Five Expert Studies Later, Miami Beach Looking at Next Steps in Resiliency Program


Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Five Expert Studies Later, Miami Beach Looking at Next Steps in Resiliency Program:

Criteria, methods, prioritization schedule, funding to be refined in coming year

The 2017 elections for Miami Beach Mayor and City Commission were defined by skepticism over the City’s program to address its flooding problem. Following the first road raising project in Sunset Harbour, one of the City’s lowest lying areas, the benefits and impact on properties that were all of a sudden below the road elevation were debated.

Candidate Dan Gelber called for a “red team” evaluation of the program and fellow candidate Mark Samuelian adopted the idea. When both were elected – Gelber as Mayor and Samuelian as Commissioner – they were lockstep in their calls for experts to test the City’s program and make recommendations for how to move forward. While waiting for the studies, the City's program was put on what strong proponents of the resiliency strategy termed a "pause" something they argued the City couldn't afford with the projections on the rate of sea level rise.

Two years, five studies, and one long pause later, Gelber and Samuelian seem to have diverged somewhat in their views, especially with regard to the controversial road raising strategy. Where Gelber may have been more quiet on the road raising policy until the studies were complete, Samuelian was always a skeptic

Now, Gelber is willing to embrace a “responsible level” of elevation while Samuelian is doubling down on his approach, supporting new pumps and pipes but only what he calls “nominal” road raising and only if that doesn’t negatively impact private properties.

At a workshop this week to review the studies and bring the two newest Commissioners up to speed, Gelber noted the regular flooding during rainstorms in the City and said, “The question isn’t, obviously, if we’re doing road raising, the question is what’s the responsible rate… based on science and engineering, what we need to do responsibly.”

Gelber talked about aiming “to hold ourselves to the least amount of disruption to the neighborhood as possible” and getting harmonization right between elevated roads and private property. That said, he acknowledged the economic impact of flooding, using Orchard Park as an example. 

“At some point, in that neighborhood people looking at homes are going to say I don’t want to live in a place where I can’t navigate the street 20% of the time… Once that spreads, there won’t be a few people complaining about water in their yard,” but rather people saying “’My most valuable asset has been diminished to the point where I’m underwater in the home I own.”

“I appreciate the debate, it’s a very good debate,” he told Commissioners. “It shouldn’t be a debate that’s heated. It should be thoughtful.”

“A lot of experts, an insane degree of experts, are telling us what we’ve got to do,” he added. “It’s a science and a tolerance question, tolerance in money and tolerance in disruption.”

The danger, he said lies in not doing enough, causing a future Commission to “look back on what we did and ask ‘What were they thinking? Property values have plummeted because we didn’t bother to say go to that line instead of that line’” in terms of elevation. This Commission is not just making decisions for today, but for the future, when none of today's elected officials will be in office, he said.

Samuelian, meanwhile, advocates for fixing the City’s outdated infrastructure while also adding pumps, full depth asphalt streets, blue-green natural concepts, and higher seawalls but only “nominal” road raising if it “doesn’t compromise private properties.” He wants neighborhood by neighborhood solutions as opposed to what he has called on social media recently, the City’s “failed one-size-fits-all policy on Road Raising.”

He doesn’t deny the flooding but he prefers a gradual approach that “prioritizes private property over roads” with interim steps such as temporary pumps and a lower road elevation now with the potential for future elevation. He acknowledges that may increase disruption. “It’s a complex issue and we’re going to have to continue to work in this project prioritization how to balance it, but in the tradeoff of doing the best for the road and perhaps compromising neighborhoods and private property, every day I will land for the neighborhood and the private property.”

“If at some point we have to go [back] to certain roads once the infrastructure’s in, elevate them a little more, might that cost a little bit more? Yes, it might, but I’d rather do that than put the private property in any harm’s way,” he said.

At their next meeting on February 12, the Commission will look further at various aspects of the stormwater and resiliency program, ultimately leading to a neighborhood prioritization schedule and components including criteria for road elevation.

This week’s resiliency workshop reviewed the work to date and began to set the stage for the Commission’s work this year.  One thread that ran through many of the day’s discussions was acknowledging the mistakes that have been made as the City goes down a path few others have trod.
“The Red Team” Report

What became known as the “red team” report from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) praised the City for its “impressive commitment in the last few years to addressing these flooding vulnerabilities, including identifying the funding for and beginning execution of a projected $600 million stormwater management program, sourcing financing independently of federal and state funds.”

“In short, the city acted with courage to fix sunny-day and stormwater flooding," the report stated.

That said, “The panelists agreed that the city’s stormwater management strategy, although a good start, is not currently sufficient to address the extent of the risk faced by the city and does not reflect its cultural leadership.” They recommended a more comprehensive plan for “living with water”, better communication and more transparency to win back public trust diminished by “early missteps”, doing better with the aesthetics of resiliency projects, and more active use of green and open space to manage water.

Following the issuance of the report which came on the heels of another study by the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Gelber sought to tamp down criticism of the perceived pause and reassure residents and other stakeholders including the financial markets. He called the reviews a “reorienting” of the City’s program and said the City is “fully committed” to moving forward with lessons learned. 
The Business Case Analysis

In the meantime, a business case analysis was initiated by Commissioner Ricky Arriola. At this week's retreat, Commissioners were told the cost/ benefit analysis of the City’s efforts to combat flooding from sea level rise showed the benefits “significantly outweigh their costs.” 

According to Dr. Peter Schultz, Vice President of ICF, the climate adaptation and economics experts contracted by the City to review its resiliency program, the team’s citywide economic analysis indicates parcel and road elevation contribute to higher property values. 

Home prices are higher when surrounding roads are more elevated, he said, with the data showing 4.9% - 14.1% increases in value per foot. In Sunset Harbour, where roads were raised as part of the City’s resiliency program, Schultz said an 11.9% increase in total value there was attributed to the road elevation project.

With regard to cost/benefits, ICF took a look at the upcoming First Street neighborhood project and determined the benefit to cost ratio is 1.28 – 1.31 with investments by private property owners having a much higher benefit/cost ratio of 2.79.

We took a deep dive on the business case analysis earlier this week. You can read it here.

View the Business Case Analysis slides here.
“The Jacobs Report”

Following the ULI and Harvard studies, the City engaged Jacobs Engineering to make specific recommendations for the City’s resiliency program based on the findings. The company was tasked with developing a Blue-Green Stormwater Infrastructure Concept Plan, a Road Elevation Strategy, and a Neighborhood Project Prioritization schedule. 

The presentation to Commissioners included comments from two public outreach meetings on the blue-green concepts and road elevation strategy.

Joe Rozza, Director of Sustainable Solutions for Jacobs described the Blue-Green concepts:
  • Green stormwater infrastructure typically uses vegetation and/or soils to treat and reduce stormwater flows
  • Blue stormwater infrastructure temporarily stores and treats stormwater
  • Blue-Green stormwater infrastructure is typically designed and sized to capture more frequent storm events

While blue-green infrastructure has many community benefits including improved air and water quality, air and surface temperature, and overall health and well-being because of the additional natural elements and greenspace, Rozza emphasized it “will provide little or no benefit” for the three main issues facing Miami Beach: sunny day flooding, flooding from major rainfall, and storm surge. It can help mitigate flooding but mostly when rainfall is less than two inches, he said.

Among the blue-green strategies most applicable to Miami Beach, Rozza listed: 
  • Bioretention/bioswales/rain gardens 
  • Blue and green roofs
  • Constructed wetlands/floating wetland islands
  • Detention basins/surface storage 
  • Enhanced tree pits/trenches
  • Permeable pavement (e.g. a pervious concrete parking lot and permeable paver driveways)
  • Rainwater Harvesting (Cisterns, Rain Barrels)
  • Stormwater Planters
  • Tree Canopy

As Miami Beach is approximately 40% impervious area, Rozza said, “The goal is to preserve and increase pervious (or green) areas.”

Thinking differently about the City’s resources such as Collins Canal would bring other benefits in addition to a place to drive water. It could become a water trail with connectivity and recreation such as kayaking, he said.

Commercial streets could have bulb outs with landscaping while residential streets could have landscaped bulb outs with permeable pavement, allowing the City to preserve some parking in the right-of-ways. Because the permeable paving “breaks down any time a car goes over it,” Rozza said it was not ideal for well-traveled roads, but could work for parking areas.

Next up, Jacobs Vice President Laurens van der Tak, who said, “Raising roads is an important strategy to address sunny day tidal flooding in the public right-of-way.” The flooding which comes up through storm drains, through groundwater, and the overtopping of seawalls  “will be exacerbated by sea level rise,” he noted.

The long-term strategy includes elevated roads, seawalls and pumps. Van der Tak presented Jacobs’ recommendations for the “Guiding Principles” of a new road raising strategy:
  • Support keeping road surfaces above the king tide elevation to avoid sunny day tidal flooding
  • Establish new minimum elevations for City roads based on updated tidal records and sea level rise projections
  • Address increasing groundwater elevations and concern for poor pavement performance, including premature pavement failure related to saturated road base
  • Address concern for private property harmonization
  • Standardize application so policy is unbiased, objective, and transparent
  • Consider cost implications

“Key Factors” in Jacobs’ recommendation for determining minimum road elevation criteria:
  • Evaluates elevations at edge of road, not crown, and at bottom of road base, and picks the most protective standard
  • Assumes 30-year road service life
  • Updated Sea Level Rise projections
  • Target frequency of flooding (applies at end of road service life):
    •  Local Roads: 50% chance per year (includes roads classified by City as “Local”, mostly residential roads)
    • Major Roads: 20% chance per year (includes roads such as Washington Ave. classified as “Minor Arterial” and “Minor Collector”)
    • Emergency Roads: 10% chance per year (includes roads such as Alton Rd. classified as “Evacuation Route” and access to First Responders)

The end result? The Jacobs’ team came up with recommendations that would raise some roads – those classified as emergency routes – higher than the current plan (up to 4.8 feet NAVD) while others might go slightly less high (to 3.0 feet NAVD). The City has been using a standard of 3.7 feet NAVD for road elevation measured from the crown or middle of the road. NAVD is a measure of base flood elevation.

Van der Tak said the new goal would be to limit flooding at the edge of the road through a minimum elevation of 3.0 ft to 4.8 ft NAVD. He cautioned the needed elevation would increase if projects were started later because the 30-year life of the road would be carried out to a later date and to allow for higher sea levels over time. Currently, about 8.2 miles of City roadways are below 1.7 ft. NAVD, he said.

When Samuelian asked if raising roads “will exacerbate flooding on private properties,” van der Tak said it was “a fair question.” With groundwater coming up in yards, too, he said the City “might have to add additional storm drains to make sure you’re not exasperating” the situation. But, he said, “You also have to think about structural integrity of roads” as water coming up under the road bottom will deteriorate them faster. Having a goal of a 30-year lifespan for roads is “consistent with a 30-year bond cycle” which is typically how projects are funded.

Van der Tak emphasized “There is no one-size-fits-all strategy” in the Jacobs’ recommendations rather criteria that is applied to each neighborhood which reflect its individual characteristics. 

Jacobs’ took a first pass at a neighborhood prioritization schedule though that will be up to the City Commission to determine based on the weight it chooses to give to the various criteria. The Jacobs’ recommendations placed public safety as top priority while ranking various components such as service delivery, flood risk and stormwater management, emergency facilities and roads, aesthetics, environmental benefits, pedestrian and bicycle mobility, and economic development, among others. It also took into consideration current funding including the GO Bonds and projects in the pipeline. 

In the Jacobs’ first draft, three of the top five areas that would be addressed are in North Beach. At the top of Jacobs’ list:
  • Normandy Isles
  • Oceanfront
  • North Shore
  • Flamingo/Lummus
  • Normandy Shores

BUT, again, it’s now up to Commissioners to determine which criteria they want to assign the greatest weight to in setting the priorities for the City's neighborhoods and that started a spirited discussion.

Samuelian wondered how the recommendations would change “if residents are willing to live with more water… the amount of water a neighborhood wants to live with and what we do with that.”

Van der Tak cautioned, “There’s a public safety aspect to that.”  

“Sunset Harbour is probably the best example I can think of,” he said. “Is it perfect? Probably not but [it] avoided flooding.”

Samuelian raised issues of some businesses that have experienced flooding in major rainstorms which they blame on their first floors being below the new higher roads.

“So what’s the alternative?” Arriola shot back. “We hear you, but get the full story. We missed 84 days of flooding that would have happened” according to analyses had the roads not been raised. “There are a lot of anecdotal stories but you really have to take them in context to the cost of doing nothing.”

Samuelian questioned whether it’s the road elevation or the new pumps and pipes that are working using FDOT’s last Alton Road project as an example where the roads were not elevated. “We did great. I’m questioning the road elevation to make sure in our efforts to protect the road that we do no harm first to private properties but,” he emphasized he's not advocating a “do nothing” approach.

Arriola said as a commercial corridor, businesses are set back from Alton Road much further than homes are from neighborhood roads so the comparison is not “apples to apples”. Even so, he said the restaurant Macchialina “consistently floods” because it’s in a low-lying area of Alton.

Newly elected Commissioner David Richardson is a former State Representative who remembers the Alton Road project well. “The original plan,” he said “was drawn up in 2008. The knowledge related to stormwater rising and sea level rise was different. That plan was done 11 years ago… Right now, on Alton Road, during a significant rainfall we have significant flooding. It’s important to put that project in context.”

Gelber asked, “Why isn’t most likely chance of flooding the dominant metric?” in Jacobs' first draft of neighborhood priorities.

Rozza said that’s part of the “next steps” phase to “tease out certain aspects” for setting priorities including “where the funding is coming from because this has to convert into a plan of action.”

At a recent community meeting to get public feedback on the road elevation strategy, comments were primarily negative, punctuated by a fear of private property flooding as a result of raising roads. Aesthetics have always been an issue for residents who watched the initial underground projects happen quickly to address flooding but with little attention to above ground appeal.

Watch the Jacobs' Blue-Green Infrastructure community meeting and view the slide presentation here.

The Road Elevation Strategy community meeting and slides are here.

Commissioner Micky Steinberg said, “We want to deliver a project that adds more beautification, of course.” While roads may “go a little higher,” she said, there needs to be “balance, not a negative unintended consequence to quality of life.”

City Manager Jimmy Morales told Commissioners there will be a design criteria package for each neighborhood integrated into project plans once the Commission approves the prioritization schedule and reminded them of the $85 million dollars in the GO Bond for above ground improvements.

One neighborhood with a design package and above ground improvements that's ready to go is West Avenue which went through a “mini study” via the Southeast Florida Resiliency Accelerator project sponsored by Columbia University and 100 Resilient Cities. 

Newly elected Commissioner Steven Meiner noted, “The skepticism we saw for Jacobs [at the community meeting] is real… People who generally do not get upset about issues… they are very concerned about the approach this is taking. There’s a lot of skepticism and mistrust.”

“Whatever this body decides, if we don’t have the trust of the presidents of neighborhood association bodies, we’re going to run into a lot of trouble," he said.
Mistakes Were Made

Throughout the day, the City Administration was careful to note mistakes and lessons learned.

City Manager Jimmy Morales kicked off the workshop acknowledging, “We are going to make mistakes as we write the playbook because we are [writing the playbook].”

Two projects currently stalled over missteps in the process – Indian Creek and Palm and Hibiscus Islands – are being  investigated by the City’s new Inspector General Joseph Centorino who attended the workshop.

Assistant City Manager Eric Carpenter told Commissioners, “When you’re breaking new ground, trying new things, you’re going to make errors. We acknowledge that.” In those cases, he said, “It’s important to not only own mistakes, but to not make the same mistakes twice.”

He then reviewed lessons learned. On Palm and Hibiscus, he said, there were mistakes made by the City and the contractor with regard to scope, permitting, and coordination. In addition, he said, the City twice issued new drainage policy directives after the project started, and there were generators added, changes in the roadway design to accommodate undergrounding of power lines, and lighting and landscaping modifications, all at the request of the HOA. 

The most problematic issue has been the 82 after-the-fact harmonization agreements needed with property owners whose properties lie below the roadway. Meanwhile, the project has been stopped due to lack of permitting for the drain connections to the individual properties.

In the future, Carpenter said the City should “design and agree on individual property harmonization details before construction begins.” In this case, road elevation was not part of the original design but after changes to City policy, it was added to the scope of work.

Limiting construction scope changes once construction begins and emphasizing the contractor's responsibilities to obtain permits prior and throughout the project were two other lessons learned on Carpenter's list.

Samuelian, noting the need for agreement with 82 property owners, said, “We need to come up with a simpler approach, maybe a smaller area.” He called Palm and Hibiscus “a property by property engineering exercise and it’s not working for us… if we don’t rethink the model then we’re getting ready to see this again and I find that unacceptable.”

“Moving forward and, this is a heavy lift,” Carpenter said, “we need to design and agree on harmonization with property owners before construction begins.”

Centorino, whose job is not only investigative but to look at processes and root out inefficiencies, sat forward and furrowed his brow as Carpenter described the process of working to design individual solutions and reach agreements with 82 different homeowners on Palm and Hibiscus.

In the case of the Indian Creek project which the City took on for FDOT, Carpenter said, “Construction of projects on behalf of other governmental entities will be avoided.”

Morales reinforced the recommendation. On Indian Creek, he said, “While we were doing it for [FDOT], they still controlled the process… it makes us responsible for a project where we don’t have much control.”

Gelber wasn’t so sure. “I don’t trust FDOT to be responsible for working with residents on harmonization.”

Steinberg said, “If we’re going to survive, adapt and grow, then we must be transparent and real with people, what went wrong on these projects, how do we fix it, what [safeguards] are in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

“I think we need to get a couple wins on the board,” Samuelian said. “We need to get some nice wins on the board that people can really embrace.”
Next Steps

“The Shulman Report” led by architect Allan Shulman which looks at ways to preserve and incentivize preservation of the City’s historic assets will be presented to Commissioners at their February 12 meeting. It has already been presented to the community and Historic Preservation Board. The link to the HPB discussion is here

Funding the Program
The stormwater program is estimated to cost $658 million per a 2017 AECOM Engineers report. To date, the City has issued $200 million in bonds to fund the program with $32.5 million still available. It has received $68 million to date of $100 million to be paid out of the Interlocal Agreement with Miami-Dade County with $39.4 million of that still available. The remaining $32 million is expected over the next two years. 

City CFO John Woodruff said it is anticipated the City will go to the bond market again in 2022 for another $100 million but the Commission will have to approve an increase in stormwater fees first. He noted the Administration is also looking at opportunities for federal and state funding to “help alleviate some of the pressure.”

Public Works Director Roy Coley underscored the importance of continuing to fund the stormwater infrastructure program. “We need a source of funds to stay on this path.” Pointing out the lack of sufficient water pressure for the fire department in some areas and sewer pump stations that are beyond their useful life, he said, “If we don’t follow this path, it is my professional opinion you’re going to see there’s a very large risk that catastrophic events are going to happen.” At that point, more than a few people in the room referenced Fort Lauderdale’s recent difficulties with multiple sewer main breaks.

Incentivizing Private Property Owners
Miami Beach Chief Resiliency Officer Amy Knowles told Commissioners there are 63 miles of seawalls in the City, most privately owned. The City, she said, owns approximately 4.5 miles of seawalls and, “To date, one mile of publicly-owned seawalls have been raised to an elevation of 5.7 NAVD,” the new recommended height.

The estimated cost to raise the remaining 3.5 miles of public seawall is $40 million, with $22 million in funding committed, leaving a gap of $18 million. 

While the City looks for its own funding, Knowles said it is “looking at options for innovative financing” and trying to identify types of programs that would encourage people to upgrade private seawalls.
The Commission View

Samuelien wants a better communication and engagement strategy. “Residents see resiliency as something we’re doing to them… we need programs to engage the community,” he said. Using the GO Bond campaign as an example where residents gained “a level of comfort and consensus,” he said, Commissioners can be the messengers to “tell a very positive story” including “the fact that people want to lend money to Miami Beach, the fact that we have solutions that work… we have to package that. We have to make a concerted effort to tell that story that we are built to last.”

“This is a really big deal for our City,” Gelber said in summing up. “I am convinced that inaction doesn’t work. I’m convinced that demagoguing and being a populist doesn’t work.”

“These are difficult issues,” and discussions that will need to balance “what protects our residents, protects our businesses, and diminishes disruption.”

“Residents shouldn’t have to sit thru daylong PowerPoints in order to understand what’s going on," Gelber said. "It’s not their responsibility to all be City officials and to worry about this stuff. That’s our job. We need to figure out the approach that makes the most sense and bring them along as we go about doing it.”

“There are going to be some bad bounces out there… we have to do our best to diminish them,” while the City does “what we need to do to make sure [our residents'] property remains intact and as valuable."

“I look forward to the debates on how high we need to go,” he said, noting there’s a line of “too high” but also “too low" which leads to the "nightmare your asset is no longer marketable or insurance companies saying your asset is no longer insurable. There’s a sweet spot we’ve got to find… We’re going to have to do the hard work.”

“We have to really work together on this. I expect there will be some consternation and some differences of opinion,” but, he added, “We can talk about this civilly.” 

“I didn’t get elected to spend an enormous amount of money to disrupt lives and roads," Gelber said. "It’s what responsible policymakers and officials do, figure it out and explain it to people. You’re not going to make everyone happy. There’s always outliers and they’re not going to be happy with anything you do but we have to look at the science.”

Richardson added his perspective. “I’m not a pause guy. We do need to raise some roads. We don’t need to raise every road… I didn’t run on a doom and gloom platform,” he said, saying he would “stay true to what I promised.”

“This is an entirely surmountable challenge if we do our job,” Gelber concluded. “There are areas of our city that are drier” as a result of the projects that have been completed. “We’re going to continue to improve on that. We can do this. We just have to do the hard work of government.”


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