Building Florida’s Metropica around retail

A new development in Florida is built around a shopping mall:

Once safely inside, Kavana returned to explaining what that vision amounts to. Turns out it’s an Instagram-friendly mall that you can live in—one that happens to be smashed up against the side of an enormous swamp…

Approved for construction in 2014, the first residential tower of Metropica’s 4-million-square-foot planned community is set for move-in soon. On opening day, there will be a DJ spinning as buyers (and prospective ones) check out tennis courts and a state-of-the-art gym while enjoying gourmet popcorn. All this, Kavana said, is to showcase the conveniences and amenities that come with living inside a shopping center. He’s well aware that traditional retail is on the decline, but hopes he can buck the trend by bringing online players like Casper Mattress, which is heavily advertised by podcast hosts and Instagram influencers, to a brick-and-mortar location across from Tower One. Although Casper has yet to sign a lease, he hopes to court them and other retailers who might appeal to those millennials who hate malls but love “experiences,” as he put it…

Still, while it’s true that building your own jewelry at a Kendra Scott store is technically an experience, millennials are the most financially beleaguered generation in modern American history, and the only one to prefer urban environments to suburban and rural ones. Meanwhile, units at Metropica start in the mid six figures, and its $1.3 million penthouse overlooks two vast expanses, the juxtaposition of which defines the weirdness of South Florida’s bedroom communities. In full view is the Everglades Wildlife Management Area—facilitating regular clashes with wild animals—but also the parking lot of the BB&T Center, the arena where a different kind of wild animal, the Florida Panthers, battles visiting teams in professional hockey. With student housing, a building for active seniors, and an assisted living center also in the works, it might one day be possible to spend an entire lifetime in Metropica.

The question, however, is whether anyone will want to do that, or if the master-planned community will go the way of other Florida development boondoggles that were also advertised as utopias before falling into disrepair. Kavana is far from the first person to come to Florida and try to build something out of nothing, and perhaps as a result, the state has a long history of producing what sociologists call non-places. As the theory goes, there are three categories to describe where people spend their time in an ideal society: work, home, and a so-called third place where conversation is the main activity. In his book The Great Good Place, a guy named Ray Oldenburg said that might be a bar, a coffee shop, or the prewar concept of “Main Street”—no matter what form it takes, the third place has to be cheap (if not free), easy to get to without a car, and old enough to be embedded in the community.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. The rest of the article provides a quick overview of multiple large-scale Florida developments that did not work out as intended. At the same time, is it safe to say that development in Florida might have always been on a big scale? I remember visiting the Edison and Ford Winter Estates years ago and reading about how so few people lived on the Gulf Coast of the state then compared to now.
  2. The article does not say much about the funding for this project. As long as not much or any public money is on the line, the project going belly up may not be too harmful. (Of course, there are still environmental costs and partially developed land might be harder to develop in the long run.)
  3. It is also not clear who would move into Metropica outside of the appeal to millennials. Is this intended for Florida residents or people moving to the state? How does it compare to other developments in the area they could choose from? When I see major developments like this in urban areas that have more expensive housing, I always wonder who will move and/or invest in the property. (The Miami area is known for an interesting set of investors.)

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