Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Memo to journalism graduate students and to everyone else … by gimleteye

If you are a graduate student in journalism and looking for a good Phd thesis, you could do no better than to explore the Miami Herald archive and analyze how the paper's coverage on sea level rise tracked or failed to track emerging science compared to the reporting of blogs and other newspapers on Miami, one of the most low-lying and threatened cities in the world.

For the rest (property owners, taxpayers, by-standers, tourists, students, retirees, etc.), a fine example of a news story that you will never read in the Miami Herald appeared in the December 22 Washington Post: "Miami's climate catch-22: Building waterfront condos to pay for protection against the rising sea".

This is the first news report from an angle that provides impetus to a host of follow-on questions: the big bet by Miami Beach city government that rising condo and real estate values will solve the funding problem for the continuous climate change "adaptation" process. In Miami Beach, the storm water sewer aspect -- to prevent local streets from flooding on sunny days -- will cost over $300 million.

An excellent quote from Mayor Philip Levine: "“We’re showing the world, the investment community — what we do works,” Levine said. “That brings calm, comfort and security to everyone.” The Washington Post is too smart to editorialize or even put up next to Levine, comments from experts who have a different point of view: the sea is already winning.
In the world's wealthiest nations, we can afford to play "climate change musical chairs". We can afford to play, also, because the only news entity that conservatives pay attention to -- Fox News -- is a source of disinformation as calculating as Pravda ever was in the Soviet Union. (Read about that phenomenon -- another Phd topic! -- here.)

Mayor Levine will be long gone -- as will every living politician who claims to be serious about addressing climate change -- by the time the real impacts of climate change turn into national security crises. By then, that Phd thesis may just turn into a best seller.

If you have read this far and want to know what the emergency already looks like -- the game of climate change musical chairs -- from the point of view of a world already buckling under the consequences, DO NOT MISS the documentary recently broadcast on PBS' "Journey to Planet Earth": it is titled "Extreme Realities" hosted by Matt Damon!.

Storyline ⋅ The Cost Of Climate Change
Miami’s climate catch-22: Building waterfront condos to pay for protection against the rising sea
In one of cities most vulnerable to climate change, a high-stakes bet to out-build the sea.
By Danielle Paquette December 22 at 12:48 PM Follow @dpaqreport

A woman knits in her beach chair at the end of the day on Miami Beach. The Faena construction site can be seen in the background. (Photos by Charles Ommanney for the Washington Post)

MIAMI BEACH – Argentine developer Alan Faena recently listed the most expensive condo in this city’s history at $55 million. The Mid Beach penthouse features a private elevator, an infinity pool, an uninterrupted view of the Atlantic.

The catch: The tower stands on what scientists call one of America’s most vulnerable floodplains.

But Miami Beach needs this penthouse — and many more like it. The more developers build here, the more taxes and fees the city collects to fund a $300-million storm water project to defend the shore against the rising sea. Approval of these luxury homes on what environmentalists warn is global warming quicksand amounts to a high-stakes bet that Miami Beach can, essentially, out-build climate change and protect its $27 billion worth of real estate.

The move makes budgetary sense in a state with no income tax: Much of South Florida’s public infrastructure is supported by property taxes.

The penthouse and the 46 other luxury condos in “Faena House” have sold out, months before the building is scheduled to open, the developer’s team said. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine declared Faena, who designed shirts before towers, “a genius and a visionary.”

“The biggest investors in the world, the smartest minds in the world… they’re all buying,” Levine said. “They believe Miami Beach has a tremendous future, and they put their money where their mouth is.”

Critics question the wisdom of turning high-end properties into climate armor. Existing development already over-stresses Miami Beach’s infrastructure, built decades before sea level worried researchers, Florida State University climatologist David Zierden said. “When you consider current hurricane threats, and the sea level rise that could erode these properties… Common sense says no, you shouldn’t do it.”


The south point area of South Beach in Miami Beach Fla., has massive construction in progress. (Photos by Charles Ommanney for the Washington Post)
By 2020, Miami Beach plans to complete 80 new storm pumps that will collect and banish up to 14,000 gallons of seawater per minute back into Biscayne Bay. Construction started in February. The goal is to reduce sunny day flooding — which frequently invades streets at high tide whether or not it is raining — and prepare the community for future ocean swell.

“We’re showing the world, the investment community — what we do works,” Levine said. “That brings calm, comfort and security to everyone.”

A mock movie poster hangs in his office, featuring “Pump Man” and “King Tide.” Coming soon to a street near you.

The $300 million project is ambitious for a city with a $502 million annual budget. A new stormwater utility fee on homeowners, hotels and stores helped Miami Beach save enough money to borrow the first $100 million.

The project started before planners worked out all the funding. It’s unclear how the city will raise the rest. “We don’t have time for analysis-paralysis,” said Levine. “We are going to have to get creative.”

President Obama’s National Climate Assessment report, released earlier this year, identified Miami as especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The ocean around South Florida, which sits on porous limestone, is expected to rise nearly three feet in the next 86 years, according to Florida State University research.

Beaches are already receding. The mayor attended a “sand sampling” last month before ordering replacement reserves: “We were passing bags all around,” Levine said. “I was saying, ‘Bring me that Bahamian white.’”

To compound the problem: Hurricanes may gain strength, researchers predict, and strike more often as average annual temperatures in the southeast heat as much as nine degrees.

Meanwhile, Miami Beach keeps growing. Last year, the city collected $128 million in property taxes, an increase from $117 million in 2013 and $114 million in 2012. Thirty-two new condo towers have been proposed since 2011, said Peter Zalewski, founder of condo consulting site CraneSpotters.com. Twelve are currently under construction. The average asking price for resale condos, he said, is about $1.1 million.

Many buyers come from South America, more concerned by currency instability in their home countries than encroaching saltwater: “They want somewhere safe to park their money,” said Zalewski, whose firm tracks applications. “A lot of buyers here never step foot in the condos. They’ll sell them before the water makes it to the bottom floor of their buildings, anyway.”

Foreign investors fueled nearly one-third of real estate transactions last year in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, according to a National Association of Realtors report. Eighty-one percent paid cash, the report found, and 72 percent bought a condo or townhouse.

There’s little virgin land left. Cranes soar above palm trees, as developers bulldoze and renovate aging buildings to accommodate shinier towers on raised foundations, per city code.

That includes hotels. The Thompson Miami Beach, formerly an apartment building, booked its first guests this month during Art Basel, the festival that annually attracts thousands of big-spending revelers. Mattel hosted a Barbie-themed party at the new hotel — one of five to open this year — where Paris Hilton, dressed as Barbie, spun dance hits behind a pink DJ booth. Miley Cyrus was photographed biting a Barbie’s head.

No one complained about sunny day flooding, which appeared, predictably, at high tide, Thompson’s managing director Brett Orlando said. “They were having a good time partying.”

The Thompson’s 380 new rooms directly boost Miami Beach’s efforts to dry its streets. The new monthly stormwater fee hit all property owners in August. Commercial buildings, like hotels, pay $7 for every 791 square-feet.

Most public improvements are initially financed with bonds, an alternative to higher-rate private loans. That’s only possible if Miami Beach continues to collect money, public works director Eric Carpenter said. Access to cheaper cash accelerates a process that, he said, “absolutely needs to happen, quickly and aggressively.”

Officials want to take advantage of the development spurt while it lasts. “The time to put away things for a rainy day is when it’s sunny outside,” Carpenter said. “If you wait until it’s raining, it’s too late.”

Next March, Miami Beach turns 100. The city will throw a concert on the beach, tentatively starring Gloria Estefan and Pitbull, called “The Miami Beach Centennial Climate Change Concert.”

“Because it’s about about the next hundred years, too,” Levine said. “We’re showing the world that you can fight back.”


Anonymous said...

FYI: Matt Damon just sold his house in Miami... Go Figure.

Anonymous said...

And then, too, the phd thesis could explore how much money the top executives of the Miami Herald took down, while reporters were forced to unpaid "holidays"/ layoffs. Chapman, Lawrence, Ibarguen. Read it in the Herald? Never.

Anonymous said...

Damon got the memo.

Anonymous said...

Federal government will get stuck protecting Miami Beach. Mayor is going a good job setting this up.

Anonymous said...

Is it immoral or illegal for MB Mayor Levine to mislead the public, investors, the press about the real impact of sea level rise on Miami Beach? As a public official he should be held to a higher standard of responsibility and liability.

Anonymous said...

I was appalled to learn in this article of the costs of the pumps- $300 million! And yet this won't even solve the problem. It's like emptying a bathtub in a flooded house. Please. Where is the wAter going- back into Biscayne bay- this time polluted- and Into the still rising sea. Besides pumps will do nothing to stop storm surge or eroding shorelines. Then there's the cost of relocating the sinking Virginia Key Sewage treatment facility- where the beach sewage is treated. What is the true cost of this so-called resilience? Infinity. We will never afford it by 2050 no matter how many Faena luxury condos go up in 2015.

Anonymous said...

From a totally selfish point of view, I am so happy to be 64 years old. I won't be around when climate armageddon really hits.

Anonymous said...

Federal flood insurance program should give Miami Beach a rate discount because it spends money on pumps. It sounds backwards, the higher the risk the greater the discounts. The more money Miami Beach raises through building permit fees and property taxes the better off it is when they do a bond offering. Don't forget One Ocean a newly built condominium in Miami Beach has underground parking. These buildings are starting to use top down construction, injecting concrete into the limestone to build below sea level. You will notice they are missing the parking lots on the ground and upper floors. Parking is now below ground.

Philip Stoddard said...

The strategy of using development fees to finance protections from sea level rise shares elements with the Ponzi scheme. Another topic ripe for a dissertation, but probably simple enough for a masters thesis.