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Written by Craig Chester - Special to the BT   
November 2012

Will another round of development put Brickell’s festival culture on the skids?

OCraigChesternly a few short years ago, if you asked a Miamian what there was to do for fun in Brickell, the answer was probably “not much.” As the cornerstone of Miami’s financial district, Brickell was characterized by little more than its high-rise office towers, foreign banks, parking lots, and garages.

Anyone who’s set foot in the area over the past few years knows that image of Brickell is ancient history.

The condo boom added tens of thousands of new residents to the neighborhood, which, in turn, attracted a growing cluster of restaurants, bars, shopping, and other services.

The neighborhood is rapidly becoming not just a local hub of activity, but a regional entertainment district as well. While during the week, you’re likely to find happy hours filled with office workers and locals, weekend evenings bring a distinctly more regional crowd, with throngs of vehicles descending upon Brickell from throughout the county, their occupants ready to party until the wee hours.

Amid all the development and excitement, a specific identity is beginning to emerge: Brickell is the new place to party, and the place for festivals. Recently, local businesses and promotional agencies have organized a variety of festival-style events that have attracted thousands of people, primarily using the few remaining vacant, undeveloped lots in the area as a venue.

Over the past 18 months, these lots have played host to such well-attended events as Taste of Brickell, Cinco de Mayo, Oktoberfest, St. Patrick’s Day, Brickell Farmers Market, and the Brickell InDpenDanz Festival.

In addition, the Miami Circle Park, next to the Icon Brickell complex along the Miami River, hosted its own Oktoberfest event this year, as well as the Brickell Beer, Burgers, and Balls (Meatballs) Festival back in August.

And of course, there’s always the old-fashioned block party. Over the past two years, portions of S. Miami Avenue have been closed to motorized traffic and opened to people for World Cup viewing parties, Miami Heat playoff parties, a St. Patrick’s Day event, and Bike Miami Days, not to mention the ING Marathon and the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.

According to the 2010 census, Brickell has 37,622 people per square mile, making it one of the densest residential neighborhoods in the United States. The primary demographic of young urban professionals and the increasingly regional appeal of the neighborhood, combined with Miami’s insatiable appetite for partying, provide the perfect conditions for this festival culture in Brickell.

But there is another important factor enabling the neighborhood’s party reputation: the availability of open lots where these events are held. This is also the factor that most threatens the continuation of the area’s party scene.

Even after the unfettered development boom of the early 2000s, when new condo towers sprouted like fungi after a spring rain, Brickell still has a few remaining undeveloped parcels that provide an ideal setting for large, festival-style events. But now that the construction cranes are back for another building bonanza (seven new towers are currently under construction, including the mammoth Brickell CitiCentre), many of these vacant lots are either active construction sites or will be shortly.

The centrally located parking lot at 1001 S. Miami Ave., which has played host to the majority of Brickell’s recent festivals, is perhaps the most immediately threatened. At a recent meeting of Miami’s Planning and Zoning Board, a representative for developer and property owner Mallory Kauderer said Mr. Kauderer wants to build a 46-story tower on the site.

This would not only mean the end of accessible festival space in the heart of the neighborhood, but also for popular bar and restaurant Baru Urbano, as well as small Allen Morris Park. The latter would be the casualty of a questionable land-swap scheme in which Kauderer would give the City of Miami additional park space on an adjacent property in exchange for the existing park.

Another two-and-a-half-acre lot at 1201 Brickell Bay Dr., home to the popular Taste of Brickell event for the past two years, was recently put up for sale by its owner, Tibor Hollo’s Florida East Coast Realty. The site is currently zoned for an 80-story residential tower. While there are no immediate development plans, the property’s prime waterfront location and the resurgent condo market are on a collision course that will have the cranes and bulldozers back in no time.

This latest bout of development fever is casting a spotlight on a frequent criticism of Brickell: the district’s lack of public gathering spaces. With no signature park or plaza in the neighborhood, where are the popular festivals going to be held? Will they continue? It’s quite possible that Brickell’s emerging reputation for popular gatherings will be sacrificed to the condo towers.

Street festivals are possible, but they’re more complicated than setting up tents on an empty lot. They require traffic alteration plans, paying police officers overtime, and permitting requirements, not to mention the physical limitations of a 30-foot-wide pavement corridor. With the number of new condo buildings under way, and the expected increase in traffic they’ll bring, gaining support from local residents and business owners to frequently close streets could prove to be a difficult proposition in the future.

The situation reminds me of “the party analogy” coined by urban philosopher Ian Rasmussen: Observant party hosts notice that the first wave of guests tends to make the party better -- arriving with snacks, another six-pack, some new music, and so on. But then, once the party becomes crowded enough, additional guests usually end up making the party worse -- overcrowding it, straining the refreshment supply, and potentially upsetting the neighbors with excessive noise.

(Students of economics may recognize Rasmussen’s formulation as a variation on the classic “tragedy of the commons” scenario, in which individuals, acting in their own best interest, deplete a shared resource, despite their knowledge that doing so is to the detriment of all in the long term.)

I see this same idea playing out in regard to the urbanization of Brickell. The first wave of development was a boon for the neighborhood. Each new resident and occupied condo increased the demand for new businesses -- for dry cleaners, shoe repair shops, restaurants, and corner stores. So far, it’s been a terrific party. But is more development without accompanying public space going to make the party worse?

I certainly believe that responsible development is an enhancement over parking lots and vacant land. However, without any significant public gathering place, living in Brickell could wind up like being trapped inside a party with no back door to sneak out and grab a breath of fresh air.



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