Controversy arising in Miami Beach over raising roads to combat flooding

Miami Beach has been a pioneer when it comes to raising roads to keep streets from flooding, but the next phase of work is now causing controversy.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – Miami Beach has been a pioneer when it comes to raising roads to keep streets from flooding, but the next phase of work is now causing controversy.

Some residents are concerned that protecting the streets puts their private properties at greater risk.

“You don’t have to be a scientist to know we’ve got to do this, we just have to do it in a way that respects The property owners,” said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber.

Miami Beach’s next phase of stormwater projects is focused on a portion of West Avenue, Bay Road and western Lincoln Road.

The project is now set to move forward after being stalled over four years.

The project aims to address flooding from sea level rise and aging infrastructure, but business owner Stephan Ginez and neighbors question the plans to remove hundreds of parking spaces and raise streets by as much as two feet, increasing the risk they fear of flooding on their properties.

“We don’t feel comfortable, we still don’t have a finalized plan with what’s going to happen with parking, loading zone, bike lane, green space,” said Miami Beach business owner Stephan Ginez.

The garage at Valerie Navarrete’s older building already sits well below street level and it already floods, badly.

“As you can see our garage goes down,” she said. “The water was up to here. We lost all the cars, all the motorcycles.”

She worries raising roads anywhere near this property will make the problem even worse.

“We cannot raise the front of my building, because we wouldn’t be able to get in,” Navarrete said.

Neighbors point to previous projects, like Palm and Hibiscus Island, where raising the roads left multi-million-dollar homes well below street level.

A majority of residents have refused to sign so-called harmonization agreements which would “release the city from damages or liability resulting from the work.”

“Absolutely. Red flags,” said neighbor Alice Palatnick. “I mean, when it doesn’t seem like that the city is learning from a lot of the mistakes they made.”

Neighbors concerns may be valid. According to Aris Papadopoulos, who heads a resilience non-profit and serves as resilience expert at FIU. In a letter to city officials, he warns data shows current rain level assumptions are inaccurate, writing, “Are residents correct to fear properties could likely flood after these projects? If rain conditions exceed the low design levels, I’m afraid yes.”

“We’re getting what they call 100 year events, 500 year events, so we need to know what happens in those situations,” said Papadaopoulos. “It’s important not just to keep the roads dry, but let’s try to keep the properties dry, because I like to say that the value of Miami Beach is not in its roads, it’s in its properties.”

In recent weeks, the city commission narrowly voted down a proposal to limit the raising of roads to just three inches, sparking debate about how to move the project forward.

“If we don’t go forward with this project now, I am convinced there will be a day when an insurer will say I won’t approve this property, a bank will say I won’t do a loan,” Gelber said during the meeting.

Gelber points to areas like Sunset Harbour, where the city says raising roads along with installing pumps has prevented dozens of flooding events. People living near West Avenue say every neighborhood is different, with different needs.

The city’s office of the inspector general is currently reviewing the West Avenue stormwater project. Their report and findings are expected to be presented in May.

About the Author:

Amy Viteri is an Emmy Award-winning journalist who joined Local 10 News in September 2015. She's currently an investigative reporter and enjoys uncovering issues facing South Florida communities. A native of the Washington, D.C., area, she's happy to be back in South Florida, where she earned a masters degree at the University of Miami.