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The league wants to put end to such helter-skelter planning. As Dan Paul observes: "Miami is a turn-the-dirt community -- come in with a shovel and offer to give it a free ride, and you get what you want without any planning." Espinel and his cohorts take their inspiration from New York City, where a formidable group called the Municipal Art Society has weighed in on nearly every important construction project during the last 100 years.
In 1916 the society helped pass the nation's first zoning codes. Over several decades it assisted in fending off threats to the integrity of Central Park. In the Seventies it rescued Grand Central Station from demolition. Now society members are holding vigil over the fate of Columbus Circle, at the southwest corner of Central Park, portions of which are in the process of being sold by the city to private developers.
"A lot of the cities we admire have civic groups that act as guides to their physical development," notes Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. "They also serve as watchdogs to make sure only the best things happen. It isn't unusual. Miami may be a little behind. I don't think anyone should be afraid of it."
Like the Municipal Art Society, the Urban Environment League expects to act as a kind of review board for major construction projects, lobby to create favorable legislation, and file lawsuits when county or state governments circumvent regulations or break laws in an effort to appease developers.
In early March Espinel obtained a grant from the Dade Community Foundation to pay for a daylong workshop run by Brendan Sexton, president of the Municipal Art Society. Sexton presented a history of the society and gave league members advice about operating their own organization.
A native of Colombia who was raised in Manhattan and who witnessed the Municipal Art Society's successes and failures during the last three decades, Espinel holds a master's degree in architecture and has taught the subject for almost 30 years. His design projects include several hospitals and participation in creating the layout of the Dallas Zoo. He has also worked for community development groups in both Colombia and the United States.
An assiduous if soft-spoken advocate and networker, the 53-year-old Espinel has already won support from unlikely allies, among them Jonathan Barnett. A widely known urban planner based in Washington, D.C., Barnett has been hired by Dade County to develop a plan that might bring the performing arts center into better harmony with other downtown construction projects. He supports the league's objectives. "I think it's very constructive that some of the good-government people in the community are organizing so they can be more visible and audible," Barnett says. "I think that Jorge's approach to put on the table alternatives based on what he knows is a good approach that's perfectly reasonable."
During a recent tour of downtown, Espinel spoke with New Times about urban design (or the lack of it) and his hopes for the league's future role.
Planning decisions are essentially political -- elected officials must vote on them. How has the political climate in Miami affected the appearance and quality of the city's manmade environment?
There is this question of negligence -- and there being too few critical eyes examining a plan. That doesn't happen in other cities. You have planning departments set up to evaluate these things and they are relatively independent, so that if you're a planner and you flag something, you don't get fired. In Miami, in my opinion, it's a highly politicized system whereby planners are very dependent on who is in office. They don't want to upset the people in power. So right there you have a problem. The people who should notice these things aren't willing to flag them for fear of losing their jobs.
The other part that's very important is relationships in Miami -- the friends network. You wouldn't do anything to put yourself at odds with anyone in the network of powerful friends.
What other factors here obstruct the creation of a better city?
Another factor is that economics is the driving force in almost every decision affecting this city. Every decision has been made on purely economic terms -- economic development is the fundamental priority. But what people don't understand is that economic development on its own isn't effective. Just because someone is going to offer a plot of land to save you money doesn't mean that's what's going to make a good city plan.
Aren't planning decisions in South Florida and elsewhere already painfully slow because of governmental attempts to give people an opportunity to comment on issues? Developers complain about the number of permits, the number of public hearings required before a plan can be approved.
The city and county continue to resolve things in back-room deals. These two projects -- the port and the arena -- are being handled without any input. Two or three people are negotiating with the Heat. Somehow that's considered really great, if someone can go in a back room, negotiate a deal, and present it to the public. This is a paternalistic system where things go from the top down and the public doesn't know any better.