Build Now and Save Big

The graphic renderings of some new condominium developments around downtown Miami look like the covers of pulp-fantasy novels. Architects, it seems, are taking "Magic City" a little too literally these days as they reimagine a skyline of gleaming towers and crystal pinnacles. A prancing unicorn wouldn't seem out of place in at least one proposed condo's "urban plaza." But at a city commission meeting July 28, as developers sought special permits for a little more land here, a little more height there, commissioners seemed more interested in swiftly approving the projects than making judgments about their aesthetics. "It's beautiful," was Johnny Winton's perfunctory response to a shining elfin palace called The Capital at Brickell.

Then it was on to public discussion, which Winton and the other commissioners clearly hoped would pass just as swiftly. But there was Steve Hagen. Again. He stood up to voice his objections. For the third time in a row. Commissioners didn't actually need to groan; their expressions said plenty.

Hagen adjusted the microphone. "Let me just do a little math here," he said, fumbling with folders. Then he began calculating the impact fees for parks that would be generated by The Capital at Brickell. (Impact fees are levied on new developments to provide the necessities that thousands of new residents will need -- schools, police and fire protection, roads, sewers, and parks.) Although he cares about all of it, Hagen is obsessed with parks. In fact "tunnel vision" is a complaint that comes up often when Hagen's name is mentioned, but he is unyielding. His mother, who is 90, comes to Miami in the winter, and they like to visit parks. "After about three weekends," he says, "we run out of places to go."

A scarcity of parkland in Miami is not mere anecdote. A recent study by the Trust for Public Land found Miami has less park acreage per resident than New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and seven other cities of comparable density. Hagen and the homeowners' organization he represents, Miami Neighborhoods United (MNU), see that as an embarrassment, which is why Hagen has dedicated himself to winning the prize for Most Annoying Citizen at city commission meetings. It's boom time in Miami, and he and others see an opportunity to fix things. He wants commissioners to stop issuing new building permits until developers are charged much higher impact fees -- a fantasy, of course.

Impact fees are not the only way a city can fund parks, but in a period of unprecedented rapid development they are a particularly important revenue source. Miami's impact fees, however, haven't changed since the late Eighties. Had they simply been adjusted for inflation, the city would now be collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars more than it is. The commission will review a new impact-fee ordinance in late September, though it will likely take months for it to become law and take effect. Meanwhile developers rejoice.

But even higher fees won't necessarily mean a windfall for Miami's beleaguered park system. Dwayne Guthrie, a consultant hired by the city, says the new impact fees will reflect the cost of maintaining the present parks-to-people ratio, but not necessarily improve it. The city's own evaluation from this past March puts that ratio at a measly 1.94 acres per 1000 residents. (According to the Trust for Public Land, San Diego's ratio is 31.9 acres per 1000 residents; Phoenix's is 28.0; Portland, Oregon's is 24.5; Minneapolis's is 14.9. Even congested San Francisco puts Miami to shame with a ratio of 7.6.)

For Hagen and other activists Miami's failure to address its parkland deficit is disgraceful, especially at a time when acquisition of new parkland is more difficult and expensive than ever.

Says Horacio Stewart Aguirre, president of Miami Neighborhoods United: "The question is whether with the new, higher impact fees they'll even be able to buy parkland. They're locking the barn door after the horses have run free."

Indeed even Commissioner Winton acknowledges the slow pace of change. He is promoting a "green space" ordinance that will force developers who don't provide public space on their properties to contribute money to a parks trust fund. Although the proposal won't be reviewed until September, Winton pleaded with developers at the July 28 commission meeting. "I'm asking you to donate to the parks trust fund," he beseeched attorney Lucia Dougherty, who represents many developers. "Not as a condition, but out of the goodness of your heart."

Could Winton himself be living in a fantasy world?

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