I know Miami is not Memphis and nothing solidifies that feeling like a visit to the heart of South Florida’s business district. Brickell is not your typical modern business district. It is directly adjacent to the historic downtown, very compact and also one of the most dense residential neighborhoods in America on a per square mile basis.
I expected to see attractive ladies strolling their oh so fashionable children. I expected to need my toes to count the Ferraris whizzing by. I expected to hear the languages of the world more often than English.
But I never expected to be mystified by everyday things.
I was in Miami for five days and was hustled only once. There was no one even remotely suspicious anywhere around. There were no visible security guards and very few police. If you looked hard, you could find discretely placed cameras.
But for the life of me, I can’t understand why no one would be sleeping on the steps of buildings in a place with such beautiful weather. I learned that the Miami Downtown Development Agency successfully lobbied for anti-panhandling ordinances last fall. But Memphis has those too. Mysterious.
A Beautiful Boulevard
Brickell Avenue is curb to curb about as wide as Union Avenue. But it has only two lanes of traffic for each direction, a turn lane at intersections and small U-turn spots at the midblock points. Brickell is divided with a magnificent median that is landscaped with trees. Think North Parkway, if it were even prettier and passed right through Downtown.
I have been told for about 15 years that we can’t do this to Union because it carries so much traffic. Union carries about 10,000 cars a day through Downtown, 16,000 cars in front of the UT Health Science Center and about 30,000 cars through the eastern Medical District into Midtown. Brickell, in all of its Michigan Avenue-esque grandeur, manages to support over 36,000 cars a day. Mysterious.
Miamians do not think their city is pedestrian friendly. This is confounding. There are defined crosswalks everywhere and perfectly sized sidewalks with strategic shady spots. I challenge anyone to find a trip hazard.
Most curious was not the built environment but in the actions of drivers. It is as if they fear walkers. Perhaps it’s because they didn’t want to damage their fancy ride with a human body, but these people gently slow to a stop anytime anyone remotely looks like they might want to cross the street. Mysterious.
Really Good Design
The architecture is for the most part nice and interesting. Buildings front the street with parking hidden in the rear. There are few if any gaps between buildings to disrupt the urban experience. Doors are in logical places. Windows abound. And everything looks inviting.
The weird thing is, in a place that has so many people, good urban design is unnecessary. It’s hard to notice ugly buildings in dumb places when there are a lot of people around. Good urban design is really important in places, like Memphis, where we don’t have high densities and the landscape needs to say something positive about us when we aren’t around. But Miami went above and beyond in the Brickell District anyway. Mysterious.
Creative Grocery Store Parking
As if it were not weird enough to have three Publix supermarkets within walking distance of each other, none of them wastes space on parking. One uses a garage. Outrageous, I know! But the other two look almost just like typical suburban grocery stores. The only difference is that they are inviting to both cars and pedestrians.
They are both adjacent (immediately adjacent) to big infrastructure projects. This allows previously unused dead space to become parking for the stores. One parking lot is beneath an expressway overpass. The other has parking under a commuter train overpass. Very little land that could be used for a building is covered with asphalt for a sea of cars. Mysterious.
Cool Adaptive Reuse
The Brickell financial district has not always been so urban. Not too long ago, the area did have banks with drive through windows, short office buildings set far back from the street and room for more cars than people. Some of these older building examples remain. But instead of slapping on a new coat of paint and hoping for the best, these property owners have really tried to embrace the changing neighborhood.
Landscaping along the sidewalk creates a comfortable pedestrian environment. Strong signage makes the area seem exciting. Walkways, banners, gardens and furniture shorten the perceived distance between the door and the street. One of the coolest examples is a company called Workscapes, if you get a chance to check them out. Others, like Burger King, have moved into small historic buildings and added the drive through on the alley. Businesses are finding success in these unconventional locations while trying to help the appearance of the neighborhood. Mysterious.
Only A Little Retail… On Purpose
The Memphis area has around 27 square feet of retail space per person compared to the U.S. average of 20 and the three to five square feet per person in major European countries. Most cities fall into the trap of trying to line all of their streets with any sales tax generating use possible.
Not the Brickell District. There are a few pubs and shops scattered around here and there. However, most of the retail (other than supermarkets) and restaurant business is concentrated in a small two block area that is in a central location/destination. Mysterious.
A Few Final Mysteries
People Bicycle with groceries. Someone came up with an ingenious design to hang trees from the side of a bridge. Visual clutter, like street signs and utility boxes, has been reduced to a bare minimum. And pole signs have been replaced with tasteful monument signs. Mysterious.
I am usually attracted to historic areas. But this is a place made up of almost entirely new-ish construction. Not Polar & Ridgeway new construction… unless you take everything built in East Memphis over the last 30 years and shove it all to the corner so you can walk to it.
It is easy to imagine what Historic areas must have been when they were nicer. This is a new area of Miami designed to be nice now and possibly forever.
I think this might be because there are few bums in Brickell. There aren’t many panhandlers and there aren’t any bums designing the buildings. There aren’t any bums maintaining the sidewalks. There aren’t any bums asking anyone to cut corners when it comes to the public’s space. There aren’t any bums robbing their neighbor’s property of value by slapping up something inferior. Someone somewhere decided that it was time to take pride in something and build the best.
No one in the Brickell District of Miami will ever be asking themselves, “how many things are wrong with this sentence?”… I think the Logan’s Road House turns its back on the street.