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.)

The rise of beach McMansions in New Jersey, Florida

Large homes are not just for suburban locations. Two recent pieces highlighted their role in changing beach communities. First, from New Jersey:

Decades ago, when I was a teenager, I rented a surf shack in the then-humble town of Beach Haven on the New Jersey shore. Four of us crammed into a squat cinder-block hut tucked behind a bungalow. We worked as lifeguards for $2.50 an hour. Still, our rent was only $187.50 each for the summer. We had a place to sleep, shower, and create memories. We didn’t need more…

But there is another less visible cost that rarely gets mentioned when Americans talk about coastal development and risks. Since the modern coast emerged after the Second World War, a series of land bubbles have wildly inflated land values, to the point that many ordinary families can no longer afford to live at the coast, or even afford a weekly summer rental. On Long Beach Island, a popular resort in Ocean County, where I worked as a lifeguard, $15 billion worth of property now crowds a narrow, 18-mile-long shoreline. The average price of a new home is about $1.1 million, with many costing millions more. Rentals run as high as $5,000 a week. Yet, paradoxically, the island was conceived by Morris Shapiro and other developers as an enclave for middle-class and blue-collar families – teachers, plumbers, electricians, and so forth…

I suppose it is unsurprising there are few, if any, surf shacks left. Most beach towns have been supersized. But unanticipated costs have come with that growth. High school and college students have few places to live and the labor pool for lifeguards, waitresses, hotel workers, amusement-ride operators, and so on has shrunk dramatically. Many shore towns now rely on a special federal visa program to supply summer help. Workers come from Eastern Europe, Ireland, even Australia. Even so, some businesses have been forced to cut hours or even close.

The change over multiple decades is drastic.

And from the Gulf Coast of Florida:

Anna Maria Island may be largely built-out, but that hasn’t stopped developers from buying older existing homes, tearing them down and replacing them with new high-end homes…

Officials in the cities of Anna Maria, Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach say it is a worrisome long-term trend and that they are doing their best to maintain the island’s unique character and sense of place…

Stephen Gilbert, building official for the city of Bradenton Beach, said the land is often much more valuable than the existing older home that sits on the lot.

Of the new homes built in the last decade in Bradenton Beach, only a couple were intended as homes for the owners. The others were intended as investments to be quickly turned over for more cash, he said.

While the change here has come more recently, it sounds like a similar process: people with money and/or an interest in investments come in, tear down older homes, and construct beach McMansions. This has happens over a sustained period of time and the feel of neighborhoods and communities changes.

These changes certainly have local effects on hundreds of beach communities across the United States but there are larger processes at work. Are the big homes the cause or the symptom of bigger issues? The nature of real estate capital today plus the rapid rise in real estate values puts even small communities at the mercy of global markets. Communities can respond but turning down big amounts of new money is not easy and often requires significant opposition from local residents and leaders.

The continued rise of the Sunbelt: Florida’s population to pass New York’s

One of the largest demographic shifts in American history continues: Florida’s population will soon surpass that of New York.

When the 2013 census results are revealed on Monday, Florida is expected to edge out New York as the third most populous state. The population gap between New York and Florida has been closing quickly over the past few years, but the ranking swap could still signify changes ahead for both states.

According to The New York Times, the new census figures reflect the trend of migrants born outside the U.S. making their way toward sunnier states, like California, Texas — the top two most populous states — and Florida. The Times reports that roughly 50,000 New Yorkers move to Florida each year, compared with only 25,000 Floridians who come to New York. Though New York state’s population is still growing, it is far outpaced by Florida growth. And upstate New York is largely economically stagnant, while cities like Tampa and Jacksonville flourish…

A larger population can dictate a state’s future, in addition to simply reflecting its current circumstance. It means a larger chunk of the federal government’s money and more political representation. The New York Times explains:

The changing population pattern could have many practical and political implications, including diminished congressional delegations, a setback New York already suffered in 2010 — the year of the last decennial census count — when the state lost two districts, while Florida gained two seats. Census data also inform how billions of dollars in federal funding and grants are divvied up among the states, for things like highway planning and construction, public aid for housing and health care and education programs.

It is interesting to see the attention these estimates are getting. This population shift to the Sunbelt has been happening for decades now, spurred on by being closer to immigration sources (the 1965 Immigration Act helped increase immigration from Mexico and Latin America), warmer weather, more affordable housing, and economic growth. But, I suspect there are some other reasons in particular to point out the closeness in population of New York and Florida:

1. New York, particularly New York City, is seen as an American center of power (economic, political, cultural, social). Florida is seen as a place where people go on vacation or to retire. Yet, the population shift suggests Florida might be able to grow in power and influence while a relative population decline suggests New York has already peaked.

2. A conservative-liberal divide between the two states. For example, the New York Times article cited above mentions the stand your ground law in Florida as well as the implications for Congress. The horrors that might ensue if the people of Florida get to help dictate policy for the people of New York City…

3. It is more difficult to understand larger population trends without having these kinds of comparisons. In other words, we could say the Sunbelt population has grown 15% over 10 years while the population in the Northeast has grown 4% over the same period but these are big areas and vague numbers. Being able to pit two states against each other makes the data more understandable and produces a better news story.

The mayor of a Miami suburb tries to get Spanish approved as the official second language – and is rebuffed by Spanish-speaking immigrants

Stories of suburbs trying to pass English as an official language ordinances have been fairly common in recent decades. But, what happens when the story is flipped around? Here is what happened when the mayor of Doral, a Miami suburb, tried to get Spanish approved as the official second language:

But when Doral’s mayor tried to make Spanish the official second language on Wednesday, he was rebuffed by every council member and numerous constituents. And it wasn’t from the small group of non-Hispanic residents who live here. It was largely from immigrants themselves…

But few cities have responded by declaring themselves officially bilingual. Far more states, and politicians, have adopted English-only policies. That has been reaffirmed in the recent immigration reform debate, with both Democrats and Republicans supporting English as a requirement for citizenship…

Florida itself is an interesting case study: Miami-Dade County declared itself bilingual 40 years ago after a wave of Cuban exiles fled island and settled in South Florida. That ordinance was later overturned, but the rejection was thrown out in 1993. The state voted to make English the official language in 1988.

In Doral, nearly 80 percent of the population is Hispanic and almost 90 percent speak a language other than English at home. The city is affectionately known as “Doralzuela” because of its large number of Venezuelan residents.

I wonder how particular this is to Florida which has its own unique history of immigration and whether there are similar cases elsewhere in the United States.

It is also interesting that this is a debate about the official second language. Many of the suburban debates over language have been about making sure English is number one.

Scarier than McMansions: half-completed McMansions

In the middle of a slideshow about the “World’s Eeriest Abandoned Places” is an image of a South Florida neighborhood of half-completed McMansions. The description of Lehigh Acres (picture 7 of 8):

There’s something bluntly creepy about the abandoned exurbs of Florida. Forsaken construction sites, like the ones in the middle-class development of Lehigh Acres in Florida’s southwest, are filled with half-built McMansions, unkempt yards overtaken by alligators and snakes, and derelict cul de sacs that lead to nothing. Florida’s population is diminishing for the first time ever, and nowhere is the exodus felt stronger than here.

Before Halloween, I wrote about the trend of horror films using McMansions as scary settings. Perhaps abandoned sites are more in the genre of post-apocalyptic films…

Overall, I’m not sure why abandoned buildings are viewed as being so creepy. I wonder if this fear has increased with the prosperity of the Western world in recent decades. With so much money out there, it strikes us as very odd that a building would just be left behind and unused. Is there something horribly wrong with the building? Why wouldn’t someone want to preserve and reuse it? But, I assume this has happened plenty throughout human history. Think about the ruins of empires; what happened with all the structures the Romans built when their empire slowly collapsed over the centuries? Or what exactly happened to those Mayan cities in the jungle? I remember as a kid learning about the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke but this certainly happened with other explorer settlements like the Vikings in Greenland. Until recent history, abandoned buildings and settlements were probably more common and “normal.”

Signs of the “demographic train wreck” in retirement colonies in Florida

One commentator suggests the expansion of retirement in Florida hints at larger demographic changes in the United States:

“There is a demographic train wreck coming that we are not really addressing nationally or in Florida,” says Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Economic Competitiveness.Over the next 20 years, the number of adults over 62 in the U.S. will double to 80 million, as the largest generation in American history retires. A demographic model that once looked like a pyramid, with a relatively small number of seniors with lots of younger people to support them, now more closely resembles a bobble-head doll. Right now in the U.S., four working age adults support each retiree. In 20 years, that ratio will slip to three to one nationally — and two to one in Florida…

Yet after years of stagnant population growth, Florida is adding new residents again, especially in those areas where it is growing gray. According to projections from Florida’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, more than half of the five million migrants expected to flow into the state over the next 18 years will be 60 or older. This elderly population boom, fueled by the retirement of the Baby Boomers, the biggest generation in U.S. history, will profoundly change the face of Florida from a state that is simply very old, to a state with one of the oldest populations on the planet.

If it seems like there are a lot of wrinkled faces crowding the aisles at the Publix grocery store in Boca Raton now, just wait. By 2030, one in four Floridians will be older than 65, up from one in six today, with the 85-plus set the fastest-growing group, according to projections…

“Basically you are asking a bunch of old retired rich white people to vote for school bonds that benefit immigrant Latino kids,” says Jennifer Hochschild, a Harvard University professor who studies the intersection of politics, immigration and education. “This is a potential political disaster.”

It will be fascinating to see how this plays out. Currently, it sounds like developers have figured out there is quite a market for such retirement communities. I have wondered why these haven’t seem to have caught on in the same scalein more northern, even considering the weather.

Should retirees have the right or make the possibly wrong choice for the larger society by moving into more isolated communities of people their own age? I’m sure there are class and race differences present here as well – not everyone has the resources to move to Florida in their golden years. What happens when all of these older residents can no longer live in these communities and require more care?

Baby Boomers want to downsize from McMansions but still want the amenities

Even if more people are interested in smaller houses, will they be willing to forgo the amenities of larger houses? This article suggests the Baby Boomers going to Florida want to go smaller but still want features:

The baby boomers who invented the “McMansion” now say they want to scale down, while still having everything just so. For boomers beginning to trickle into Florida, this means medium-size, maintenance-free retirement homes that still feel spacious, especially when it comes to storing all their stuff.

Builders who study what this generation wants have come up with innovations like “snore rooms” to preserve bedtime peace and “technology centers” to keep them connected. Behind a yen for such marketing frills is a solid demand for costly amenities: spas, fitness centers and dedicated golf cart paths to nearby shopping…

This generation, famous for saying one thing and doing another, promises to keep it up as its members age. Boomers say they intend to downsize, but appear to change their minds once they see what their dollars will buy in a post-recession Florida…

Inside, the standard villa layout has been refined to boost the coolness factor boomers crave. Generous windows, some of them bays and bump-outs, flood the rooms with natural light. Tiny foyers feature the elegant architectural detail of a stately manor, and lead immediately into wide, off-center angles of open-planned space. Pocket doors allow one- or two-bedroom guest suites to close off from the rest of the living area, so grandchildren can nap or play.

Custom options include a cocktail pool, or “spool” — bigger than a spa, smaller than a pool — and a shared office with his-and-her workspaces for boomer couples telecommuting from home.

Several factors are at play here:

1. Housing is relatively cheap in Florida, particularly if retirees are coming from New York, Washington, Boston, and to a lesser extent, Chicago. Perhaps these retirees can’t resist getting the “best deal” when they realize they have the money to buy a little more?

2. What people expect in retirement. It sounds like these retirees expect a certain standard of living when they move to Florida. If they had fewer choices or less money, what would they ask for? Overall, these retirees have the money and the wherewithal to pick up and leave for Florida.

3. This is big business. Companies like Dell Webb need retirees to buy their homes so they are going to offer what people want.

In these cases, it sounds like buying less (particularly in square footage) doesn’t necessarily mean buying less.

An argument for historic districts: repel McMansions!

A common argument for historic districts is that they limit the destruction of older homes and the construction of McMansions. Here is an example of this argument in Fort Lauderdale:

However, if communities wait around for that history to age, new development might wipe it out before it has a chance to be saved.

That fear has residents of Fort Lauderdale’s Colee Hammock neighborhood thinking about seeking historic district designation for their community.

“We’re constantly inundated with development issues, people wanting to come in and build too much, too high, too big,” said Jackie Scott, president of Colee Hammock’s neighborhood association. “It gets to a point where you’re sick and tired of always having to come out and fight for your neighborhood. It’s not an enjoyable way to live.”…

“We have some beautiful homes that have been built and are new construction. They fit perfectly with the neighborhood,” Scott said. [A historic district] prevents people that want to come into an area like this to start ripping things down and creating McMansions.”

While McMansions are often tied to sprawl and new subdivisions, teardowns are also a common scene for debates over the merits of McMansions. In this particular example, a McMansion is contrasted with new homes that “fit perfectly with the neighborhood.” Many American communities have created some guidelines so that teardowns can’t be anything a homeowner might desire but there is a spectrum between more permissive and less permissive communities. The advantage of declaring a historic district is that the community has more control over what can be demolished and built within the district. At the same time, some consider historic districts to be quite restrictive.

I would be interested to hear what resources those pushing for the historic district have utilized from outside groups. For example, the National Trust for Historic Preservation even has a page titled “Teardowns and McMansions.” Here is the lead paragraph:

Across the nation a teardown epidemic is wiping out historic neighborhoods one house at a time. As older homes are demolished and replaced with dramatically larger, out-of-scale new structures, the historic character of the existing neighborhood is changed forever. Neighborhood livability is diminished as trees are removed, backyards are eliminated, and sunlight is blocked by towering new structures built up to the property lines. Community economic and social diversity is reduced as new mansions replace affordable homes. House by house, neighborhoods are losing a part of their historic fabric and much of their character.

With such resources available, I wonder if local groups are now more effective in adopting historic districts.

Quiet plans for private illegal immigrant prison anger Florida town

Here is an interesting story about quiet plans to build a privately-run prison for illegal immigrants in a wealthy Florida town that helps illustrate the issues of having private prisons, NIMBY concerns, and immigration:

Only the leaders of Southwest Ranches kept their plans quiet from residents for almost a decade, and the project has now ballooned into what would be among the federal government’s largest immigrant detention centers. The town would have to pay $150,000 each year to keep the prison, but officials say the town would turn a profit by getting 4 percent of what U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement pays the company operating the prison to hold inmates there.

Many residents finally caught wind of the idea this year, when the immigration agency announced a tentative deal, and they’re angry. They’ve held protests at public meetings, contemplated whether to recall the mayor before his March election and whether to amend the town charter to make it easier to fire the city attorney pushing the deal.

The objection over the prison has created an odd set of allies among the town’s affluent residents, many of whom are wary of illegal immigrants, and longtime activists who fight for immigrants, legal or not…

But according to Mayor Jeff Nelson and others involved at the time, the plan for some kind of prison run by Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison operator, was always integral to Southwest Ranches’ ability to survive.

The town, a self-described “rural lifestyle community” located southwest of Fort Lauderdale, is for the equestrian set. There are several very interesting cross-currents in this story:

1. Lots of towns need revenue. Not only will Southwest Ranches earn money per inmate but there will be jobs at the prison.

2. Immigration is a hot-button issue. Shouldn’t people in town opposed to illegal immigration welcome such facilities?

3. But, of course, those worried about illegal immigration probably don’t want the prison right next to them. Classic NIMBY situation – build it somewhere else.

4. Local officials have done this quietly and it appears residents may not be able to do much at this point about halting the process.

The conclusion of this story makes it sound like the NIMBY concerns win out – as one resident says, “In the opposition to the prison, both sides of the immigration debate are represented.” I can’t say I’m surprised – what wealthy community would want a prison in town? If the private company doesn’t end up building in this town, how difficult will it be for them to find another town who needs the revenue? And if this community does indeed need revenue, would these same residents be willing to give up services or pay higher taxes?

Quick Review: Universal’s Islands of Adventure & The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

We recently were in Florida and spent a day at Universal Studio’s Islands of Adventure. While this is more of a theme park than the regular Universal, it also includes the 1 year old Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Here are some thoughts on this park with pictures:

1. I’ll start with Harry Potter. This area was a lot of fun: from the ride (more of a Universal type ride than a roller coaster) to Hogsmeade to seeing Hogwarts from a distance, it was exciting. By far the best overall area of the park. In addition to the main ride (which was fun but we only did it once), there are two dueling roller coasters, the Hungarian Horntail and the Chinese Fireball, that were the second and third best rides in the park (and I went on each of these twice).

We spent a good amount of time in Hogsmeade. The scene of a small village in the snow looked good even on a 90 degree day and Hogwarts looks imposing off in the distance. While Olivander’s wand shop was overrated (and the longest wait of the day at 45 minutes), Zonko’s, Honeyduke’s, and The Three Broomsticks were worthwhile. The butterbeer was tasty.

This was the most crowded part of the park and we went there at least four separate times to try to avoid some of the crowds.

2. The best roller coaster in the park is The Incredible Hulk. While it is not the tallest or fastest coaster in Florida, it has some good features: you are shot out of the tunnel, the first turn/corkscrew is great, and it has an interesting part where it goes through some mist and under a bridge. The waits weren’t that long and I rode three times.

3. The park has three water rides which we rode all in a row. The Jurassic Park ride was entertaining (an extended big boat ride with the big drop at the end). The best was Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls which was whimsical, wet, and had a couple of small gotcha drops.

4. Other parts of the park I liked:

-Perhaps other parks have this now but all of the rides had lockers that were free and locked/unlocked by your fingerprint. We didn’t have to pay anything for this all day, the lockers were conveniently located near every ride, and we didn’t have to worry about a key.

-The Dr. Seuss area was fun to walk through but the rides are for kids. Humorously, we saw a brochure in the Orlando area that claimed one of the tram rides from this area was actually in Disney World.

-Spiderman was okay – a typical Universal ride with lots of noise, lights, a 3-D screen. Doctor Doom’s Fearfall could have been taller but at least the line was short.

-We saw three shows: the BMX/skateboarding/motorcycle stunt show was fun while Poseidon’s Fury and the Eighth Voyage of Sinbad were lame.

-The food wasn’t bad. We ate at The Three Broomsticks for lunch and Mythos for dinner. Mythos claimed to be at the top of theme park food and I can’t say that I disagree.

5. Some things I would change:

-There are a few areas that need to be spiced up: Jurassic Park and The Lost Continent. Perhaps this has changed recently with more resources and space going to Harry Potter but these areas were noticeably lacking.

-The park needs one or two good rides to be fantastic. Another roller coaster would be fantastic. We had ridden all three roller coasters (and The Hippogriff kiddie coaster doesn’t count) and all three water rides within four hours of being in the park.

6. A note: we stayed in a Universal hotel the night before and it seemed to pay off. Though the hotel was pricey, we were able to get into the park an hour early (and therefore had no line for the Harry Potter ride) and also had an Express Pass so we could bypass some of the lines. The longest wait we had for a ride all day was probably twenty-five minutes and this was to be in the front row of The Incredible Hulk.

On the whole, we enjoyed the day. All amusement parks these days are expensive but I found this to be more interesting than Disney World, Epcot, or the regular Universal Park. Compared to the other nearby options, this park has exciting rides and doesn’t have to rely on characters, tradition, and tricks. With a little bit more, this park could be fantastic and I would then enjoy returning.

Here is the official website and the Wikipedia overview.

(Side note: the Harry Potter souvenirs were flying off the shelves including wands and school robes. With this success, how come some park hasn’t shelled out big bucks for a Lord of the Rings theme?)