Aquatic Aspirations

Can an upscale Miami Beach island change the world?

It is such a treat to fly into South Florida. Putting aside my fear of the place—everyone and everything there is nuts—I love the view: the northernmost Bahamian reefs, whitecaps in the Gulf Stream, the hotels and jungles of the barrier islands, then the absurdity of contemporary human habitation in all its variants. Think of the breadth of the ocean, its depth, its occasional tantrums. Then consider the thousands of million-dollar homes built along the Intracoastal and its tributaries in places like Fort Lauderdale, three feet above sea level—prudent. The insanity only continues as you pass that zone of wealth, fly over Route 1, and get into the heart of the problem: sprawl as wasteful and abject as any in the nation—here with the added wrinkle that every golf plantation and condo cluster (even the malls) is wrapped in malarial ditches and artificial ponds, each tinted distinctly brown or green by their respective algal load. The waterworks drain the Everglades, the wilds of which planes on final approach just nick before banking 180 degrees to find the runway.

That swamp limits the landscape of overwide boulevards and fresh subdivisions to a narrow strip along the coast. It’s a blessing. But it also acts as an intensifier of density on a larger scale, the way Manhattan’s rivers do. The population is booming (why, I can’t imagine: even the light there is dirty), and hard land on which to house it is scarce. Miami real estate magnate Leon Cohen recently announced plans to erect two 110-story condominium towers in that city’s downtown. The buildings—apparently despite speculation, not an overt Twin Towers homage—will hold 1,000 units and a hotel. If it weren’t so funny it would be sad: Florida is being mobbed, and no one has a clue what to build.

On the other end of the pipe-dream spectrum we find Aqua, a new residential quarter built on Allison Island, a lozenge-shaped interruption in the channel just west of the main strand of Miami Beach. Craig Robins—the impresario behind the Miami Design District and an early player in the rebirth of South Beach—developed it. Robins is a Miami Beach native, born in a hospital that was mostly razed for the construction of Aqua, and his intentions for this latest and grandest addition to the city are admirably civic. Miami Beach is in the throes of a tower-building boom. Shaya Boymelgreen, the well-funded Lubavitcher who seems to be behind every project in New York these days, is planning to spend more than $1 billion putting up high-rises. Robins is proposing an ecologically and psychologically sound alternative: high-density low- and mid-rise living.

Not surprisingly he brought in local New Urbanist evangelicals Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk to work on the plan. They drew a lovely streetscape of alley-served blocks wrapped in pocket parks on which 46 town houses have been built. Along the east edge of the island, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ) placed three small apartment towers (one in the bones of the old hospital’s psych ward). Like any New Urbanist scheme, it has all the fixings of a city (though here very little retail is planned) and none of the feel. But it does have some of the communal inconveniences so dreaded by impatient America. Most of the tower residents have to steel themselves for the urban drudgery of parking in a garage not directly attached to their homes. The town houses all have generous garages, but the buyers will need to get used to sharing two pools. Then there’s the density itself. It’s not Hong Kong, but home buyers in Miami Beach can usually expect considerable privacy at this price point (one well-sited town house sold for $7 million). Here they will be living cheek-by-jowl, with windows that look out on other people, not palms. That’s the challenge for Robins: to make this sort of urbanity appealing to the spending class, and by extension the developers who cater to them. If he succeeds, he hopes, the landscape of his hometown might not go entirely the way of land-hogging McMansions and blue-glass towers built on top of blind street-killing parking podiums.

By the day of the grand “island warming” opening in April—salsa girls danced, paella was served—every apartment and all but a handful of the town houses were sold. It’s encouraging that so many opted out of the normal market. But it’s hard to know whether people have bought into Robins’s concept or his cachet. He is a developer with considerable name-brand power around town, having been among the first to rescue the old Art Deco hotels, helping to bring on Miami Beach’s great model-strewn heyday in the 1980s and early ’90s. The Design District is a success too, importing a European sensibility to the land of white-painted wicker. Several new buildings are being erected, and plans for more are on the boards. There’s a natural synergy between the showrooms there, across Biscayne Bay, and Aqua; interior designer Simona Ciancetta was commissioned to fit out one model town house with material from the district to school new owners, per one release, in “how to live the Aqua lifestyle.” Robins raided his notable collection to supply the art.

Another draw is the team of architects Robins brought in to do the buildings on the DPZ grid, several of whom can actually design a residence. Units in Alexander Gorlin’s building (aka “The Gorlin”) take full advantage of their privileged site at the forward edge of the island, Alison Spear’s tower (“The Spear”) is covered in an arresting blue-green mosaic (based on a photo she took at the ocean beach a few blocks away), and Walter Chatham’s eponymous apartments may be the loftiest lofts south of Tribeca. The town-house designers all try to make the best of a difficult type, though the designs by New Yorker Emanuela Frattini Magnusson (a gloriously grounded Corbu tribute) and Miami traditionalists Brown Demandt (for those unwilling to give up the pre-Modern past) stand out.

I’m not sure who designed the gate, but of course there is one: a tall glass and concrete pillbox with an encircling cornice hat. The presence of that fortification and its guards at Aqua’s only entrance puts the demonstration-project aspirations in limbo. At a press conference before the opening festivities, Robins described the development in transformative terms, and one reporter asked the uncomfortable question, “How are people going to see it if it’s closed off?” Citing its location—splitting the Intra-coastal, not too wide at that point—Robins listed four ways: by boat (the yachtless can rent kayaks nearby), by land (presumably from one of the abominable condo towers across the way), by appointment (the local community association may decide to allow tours), or if those methods don’t work, by chutzpah. “I’ll be living here,” he said. “Call.”

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