for approval. "This is housing, not a series of patron-driven homes," Plater-Zyberk says of the codes. Many of the architects, however, did not realize how restrictive DPZ's guidelines would prove—and they had little time to reflect on them. "I had about a week after receiving their package to submit design drawings," Miami architect Allan T. Shulman says. The latter contained many specifications, including lot size, setbacks of six or eight feet, building height, and even the placement of the major entryway. After his submission Shulman was contacted by DPZ, and although much of his exterior remained intact, a living space that opened onto an interior courtyard on the ground floor was gone. Shulman's living-dining area, as in many of the other houses, was now on the second floor. "Our role," the architect says, "was to give character and image to 'prototypes.'"

However, Martinson did not accept the revised drawings of her design, sending off a letter explaining that her Modernist house should not have "neoclassical spaces." She prevailed, and her living rooms—with two-story c'eiling heights and expansive views of the water—are some of the more stunning interiors at Aqua.

The process of ensuring uniformity continued during construction. Coral Gables firm Wolfberg Alvarez did the working drawings, collaborating with Coastal Homes, a custom home builder. Each block of houses was erected as one building. "It was cost efficient," David Wolfberg says. "And we had to make similar decisions along the way, such as the windows on the town houses. They were standardized to keep costs down." Other common details, such as metal handrails and concrete steps, ensured further uniformity. And like neotraditional New Urbanist projects, homeowners here must agree to covenants that govern every detail from facade to height, all but outlawing substantial additions.

Robins and DPZ have succeeded in Grafting a model of an urban environment; but because it rarely goes beyond the prototype. Aqua represents something of a lost opportunity. Planning principles alone do not create a living, breathing place. Although it was the neighbors—and not the planners—who demanded a gatehouse, it virtually ensures that Aqua will remain forever isolated from the city. "Building houses on an island is very traditional in Miami," Millas says, "but a gated community is by its very nature antiurban."But it's not only this suburban mentality that appears to doom the project's human promise: its streets exude an empty and artificial feel not likely to disappear anytime soon. With residents walking only to the gym or the upscale club, Aqua serves as a reminder that it takes more than density on a private island to reap the social advantages of authentic urban living.⊕

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