|The Upper Eastside Transformed|
|Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer|
After 68 years, the Design Place apartment community may soon be gone
On the other side of a long wall are 100 interconnected, two-story apartment buildings and lush green yards filled with trees and other landscaping. The only way into this realm of apartments and vegetation is a couple of vehicular entranceways manned by security guards.
This is Design Place, a 22.5-acre community located between NE 2nd Avenue on the west and the Florida East Coast railroad tracks on the east; and NE 54th Street on the north and Archbishop Curley-Notre Dame high school on the south. Amenities include a fitness center, a pool with cabanas, and an on-site café.
Design Place is a relatively cheap place to live, by Miami standards, with advertised monthly rents ranging from $1300 for a one-bedroom to $1800 for a three-bedroom.
But Design Place may not be around much longer. East Ridge LLC, a corporate entity founded this past April and owned by Sharon Olsen and Shirley Reinfeld, want to demolish this community of 512 apartment units and replace it with Eastside Ridge -- a proposed development that would include some 3060 apartments, 240 hotel rooms, 500,000 square feet of retail, and 300,000 square feet of office space.
Eastside Ridge’s buildings would be a lot taller than Design Place’s, too. They would range from four stories to nearly 30 stories, says Jennifer McConney-Gayosso, design manager for Kobi Karp Architecture & Interior Design, the Miami firm that is designing the project.
A data sheet East Ridge LLC provided to the city states they are seeking heights for buildings as tall as 28 stories in certain parts of the property. Under the city’s zoning code, a 28-story building can be 403 feet tall.
Justin Podolsky, the 31-year-old son of Olsen and nephew of Reinfeld, is spearheading the project. Podolsky says that, like Design Place, Eastside Ridge would offer affordable rents.
“It’s going to be fairly priced for the people who work in the community,” Podolsky tells the BT, “like sanitation workers, police, firefighters, office workers.”
However, the land’s current zoning only allows 1460 units and has a height cap of five stories, or 81 feet. So East Ridge LLC has submitted a special area plan (SAP), which enables developers controlling at least nine acres of land to request additional density and height allowances.
Eastside Ridge’s developers expect to present the SAP proposal to the city commission and the planning board sometime in October. If they receive approval, they hope to start the first phase of the ten-year project within two years.
By allowing East Ridge LLC to build higher, Podolsky says, they’ll be able to create a vibrant development that will preserve the abundance of trees and other vegetation on the property. And the public will be able to enjoy the lush landscaping because, according to the developers’ current plans, the wall will be coming down, allowing public access to the project’s future retail and restaurant establishments.
“We’re very proud of our vision to integrate the property into the community and to maximize the most open space,” Podolsky says.
Adds Ric Katz, executive vice president of Balsera Communications and one of East Ridge LLC’s publicists: “The driving force behind this is to make this place within the Upper Eastside a place where people want to go.”
There’s also a transportation element to the proposal. Although the TriRail Coastal Link’s co
mmuter train project is far from certain, East Ridge LLC is trying to secure a station.
“We would love for there to be a station on our property, and we will work hard to get it in there,” says Katz, who, two years ago, had TriRail’s South Florida Regional Transportation Authority as a client.
If it doesn’t get the TriRail Station, or if Coastal Link doesn’t happen, Podolsky vows to bring other forms of transportation to the project, including shuttle buses.
Alternative transportation will likely be needed, given the amount of traffic Eastside Ridge could generate. A traffic study crafted by the engineering firm Kimley-Horn and Associates predicts a net increase of 994 new vehicle trips during the morning rush hour and 1689 new trips in the afternoon rush hour.
However, the added traffic created by Eastside Ridge would be just part of many more vehicle trips in the area. Three other mega-developments are being proposed within a short distance of Design Place.
Across NE 2nd Avenue from Design Place, the Miami Jewish Home & Hospital for the Aged has submitted its own SAP proposal that would allow them to redevelop the nursing home’s 20-acre campus. Their plans include adding Empathicare Village, for residents suffering from dementia, up to five-stories in height; a new three-story garage; and a ten-story hotel with 140 rooms.
There may be additional SAP proposals in the pipeline. A little more than one mile away in the Upper Eastside, developers are negotiating with the city and neighbors for a Special Area Plan project adjacent to Legion Park. (See "The View from Legion Park," August 2015.)
Meanwhile, in Little Haiti, less than a mile from Design Place on NE 2nd Avenue, the real estate investment firm Cho Dragon, headed by Tony Cho (founder and owner of Metro 1 Properties) and Robert Zangrillo (CEO of venture capital firm Dragon Global), is reportedly preparing to unveil its own SAP proposal for 15 acres it controls, including the former Magic City Trailer Park. (Cho didn’t respond to the BT’s requests for comment.)
Architect and planner McConney-Gayosso says East Ridge LLC’s plans involve revamping nearby streets to help traffic flow more easily and safely. “We have been talking to the Jewish Home,” she says, adding that Eastside Ridge is even looking at adding medical office space to its development mix in order to complement the nursing home’s future projects.
Design Place was originally known as Sabal Palm Court when it was built in 1948. In 1984 a company led by Allan Bird of California and Jack Hammer of Atlanta paid $10.6 million for Sabal Palm. Back then Sabal’s tenants were predominately of Haitian descent.
In December 1986, the Miami Herald reported that the influential Catholic priest Gerard Jean-Juste led a protest there demanding better security after tenants were besieged by a series of home invasions and car thefts. Six months later, the Herald reported on another tenant protest, this time against the apartment complex’s poor conditions, in spite of a $260,000 renovation project that was partially funded by the City of Miami.
In January 2000, Hammer and Bird sold the complex to Sharon Olsen’s SPV Realty for $6 million. “My aunt and mother bought the property,” Justin Podolsky explains. “For [nearly] two decades, their mission has been to transform the property.”
The City of Miami lists 18 open citations against Design Place, issued between May 2005 and May 2016, for violations such as improper waste disposal, construction work without permits, and “failure to obtain a 40- to 50-year recertification process.”
East Ridge’s SAP application will be on hold until those violations are resolved, says Lakisha Gray, hearing boards coordinator for the City of Miami.
There are 18 reviews on Yelp.com, spanning April 2011 to November 2015, from former tenants complaining about Design Place’s management style, overflowing Dumpsters, and infestations of rats, roaches, and termites. Podolsky says the “vast amount” of “lush greenery” tends to attract more pests than “a typical high-rise environment.” The buildings are also routinely sprayed, he adds, a fact acknowledged by more recent Yelp reviews.
SPV Realty has also been sued twice, by Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence (HOPE), a Florida nonprofit that seeks to end housing discrimination. The first time was in November 2012, after HOPE sent in six people -- three white and three black -- in search of apartments. The three white testers were given tours and offered leases, while the three black testers were told no apartments were available and were not offered tours.
Design Place’s manager at the time, George Dfouni, denied to the weekly New Times that the complex discriminates against blacks. Nevertheless, HOPE and SPV Realty settled the case. U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga further ordered that SPV Realty post signs explaining the Fair Housing Act throughout Design Place and “make sure all ads contain a declaration against discrimination of anyone based on race, creed, or color.”
Two years later, in December 2014, HOPE took SPV Realty to state court, alleging that the company still hadn’t fulfilled its settlement and was still discriminating against African Americans seeking apartments. After the case was dismissed on procedural grounds by the 11th Circuit Court, HOPE appealed to the Third District Court of Appeal. The court is expected to issue a ruling soon, says Keenya Robertson, president of HOPE.
“If it’s ongoing litigation, it’s difficult to speak about because of that litigation,” Podolsky says, later adding: “I can assure you that we operate today with full open transparency. There are controls in place to make sure there are no future allegations against the property.”
In fact, Podolsky says, SPV Realty and its previous manager, Dfouni, parted ways about a year ago. For more than a year, at the request of his mother, Podolsky says he’s been in charge of running the property and guiding its development.
“As soon as we realized that there was an opportunity to create this amazing master plan, that’s when I started dealing with [planning] professionals and looking at the various ways to create [it],” he says. “I’m very proud of the project. I’m committed to seeing it through.”
Volume 15, Issue 2, April 2017
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