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Can Proposed Seawalls Protect Miami From Storm Surges?

October 7, 2020

Seawalls on Downtown Miami

The Magic City could see walls become a permanent part of the downtown area if an Army Corps of Engineers plan comes to fruition

Downtown Miami has one of the planet’s most spectacular coastlines, featuring buildings that seemingly jet from the ocean as you approach from the air or water. 

This beautiful location comes with challenges, however. Namely, the impacts of climate change, which may be causing more frequent and severe hurricanes and leading to rising sea levels, are paramount.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a $4.6 billion plan to build a 10 to 13-foot-high wall along Biscayne Boulevard to reduce storm damage. In theory, these walls could save the city about $2 billion in damage every year—but there’s more to the discussion than protecting the city.

Would they work?

In short, yes, walls could be an effective way of reducing storm damage in downtown Miami. However, there is some dispute over where the Army should build the walls and whether some neighborhoods would still find themselves underwater.

The current plan calls for constructing moveable storm surge barriers on the Biscayne Canal, Little River, Miami River, and in the Edgewater neighborhood. These barriers would have gates that close as a hurricane approaches, preventing surges from overflowing the rivers and flooding low-lying communities.

The walls would extend north and south of these barriers, providing even more protection for the surrounding neighborhoods. Some buildings would remain outside of the walls, though, leaving them in a tough spot during an incoming storm.

It’s also worth noting that these measures wouldn’t protect the city from rising sea levels. That’s because Miami is built on porous rocks that would let water seep through, even with the walls in place.

To address rising sea-level concerns, Miami intends to elevate roughly 10,000 properties and flood-proof 7,000 more. While this is a good start, that investment would still leave thousands of buildings exposed.

Investors and developers will want to keep a steady eye on this situation. If this proposal ends up going ahead, properties with wall protection will likely retain more value than the buildings that sit outside the walls and remain exposed to storm surges.

Problems with the walls

Property owners around Miami aren’t unanimously in favor of the wall-building strategy because of how it would change the Magic City.

First, there are the aesthetics of the change. Ten-foot walls in the downtown area would eliminate ocean views for some buildings, potentially hurting their value. And from a functional standpoint, the walls would cut off boat traffic from sections of downtown Miami and could make the Baywalk obsolete. 

These factors are definitely worth considering, of course. But if Miami ends up underwater, the issues will be moot.

Once the official proposal is released, investors will have the opportunity to see the re-imagined downtown Miami, which will provide a clearer view of what the future holds.

Alternative options

For that reason, the Downtown Development Authority is asking Miami-Dade to consider nature-based solutions to the storm surge problem, such as restoring nearshore coral reef, building artificial islands, and growing more living shorelines. 

Environmental groups, including the Everglades Coalition and Miami Waterkeeper, have seconded that idea. And other groups would like to see the Army Corps of Engineers include flood protection in more impoverished neighborhoods, rather than focusing exclusively on downtown. 

There’s still a lot to be decided on this project, as the Army will work with Miami-Dade to develop a locally preferred plan. From there, the project is brought before Congress before funding is approved.

Much work remains on potential protections for the Miami shoreline. But it’s only a matter of time before we get something to stop the influx of storm surges in the downtown area.

Figuring out the solution

Morris Southeast Group knows that climate change affects not only the environment but also creates significant economic issues for Miami and other coastal areas in South Florida. 

Developers need to know that their investments are safe and that they’ll provide value moving forward, which becomes challenging when hurricanes and flooding are a persistent worry. Simultaneously, a massive wall along the coast could take away from Miami’s beauty, walkability, and appeal.

Coming up with a solution that’s effective and balances the concerns of various stakeholders will be vital. 

For information on potential CRE impacts, or to learn about Morris Southeast Group’s commercial real estate investment or property management services, give us a call at 954.474.1776. You can also reach Ken Morris directly by phone at 954.240.4400 or through email at kenmorris@morrissegroup.com.

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