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Written by Mark Sell -- BT Contributor   
April 2013

The Biscayne Landing “tsunami” is about to hit -- before voters can have a say

SPix_MarkSell_4-13urf’s up, and the City of North Miami May 14 election campaign signs are already washing ashore like shells and jellyfish, although filing deadline isn’t until April 8.

But the Biscayne Landing tsunami is getting poised to hit first.

The pressure is on to wrap up the preliminary site plan this month -- before the election, while the developers can still deal with a relatively amenable city council. If, say, Carol Keys were to beat Michael Blynn in District 2, and Kevin Burns were to succeed Andre Pierre as mayor, the developers might face a distinctly cooler reception. But there is no telling who will win in a crowded and still-evolving field of candidates.

As many know, developers Michael Swerdlow, Richard LeFrak, and Oleta Partners LLC stormed the beaches last August and handed the City of North Miami $17.5 million-plus, saving the municipality from fiscal crisis so they could go to work on a 20-year epic project to develop 184 acres on the southeast corner of 151st Street and Biscayne Boulevard.

That project has morphed into a retail, residential, and auto mall Godzilla (with adult-care facilities now back in the picture), and crews have begun filling the lakes and preparing for the spine road that will link 143rd Street and Biscayne Boulevard with 151st Street. (An additional elevated road over wetlands linking Biscayne Landing with Florida International University remains just talk, for now.)

Oleta Partners met sharp resistance March 5 at the planning and zoning commission meeting, which declared their development plan an abomination, with spirited support from council candidate Keys, activist Carol Prager, and mayoral candidate Burns.

On March 12, planning and zoning commission member William Prevatel, an architect and urban planner (and the one who dubbed Biscayne Landing “the tsunami”), fought a bad cold and came before the North Miami City Council at midnight like the Masque of the Red Death, saying of the project: “This is insane, and you’re all going to pay for it.”

Biscayne Landing project manager Herb Tillman, ever the gentleman, kept his cool and announced a March 19 community workshop at the sales center at 151st and Biscayne, with an April 30 deadline for the final master plan.

The planners, the Kobi Karp architectural firm, hot-footed it and came back with a better received, new master plan at the March 19 workshop -- where Swerdlow stressed the plan is conceptual at best, with precise site-plan approval some time away. The next planning and zoning meeting is scheduled for April 2 (almost certainly before you read this, but if you care about what’s happening, get informed and go to any remaining workshops).

Plans now call for 4390 residential units (not 3400 as earlier reported; master plans are elastic, you see), mostly rentals. That requires 8680 parking spaces, give or take. With David Lawrence K-8 at 140-percent capacity, where does that leave us? What’s the infrastructure plan for schools, including Alonzo and Tracy Mourning High School? Services? Traffic?

(As of March 19, there’s a 7.2-acre active park in the southwest corner, by Highland Village in North Miami Beach, but some residents are pressuring the architects and planners to put it closer to 151st Street and the school corridor.)

What is in the plan are massive high-rise buildings, and some appear as tall as the 25-story Oaks Towers, which, incidentally, won’t be getting any of the promised $2 million in help for amenities from Michael Swerdlow, who dropped the whole idea last year when Oleta Partners’ deal to buy 160 of the towers’ lender-owned units fell apart.

The master plan is still very much in play, and the pressure is on to get the current city council to vote on it at two readings, scheduled for April 9 and April 23, with, let’s hope, another public workshop or two in there somewhere.

The March 5 plan, now undergoing perpetual tweaking, includes 150 hotel rooms -- for the Cherubin brothers, Haitian-American broadcasters/entrepreneurs and partners with Swerdlow and LeFrak in Oleta -- 750,000 square feet of retail, 9880 square feet of restaurants, and 202,760 square feet of auto malls (four dealerships, as planned).

But first, some representative comments from the March 5 planning meeting:

Carol Keys: “Those buildings look like tenements in New York City…. It is just an abomination -- those high-rises in the middle of that proposal.”

Community activist Prager: “You’re paving over paradise. This is just a bunch of crap.”

Mayoral candidate (and former North Miami mayor) Burns: “I am so disappointed and saddened and frustrated that a plan of this childish nature would even make it before the planning commission.”

Planning commissioner and former North Miami Police Chief Kenny Each: “Beautiful condos are going up in Sunny Isles…but I see dumps going up here.”

Chairman Kevin Seifried, who has served on planning and zoning for 23 years: “This is just greed personified.... This is terrible…. This fits a community standard maybe for the post-World War II era, maybe for the 1950s. I cannot see this meeting community standards for the first quarter of the 21st Century. I do not see the vision. The greed, yes; the profit, yes. I don’t see the vision.”

Finally, let’s go back to Prevatel, who, like other planning commissioners, would strongly prefer a more upscale project, and asked rhetorically: “Would you like to live in a place like this?”

“This is a hellscape,” Prevatel told the North Miami City Council on March 12. “It caters to the lowest common denominator. People who cannot afford to live elsewhere are going to be stuck in this place, and once they are in, they will want to get the hell out.… It is an abomination, and I feel very, very alone. You have two options. Do you want to be known as ‘The City of Progress’ or ‘The City of Projects’? You’re not going to do [planning for] 184 acres in two weeks. This is insane.”

All that clearly got Oleta Partners’ attention, and they rejiggered the plan to add more green space and lakes, with a community center area.

Seifried seemed mollified, if not pliant. He patiently suggested more “stacked” retail with a smaller asphalt footprint. Prevatel remained fearful of a preponderance of low-income rentals for families, as opposed to higher-income units for cash-rich empty-nesters.

District 2 Councilman Blynn seemed generally supportive, envisioning a project modeled on LeFrak’s acclaimed Newport project on the Jersey City waterfront.

Whatever the case, Oleta Partners is in a hurry, and the plans are changing almost by the minute. It’s time to pay attention.

 

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