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It was 97 degrees in Sunrise, Florida, in late May—the kind of weather that’s practically destined to cause heatstroke, especially for someone wearing a vest, goggles, rubber boots, and a hard hat. But Joseph Kavana didn’t seem to notice the sweat that had soaked through his blue button-up and pooled around his chest and armpits. The 70-year-old first purchased the 65 acres we were standing on more than 20 years ago and was, finally, on the precipice of transforming it into his vision of utopia, what he’s dubbed Metropica. So passionate was the developer about his project that he probably would never have taken me back to the air-conditioned leasing office to finish his presentation if I had not stated outright that I was about to faint.
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.
A mall might seem like a bad $1.5 billion bet in 2019. About 400 of the biggest ones in America closed between 2007 and 2009 alone, and more than 8,000 brick-and-mortar store closures have already been announced this year. But while statistics like these make it clear the country’s relationship with malls is changing, Florida seems to have missed the message. Its so-called “destination malls” are thriving. American Dream Miami is going to be the biggest one in the country, at 6.2 million square feet when it’s completed at some point down the line. Sawgrass Mills, directly adjacent to Metropica, is one of the state’s biggest attractions and was just expanded by 82,000 square feet in 2018. Aventura Mall, which opened in 1983 and has gone through various expansions to encompass more than 50 eateries and more than 200 stores, is currently the third-biggest such structure in the U.S.
All these malls are destinations—anyone from Florida knows the first thing tourists buy when they go to Sawgrass is suitcases, so that they can ship their purchases home—but none has aspired to serve as a home itself.
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.
“You have to reinvent retail,” Kavana said, reducing the already empty platitudes of the sales pitch to impressive new depths. “If you look at the retail universe, there are certain stores that are going to do quite well, and it’s because people go there to discover.”
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.
Florida suburbs, which lack the history of much of the country, if not the wider world, do not have these places. They are instead shocking in their sameness, completely unwalkable, and totally anathema to the concept of what many people would consider to be utopia.
Kavana firmly believes in his mission, though that does not make him unique. Take the land development company Gulf American Land Corporation (GALC), which was accused by the state of fraudulent selling in the 60s, but still managed to completely reshape Florida’s landscape, making swampland available for purchase before it was livable. “They sold a dream basically,” said Solomon Sandler, a former corporate officer with GALC, of his bosses, as part of an oral history project decades later. “They honestly felt that they were going to build a city. And to prove it, they did it.”
Sandler’s bosses’ innovative tactics are what spawned the figure of speech “swampland in Florida,” which is shorthand for obvious fraud. That idea of Florida land scams has seeped into popular culture; Glengarry Glen Ross, the famous David Mamet play, chronicled unscrupulous salesmen who tried to sell land in exotic-sounding places using brochures and unsavory tactics. It’d be tempting to claim that story, from the 80s, is a thing of the past. But numerous dubious real estate endeavors linger in Florida’s landscape today.
If the Metropica project were physically more spread out, it’d be easy to imagine it becoming the Compound—a terrifying 200-mile labyrinth in Brevard County, on the state’s eastern side, and the roadway belonging to a failed project of the General Development Corporation. The GDC, which was at one point the biggest builder of communities in Florida before going bankrupt in early 90s, began constructing the massive street grid in the previous decade. No houses were ever built on what’s now an ATV paradise that urban explorers use as a backdrop to YouTube videos overlayed with creepy music and warnings that people who want to see it for themselves should not visit without water, a GPS, and a full tank of gas. Wandering in and getting lost—particularly in the summer and without a phone—they imply, amounts to an almost certain death.
I heard about the Compound the whole time I was growing up in Lake Mary, another inland town about 20 minutes northeast of Orlando that, for whatever reason, happened to prosper. Still, it took me a long time of living elsewhere to realize why a visit home puts me on edge. The whole town is basically a series of strip malls—living there consists of driving between them at a low speed. People don’t move much faster when you’re inside the many chain stores, either. Nothing is in walking distance from its numerous subdivisions; housewives get mauled by bears whose habitats have been destroyed by McMansions with a numbing degree of regularity; and what locals claim is its oldest business, the Lake Mary Pub, is obviously falling apart if not imminently closing.
In fourth grade, I remember being asked to draw a picture of what I imagined the cave dwellings of Neanderthals to look like. My world was filled with subdivisions named things like Silver Lake and Colony Cove; at the same time, I couldn’t conjure a mental image of a literal cave. “Well, they didn’t have stucco back then,” the substitute teacher said derisively. That was news to me; I had never encountered any other kind of building material. If there were actual caves in Lake Mary, I imagine that’s where the bears would be, rather than in some woman’s garage, mauling her face.
An area of town that was allegedly all-inclusive—like Metropica aims to be—spread to the exurbs of Orlando in my teenage years. Colonial Town Center was the first community-as-mall I encountered; it had bars and restaurants, but also apartments. By default, it was the epicenter of my social life as a kid. Our parents could drop us off and we could wander around the stores and coffee shops while being relatively self-contained.
Still, despite technically being a walkable neighborhood, it didn’t seem like people really wanted to walk there, or that they even really should. When I attended my 10-year reunion at an Irish pub in the Center, no one else showed up for fear of having to drive home after a bender. A week before, someone in the preceding class had been killed outside the bar by a stray bullet.
Metropica’s spokesperson said he was unable to find a millennial buyer who would be willing to speak with me. Instead, he put me in touch with Alberto Caicedo. The 50-year-old owns a home in Peru but loved the idea of Metropica so much that he purchased two units—one to live in and one to rent. Within a week of signing the papers, he acquired his real estate license so that he could proselytize the merits of the project; Caicedo sold four more units within a year. Caicedo had previously been looking around South Florida, but found Miami too crowded and didn’t want to live near the beach because he thought it encouraged a more “informal lifestyle,” whereas he prefers a suit and tie.
“What I hope for is that Metropica will become my center of operations,” he said in Spanish. “I want to live the executive life—a more suburban feel in an urban setting.”
What Caicedo is getting at marks a shift from what the Founding Fathers had in mind for America, a suburban ideal that is somewhat encoded in our DNA. Thomas Jefferson notoriously hated full-fledged cities, and told James Madison that he believed our government would remain virtuous so long as it remained “chiefly agricultural.” For the vast majority of history, people have considered the good life a chance to own a little bit of walled-off property and avail themselves of (often racist) fears about crime.
Florida has always been a good place to spread out, though it’s been an absolutely terrible place to avoid unsavory characters who want to capitalize on people desperate for the good life. St. Augustine, Florida, is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the nation, though the lower part of the state can just as accurately be described as the last real American frontier. That history has long been forgotten, or is at least downplayed by the state’s tourism board: Families who take their kids to splash around in a 1,000-gallon cowboy hat at a Universal Studios attraction called Fievel’s Playland more than likely do not realize that they are merely miles north of where Ponce de León introduced cattle to the region in 1521.
Although it’s the 27th state, no one really could bear to live in much of Florida prior to the spread of residential air-conditioning, which means much of its infrastructure is relatively recent. Ever since a way to beat the heat was invented in the post–World War II industrial boom, people with nothing better to do have slowly seeped their way into the swamp, followed by people who want to take advantage of them, as if forced by some invisible hand.
One of those legendary hucksters was Lee Ratner. A pest control magnate from Chicago, Ratner bought up a bunch of land in Southwest Florida, where he built a place called Lehigh Acres. To this day, Ratner is remembered as a genius salesman who would send representatives to popular honeymoon locations on Miami Beach and offer newlyweds free bus rides to see his lots. Many were persuaded to make monthly payments to buy a house sight-unseen for $10 down and $10 a month. The pitch was that they could retire there, just east of the Gulf Coast town of Fort Myers, and not have to worry about anything in the interim. But when the first buyers hit that age, Ratner panicked. He had no clue how to build houses—just how to sell them at a breakneck speed.
Lehigh Acres is often cited today as one of the areas most affected by the subprime mortgage crisis, and it’s still dotted with spread-out dwellings separated by unclaimed lots. Meanwhile, the people who banked on them as newlyweds and had prepared no backup retirement plan now live in what are basically slums. No one’s bothered to keep up the hastily built houses. There are no sidewalks, and residences have a sometimes shocking number of run-down cars out front. Some areas of Lehigh don’t even have sewer service, electricity, or other basic trappings of civilization.
“My sense with Lehigh Acres is that it doesn’t have a strong sense of community identity,” said Daniel Herriges, a writer who’s documented what he calls suburban poverty in Florida for the media organization Strong Towns. “People will say they live out there, but to anyone not from the area they’ll say they live out in Fort Myers.”
Despite my acquaintance with the depressing sprawl that makes up Florida, nothing could have prepared me for the absolute drabness and desolation I found in Lehigh on a recent visit. Plus, it seemed apparent that the population—which had already more than quintupled between 1990 and 2010—was only going to grow more.
Lehigh Acres is often cited today as one of the areas most affected by the subprime mortgage crisis, and it’s still dotted with spread-out dwellings separated by unclaimed lots. Meanwhile, the people who banked on them as newlyweds and had prepared no backup retirement plan now live in what are basically slums.
When I rolled up in a rental car this past June, seemingly every fifth property in the town had a for-sale sign out front. Pulling into Vistanna Villas, a subdivision in Lehigh that was advertising an open house, I found an older woman named Susan, who lived in nearby Punta Gorda, putting the vinyl siding on a row of five identical houses that had just been completed and were waiting to be filled. Next to them was a giant lot that could have easily fit 20 more residences, though the real estate agent couple I soon met assured me they would remain empty, as if that were a positive thing.
It was about 4 p.m., and there were only three other names on the sign-in sheet. The Realtors clearly had time to kill, so we got to talking. The pair apparently moved to Lehigh because the woman’s mother had bought a house in a short sale after the housing crash for about $60,000, and they wanted to be close to her. When I asked what people do for fun in town, neither of them could really give me an answer; mostly they drove to Fort Myers, which had “all the restaurants.” When I asked the man where one might get a drink, he offered me “a bottle of water for coming to look at the house.”
As it turns out, you can get a drink at a place called Homestead Sports Pub, which is where a man in a cowboy hat who said his name was Roger Long Eagle immediately beckoned me to share a pitcher of Bud heavy. He said he’d been drinking at the same barstool since he first moved to a house on a two-acre plot in Lehigh that he’d gotten for $33,000 in 1985. “Lehigh used to be for the nearly dead and the newly wed,” he remembered. “When I first came here, you could leave your garage door open, could leave everything open. Come down to the bar, have you a beer, 10 beers, 15 beers, go home and your shit’s still there.”
Long Eagle, who’s partial to calling people “sweet britches,” worked in concrete, as did his friend and bar mate Brian Monroe, who resided in Lehigh but was technically homeless. He’d moved there in 1985 from my hometown of Lake Mary because he could jump from making $4 to $8 an hour in the then boomtown. “We’re just old construction workers,” Long Eagle offered. “That’s all we are. But we got a community out here.”
All the men in the bar that day worked some form of construction, though several of them didn’t have a place to live. Everyone there also shared a similar story that involved coming from a place that promised paradise and that has since turned into a suburban slum. By the time they had gotten to this corner of Southwest Florida and saw the same thing happening there, they were either too tired or broke to move on. Now their jobs were building even more homes for other people to be disappointed by—a snake eating its own tail.
“Lehigh isn’t that bad, or I wouldn’t be here,” Long Eagle assured someone, although it was unclear whether that someone was supposed to be me or himself. “But the paper had a thing in it down in Miami about cheap land in Lee County and Lehigh Acres, and, well, I hate to say it—”
Long Eagle stopped and shook his head, took a drag of his Marlboro Ultra Light. He said he missed the sense of being a modern-day frontiersman, before everyone else apparently had the same idea. “When Lehigh started selling cheap land, they got what they deserved.”
Gran Paradiso, which broke ground in 2008, was billed as a Tuscan-inspired luxury community of 1,999 homes inside a town called North Port. Should anyone doubt its magnificence, the entrance gate alone cost $1.5 million. “We wanted to create a sense of arrival,” the designer Ron Ricket told the real estate editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune at its grand-opening party.
But when only a few dozen people bought homes there, those who eventually arrived found themselves without basic utilities. There was no one to pay for them. Although residents were promised a clubhouse with a library, fitness center, and other amenities, it was an empty shell, the Tribune later reported. Wild boars roamed the trash-filled streets.
Not long after the GDC—the building company behind that street maze called the Compound—went bankrupt and stopped building, a new scheme was concocted to fill the void by building another series of what can only be described as non-places.
The basic idea of what’s known as a Community Development District (CDD) is that instead of a developer actually planning how to provide things like sewers and paved roads, they put the onus on buyers through an addition to their tax bill. The sales pitch for CDDs is that developers can sell lots more cheaply, and because people’s property is supposed to appreciate, they won’t notice the extra missing cash. In extreme cases, CDDs can function like Ponzi schemes, and many of the developers behind them didn’t take into account what might happen when a recession hit.
In 2009, 59 CDDs defaulted in Florida, according to Matt Fabian, a partner and researcher at Municipal Market Analytics, an independent market research firm. And while he said only two in the state suffered such a fate in 2013, there were apparently others right on the edge.
Gran Paradiso has since recovered, and there have been no CDD defaults since 2016. But Jack McCabe, a real estate consultant and economist based in South Florida, thinks that might soon change. We are, after all, probably due for another recession, which he thinks will come before the 2020 election. Meanwhile, the process for getting CDD approval in the state legislature has only been streamlined since the real estate crash. While Metropica is not a CDD, its underground infrastructure is partially funded by something very similar called a special taxing district. Though he funded the project himself, Kavana, the developer, will put the onus on buyers to pay for certain assessments. The only difference between what he’s doing and a CDD is that it’s being managed by a city commission rather than just him.
McCabe recalls that, just before the real estate crash, when Florida developers would announce a project was being converted to condos, people would literally line up days in advance to buy units in them—not just one, but three or five or however many they could get. They thought that they could flip them. “Now Miami-Dade county is saturated with new condos again, and we’re already seeing discounted prices,” he said. “Developers are paying real estate agents 3 percent of the sales price to bring buyers in. “You’ve got some projects offering 12 percent to bring them a buyer. That’s not normal.”
Oldenburg, the third-place sociologist, is no fan of the shopping mall. Writing in his book The Great Good Place, he categorized it as a sterile place of commerce—“a drifting amalgam of non-persons”—and called the comparison between a Main Street and a mall “ridiculous.” Still, it makes sense that if anywhere would try to conflate a giant, state-of-the-art shopping center and a “third place,” it would be Florida. Most of the state was built after walkable thoroughfares had ceased to exist, and its history can be summed up in a series of developers trying and failing to jury-rig a viable replacement.
More than two-thirds of Metropica’s units have already been sold, though it’s unclear that it will fill up. If Kavana is trying to build a real community—an antidote to all the non-places that developers have filled the state with so far, it’s unclear who it will be composed of. He said that some buyers intend to rent out their spaces rather than live in them, but it remains to be seen who will take their offer. It’s not hard to imagine a future in which the project is filled with millennial or other low-income renters who can’t afford to purchase their own units or even to shop at the luxury mall they live in.
And given that Florida has a long history of planning around the idea that it’s constantly in a real estate boom—an error that’s played out disastrously multiple times since the first land boom hit almost exactly a century ago, as people ignore financial and environmental realities—Metropica might not even survive long enough to become a non-place. It could go back to just being “swampland in Florida.”
Take Aladdin City: As the materials for the first residence were flown in on chartered planes, people stood and cheered. Given that most of the state’s—and the country’s—suburban projects have historically been the product of racial animus, it’s hard to imagine that the Gladesmen and prospectors of the unincorporated community of Homestead excitedly watched the coming-together of a neighborhood advertised in the area’s local paper with a picture of a turbaned man hovering above the swamp. But as workers hammered the materials together between 7 a.m. and nightfall of January 14, 1926, that’s just what happened. The Moorish-themed community was supposed to center on a road called Ali Baba Circle, which itself would contain a giant bathing pool for its residents.
“As future plans are unfolded, Aladdin City will forge ahead to a place among Florida’s most active and progressive cities,” read a Homestead Leader advertisement the following month. “Aladdin City is NOT a suburb—NOT a subdivision,” read another notice, which made sure to call it a “self-sustained city instead.”
But just before the house was airdropped into town, a schooner called the Prinz Valdemar sank, blocking access to Miami Harbor, and thus the possibility of shipping building materials south. The 1926 Miami hurricane and the Great Depression sealed the fate of Aladdin City. Today, only the northwest quadrant of Ali Baba Circle remains, and on it, enough houses to count on one hand. In fact, the only hint that it used to be something special—or at least something differentiated from the endless farmland surrounding it—is the sign showing the intersection of the circle and what was known briefly, almost exactly a century ago, as Aladdin Boulevard.
The 1926 Miami hurricane and the Great Depression sealed the fate of Aladdin City. Today, only the northwest quadrant of Ali Baba Circle remains, and on it, enough houses to count on one hand.
On a recent visit, a man selling lychee just outside the circle told me he had never heard of Aladdin City. Luis seemed to know that we weren’t quite standing in Homestead, where he lived, but to him, and to history, the place was basically semi-anonymous brush.
“No se,” he said, shaking his head at the great expanse when I asked where he thought we were.
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