The return of the floating McMansion critique in Miami

I missed this the first time around in 2005 but it has returned to Miami: the “Inflatable Villa” continues to critique McMansions though it will no longer floating:

Seven years ago, Miami-based architect Luis Pons unveiled the “Fabulous Floating Inflatable Villa” at Art Basel 2005. Floating proudly offshore in Miami, the over-the-top, gargantuan inflated pavilion aimed to critique the McMansion culture of the day, arguing that the real estate bubble had caused Miamians to lose sight of detail and quality in the wake of blind excess and uninspired grandeur.

How things have changed in the real estate world in seven short years. Using the recession as inspiration, Pons will re-introduce The Inflatable Villa to Basel for the first time this year in a entirely new context.

“It’s the same piece, but the meaning has completely changed,” explained Pons. “It’s an analogy to represent the disparity between where we were in 2005 and where we are today.”

The structure will be placed in a vacant lot in the Design District, a site which was intended to be developed until the bursting real estate bubble of 2008 halted the project. The villa, only partially inflated, will be placed within rigid metal bar columns that were part of the original construction site, its fragility a tangible analogy to the rigid metal structure encasing it.

Perhaps it is less of a critique today and more of a triumphal return or a triumphal critique. To many, Pons was right in 2005; the McMansion simply couldn’t last, either financially or architecturally. Housing data in Miami would seem to support this changed perspective of the “Fabulous Floating Inflatable Villa.” Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis shows “privately owned housing starts” were up quite a bit in 2005 and reached a reached a low in 2009. Miami was also hit hard by foreclosures during the economic crisis and foreclosure rates have still been high in recent years:

The rate of foreclosures in the greater Miami area declined in August to 16.42 percent of outstanding mortgages from 18.14 a year earlier, according to CoreLogic. The foreclosure rate is the percentage of mortgages in some stage of the foreclosure process.

The data firm said the rate of mortgages with delinquencies of 90 days or more in the Miami-Miami Beach-Kendall area also fell in August to 22.89 percent from 25.45 percent a year earlier.

Despite the continuing downward trend, Miami’s foreclosure rate in August remained far higher than the national rate of 3.35 percent of outstanding mortgages, the firm said. The area’s mortgage-delinquency rate was also far higher than the national average of 6.76 percent in August, CoreLogic said.

I wonder if this suggests that while McMansion construction may be down in the United States compared to a peak 6-8 years ago, the market for art critiquing McMansions hasn’t yet peaked.

Marlins’ publicly-funded stadium not the exception among Major League Baseball teams

There is a lot of conversation today about the trade/fire sale undertaken by the Miami Marlins and how this relates to the team’s opening of a new stadium for the 2012 season that was largely funded by public money.Yet, this is a larger trend: 20 of the last 21 baseball stadiums built have been partly funded by public money.

And like nobody else, he hoarded massive checks from MLB while passing along the bill for the stadium to the taxpayers.

The Marlins can claim the money comes from tourism-tax dollars. Truth is, Miami-Dade County moved general-use monies from property taxes to free up the tourist cash. This is the dirtiest secret of Selig’s two decades as commissioner: The “golden era” of which he so often brags came off the taxpayer’s teat.

Of the 21 stadiums built since Camden Yards started the boom in 1992, the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park is the only one privately funded. Baseball’s business plan depended on new stadiums with sweetheart deals filling the coffers of ownership groups lucky enough to leverage politicians or voters into signing off on them. Cities signed deal after dreadful deal, few worse than the Marlins’, who paid for less than 20 percent of the stadium, received a $35 million interest-free loan to help and used $2.5 million more of public money to fund seizures.

Despite Loria and Samson’s protestations otherwise, this was always the endgame of their stadium gambit. Selig saw the Marlins’ audited finances every year. He knew they were lying. He went along with it anyway. That’s how he does business. He protects his friends. It’s why Fred Wilpon still owns the Mets. It’s why Frank McCourt doesn’t own the Dodgers.

As I’ve written about before (see here and here), studies show the construction of sports stadiums tends to benefit team owners and not the public. Teams are often able to hold a city hostage because no political leader wants to be the one who lets the favorite team go. Yet, the economic data would suggest it wouldn’t really hurt a city to do just that.

This leads me to a thought: what city would be most willing to let a team leave town for another locale? Even if pro sports teams don’t necessarily bring in money, they are also status symbols to show a city is “major league.” What will be the next team to go? One way to think about this is to look at cities that lack major teams. We could look at Los Angeles and the NFL; even though the metropolitan area has two baseball teams, two basketball teams, and two hockey teams, the city has not had a NFL team since 1994. Despite all the conversation about teams possible moving there (the Vikings were one of the recent teams though they got a publicly-funded stadium in a close vote last year), no one has moved yet. Seattle and the NBA is another interesting case; the city lost the Supersonics, now the Oklahoma City Thunder, after the 2007-2008 season and there have been recent conversations about a new stadium and team.

My guess is that the Marlins won’t be leaving Miami anytime soon though it would be appropriate if the city did renounce them. What an odd franchise overall: they were an expansion team that started play in 1993 presumably to take advantage of the growing city (the 8th largest metropolitan area in the United States) and its Latin American population (in recent years, 27-28% of baseball players were Latino), they have won two World Series titles (1997 and 2003, the year of Bartman), and held multiple fire sales.

Quick Review: The Casual Vacancy and Back to Blood

I recently read two recently-published New York Times best sellers: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling and Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe. Even though the books come from very different authors, one known for writing about a boy wizard and the other known for “new journalism” and tackling status, I thought the books had a lot in common. After a quick overview of each story, I discuss some of the similarities:

1. The Casual Vacancy is about English small-town life as the village of Pagford debates whether a nearby council estate (public housing project in American terms) should remain under their purview or should come under control of the nearby large city. The sudden death of a local council member alters the debate and different members of the community, from residents of the council estate, disaffected teenagers, and local business owners get involved in the decision. In the end, the battle doesn’t really turn out well for anyone involved.

2. Back to Blood is about multicultural Miami where different ethnic and social groups vie for control. The main story is about a Russian businessman turned art benefactor who is investigated by a beleaguered Cuban cop and WASP reporter. Others are caught up in this story including the black police chief, the Cuban mayor, a Cuban psychiatric nurse, and a pornography addiction psychiatrist. Similarly, no one really wins in the end.

3. Although set in very different places, the muted English countryside versus vibrant Miami (reflected to some degree by the writing styles, more conventional for Rowling, more in-your-face from Wolfe), there are common themes.

3a. Power and status. At the heart of these novels are characters vying for control. Of course, this looks different in different places: in Pagford, England, this means being a local council member or having a respectable job in the local community (say as a bakery owner or a doctor) while in Miami, this means the ability to own expensive clothes, cars, houses, and boats while also twisting people’s arms in the directions you want them to go. The characters in both books spend a lot of time worrying about their relative position and scheming about how to get to the top of the heap or how not to be buried completely by others (there is little room for middle ground).

3b. Sex. This is tied to power and status, but both books feature a lot of sexual activity. On one hand, it is presented as one of the rare moments when the characters aren’t solely consumed by the quest for power and yet, on the other hand, sex and who is having sex with whom and for what reason, is inevitably wrapped up in the naked grab for power and status.

3c. Characters alienated from society. Both books are full of characters who feel like they don’t fit in society, that they don’t know where they belong or aren’t able to achieve what they would really want to achieve. This comes across in some classic types: there are teenagers who feel like the adults around them are idiots and so they grasp at ways to make their own name. There are characters caught in the cogs of bureaucracy, particularly adults who are “successful” but don’t feel like it, who have some agency but are ultimately dependent on social and government institutions.

3d. Communities striving for goals but having difficulty overcoming the frailty of their human actors. Although the communities are quite different in size and aspirations (Miami striving to be a world-class city and Pagford striving to control more of its own destiny), their characters want them to be known and coherent places. They want their neighborhoods as well as their municipalities to be about something. Alas, both places are reliant on social actors that can’t overcome their own anxieties and hang-ups and this limits what the larger whole can become.

In the end, I’m tempted to write these off as the sort of themes one finds all the time in “serious adult literature,” the sort of books that peel back the facade of life and expose people for the vain creatures that they are. These are not uncommon themes in more modern books where there are no real heroes, most characters are just trying to get by, and authors revel in tackling sociological issues. But, I don’t think it is an accident that the two books cover similar ground. Power, sex, alienation, and communities striving for success are known issues in our 21st century world. Compared to movies, books like these offer more space to develop these themes and really expose the depths to which individuals and institutions have fallen. Stories like these can translate sociological themes into a medium that the public understands.

Yet, I can’t help but wish that both books had more redemptive endings. If power, sex, alienation, and community striving do make the world go round, how can this be tackled in a “right” way? Is there anyone or any social institution who can put us on the right path? In ways common to 21st century commentary, both of these books offer a bleak view of social life and not much hope for the future.

Some residents opposed to Section 8 vouchers being used for large homes in South Florida gated communities

Here is another side effect of the sluggish economy and housing market: some big homes in South Florida are being rented with Section 8 vouchers.

Housing advocates and the government view the turnabout as a win-win for homeowners and the poor, who have access to safer communities and better schools.

But some neighbors are aghast.

After a single mother and her nine children rented a house in the exclusive Isles neighborhood of Coral Springs, the homeowners association adopted an amendment to its governing documents stating: “No Section 8 or government leasing assistance is permitted.”

The association is threatening eviction.

Federal law does not expressly outlaw such bans. But the prohibition can’t be used as a pretext for other illegal acts, such as denying housing to people because of their race, gender, national origin, disability or number of children.

The Sun Sentinel examined federal housing subsidy data from housing authorities in Broward and Palm Beach counties and found 230 homes commanding rents of $2,000 or more, up to $3,375 a month, from Section 8 families. Typically, tenants pay about one-third of their income toward the rent and the government pays the rest.

Most of the homes were basic, modest-looking residences in unassuming neighborhoods. But about a dozen were far grander, upscale houses concentrated in Broward County’s western suburbs, including Coral Springs, Miramar and Cooper City, where one six-bedroom rental is worth $500,000.

I can’t say I’m surprised by the response of some of the gated community residents: they moved to these communities in part so they might never have to run into people with Section 8 vouchers. It doesn’t sound like this is widespread just yet but I can imagine the headline years later: racial and economic integration was achieved in South Florida through a terrible housing market that limited the ability of wealthier residents to keep out poorer residents.

Designer parking garages in Miami

Parking garages tend not to have good reputations as they are often functional blocks of concrete that are measured by how many cars they can fit. But, Miami apparently has a number of “designer” garages including a proposed parking elevator for a new high-rise:

The $560 million Jetsonesque tower will rise in Sunny Isles Beach as part of a collaboration between Germany-based Porsche Design Group and a local developer, Gil Dezer. It likely will be the world’s first condominium complex with elevators that will take residents directly to their units while they are sitting in their cars…

Here is how it will work: After the resident pulls over and switches off the engine, a robotic arm that works much like an automatic plank will scoop up the car and put it into the elevator. Once at the desired floor, the same robotic arm will park the car, leaving the resident nearly in front of his front door. Voila, home!

The glass elevators will give residents and their guests unparalleled views of the city or of the ocean during their high-speed ride, expected to last 45 to 90 seconds…

The car elevators are the latest twist on Miami Beach’s burgeoning passion for designer parking garages. The highly acclaimed 1111 Lincoln Road designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron opened in 2009; also planned are garages by London architect Zaha Hadid, Mexico’s Enrique Norten and Miami’s own Arquitechonica.

Being able to live in a luxury condo that is greatly enhanced by parking right outside of your door sounds like a uniquely American prize. This is another reminder how American culture is dominated by the automobile.

At the same time, this could also be seen as an architectural or design issue: how can one successfully design parking garages so they are aesthetically pleasing? While these garages in Miami might be for more luxurious residences, there are other options. One option that seems to be growing in popularity is underground garages. While this is great in dense urban spaces where valuable land can’t be wasted on a separate parking structure, it can also be found in denser suburban developments where the goal is to allow condo or townhome owners to park directly below their units and to keep the garage out of sight. After all, large houses with prominent garages may be called “snout houses” in reference to the overarching emphasis on where the garage is going to be parked.

This reminds me of one of the parking decks in Naperville. The Van Buren structure features a stained glass window memorializing the “Cars of the Century.” Also, Wheaton has done a nice job of hiding their downtown garage behind more traditional looking structures.

Defining an emergency in 9-1-1 calls

NBC Miami reports that Broward County receives all sorts of strange 9-1-1 calls. Many of them are not legitimate emergencies:

According to the Broward Sheriff’s Office call center, nearly half the 911 calls they receive are for things not quite a life or death situation – unless you consider a fast food order an emergency.

“My toilet’s overflowing, what do I do? That’s my personal favorite,” BSO Sheriff Al Lamberti said.

While it’s a stretch, a busted toilet at least could, conceivably, be considered an emergency. But there is no rationale for the number calls that sound something like this:

“I ordered chicken nuggets and they don’t have chicken nuggets,” one woman called 911 to report.

On one hand, this sounds quite silly. On the other hand, perhaps people really think these situations are emergencies. If this is the case, this may be a bigger issue: the idea of an emergency has become much more smaller in scope and individualized.