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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
December 2016

It’s residents vs. developers at the Upper Eastside’s Legion Park

WLegionPark_1hile developers tweak their plans for a 1.3-million-square-foot community next to the City of Miami’s Legion Park, Upper Eastside residents are mobilizing to kill that proposed project before it reaches the Miami City Commission for a vote.

“The fact that the developers seem to think they could just plop this gigantic mini-city into the heart of a historic district without any input, to me seems almost incredible,” says Deborah Stander, a board member of the MiMo Biscayne Association and a Belle Meade resident. “But it really does appear that there is a real threat this could happen.”

Brian Pearl, one of the developers who wants to build near Legion Park, says he and his team want to enhance the area, not ruin it, and they’re willing to invest millions of dollars in infrastructure and park improvements to ensure its completion. “This is a special piece of property in a special neighborhood,” Pearl says, adding that he plans to hold another public meeting with neighbors sometime in January.

The property where Pearl and his partners -- Jon Samuel of Midtown Group and Blake Olafson of Asia Capital Real Estate -- want to build consists of about 7.3 acres adjacent to the 37-acre bayfront Legion Park. They’ve already knocked down a 50-year-old building east of NE 7th Avenue that served as headquarters for American Legion Post 29, leaving trees, dirt, and grass. Between NE 7th Avenue and Biscayne Boulevard are 17 small apartment buildings, now boarded up after a series of evictions.

It’s here that Pearl and his team want to build the “Legion District,” a project designed by the Stantec firm that will consist of four buildings between 81 and 176 feet tall, with 713 residential units, around 40,000 square feet of retail, a new 15,000-square-foot facility for the American Legion, and 1366 parking spaces.

Under the land’s current zoning, developers can only build 526 units, around 500 parking spaces, and about 2400 square feet of retail. The height for buildings in that area seems to be capped at 81 feet.

In short, Pearl and his partners want some zoning changes.

“We could build something there that’s not as efficient,” Pearl says, referring to what existing zoning laws allow. But with additional height and density, Pearl claims he can create something that’s beneficial for the community. (For more from Brian Pearl, see “Letters.”)

Many people who live nearby or visit Legion Park on a regular basis disagree.

On October 12, attendees at a Bayside Homeowners Association meeting held at Legion Park’s community center began shouting objections when Pearl unveiled his team’s vision for “Legions West,” the portion of the Legion District that would include three buildings rising to heights of 115, 135, and 176 feet.

LegionPark_2That anger only intensified when Pearl skipped a November 15 meeting of the MiMo Biscayne Association. Although the meeting was held on a Tuesday morning, 140 people showed up. Pearl says he canceled because an important rendering wasn’t ready. That illustration was going to show what he could build under existing zoning (called “as of right”), and how that would be detrimental to Legion Park.

“I don’t think the developers have handled this very well,” says Avra Jain, an Upper Eastside real estate developer who opposes the Legion project. “People don’t like to be confused, and where there’s confusion, there’s distrust. It doesn’t help their cause.”

The vociferous opposition has made a skeptic of Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado. “I want to see what happens, but personally, I don’t think we need to allow the bigger buildings,” says Regalado, who has the power to veto Miami City Commission decisions.

Pearl wants to change the zoning through a mechanism in the city’s “Miami 21” zoning regulations called a special area plan, or SAP. This allows a developer controlling more than nine acres of land to petition the Miami City Commission for zoning variances that would permit taller and more massive buildings.

In exchange, developers must offer the city “public benefits,” like affordable housing, parkland, new roads, transportation infrastructure, or simply cash.

“The special area plan was devised...in order to enable significant change in the city,” explains Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, co-founder of the renowned urban planning firm DPZ Partners, which played a major role in crafting the Miami 21 zoning code. “In some sense, it’s an invitation for creativity,” she adds, “but in the framework established by the rest of the code.”

Thus far, the commission has approved six SAPs: the expanding Miami Design District, Swire Property’s Brickell City Centre, Andrew Hellinger’s River Landing, the expansion of Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove, Chetrit Group’s Miami River project in Little Havana, and Moishe Mana’s 10-million-square-foot Mana Wynwood project.

Three more SAPs are pending: Pearl’s Legion District, conversion of the Upper Eastside’s Design Place apartment complex into a high-rise community called Eastridge, and the expansion of Miami Jewish Home & Hospital, says Luciana Gonzalez, assistant director of planning and zoning, in an e-mail to the BT (see “The Upper Eastside Transformed,” September 2016, for more details).

To reach the required nine acres, Pearl and his development team want to include about 1.9 acres of Legion Park in its SAP. In exchange, Pearl says, his group will contribute money (amount to be determined) for enhancement of the park and expansion of NE 64th Terrace just south of the park. The developers are also giving war veterans preferred status for 1000 construction jobs to build the project.

LegionPark_3

Including parkland in a SAP has been done before. The city allowed the Chetrit Group to count three acres of José Martí Park in its SAP, enabling the New York-based development company to increase the size of its Miami River project to 4 million square feet. In exchange, the Chetrit Group pledged to pay the city $21 million for the development of affordable housing, park improvements, and other enhancements.

Incidentally, the City of Miami remains the exclusive owner of José Martí Park, and Pearl insists his group has no interest in taking possession of any part of Legion Park.

Still, Plater-Zyberk says the intent of the SAP is to encourage developers to create parkland within their projects, not simply count park space as acreage.

There’s also a difference between the Miami River project and the Legion District project. The residents of Little Havana generally supported José Martí Park’s inclusion in that SAP. But many Upper Eastside dwellers are so fervently opposed to Pearl using Legion Park to obtain additional building rights that they’ve created a “Hands Off Legion Park -- No SAP” Facebook page. An e-mail newsletter called Friends of Legion Park circulates among area residents and media. And the online “Hands Off Legion Park -- No SAP” petition on Change.org has collected 355 signatures as of deadline.

The project’s opponents fear that Legions West will cast shadows on the park, convert a tranquil recreation area into something resembling South Beach’s Lincoln Road, and generate too much traffic. Several residents tell the BT they’re fearful that approval will pave the way for more area SAPs.

It isn’t just nearby residents who are critical of a Legion SAP. The Urban Paradise Guild, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving natural habitats in South Florida, is also sending letters to commissioners. Pete Gonzalez, UPG’s director of public policy, says the developers should stick to the current zoning code. The SAP, he adds, is “just a way to circumvent the spirit of the zoning law.”

Another source of anxiety: not knowing where the SAP stands in the planning process. “I haven’t received word one from anyone, and this is the whole problem,” Deborah Stander tells the BT. “We know the plans have been filed. We know the city has been discussing them…. We haven’t been given any kind of opportunity or public hearing to provide input. So what are we supposed to do? Sit around and wait for it to go through the application process and -- surprise, surprise -- the city approves it?”

In fact, many Upper Eastsiders only learned at the packed MiMo Biscayne Association meeting of November 15 that the “Legions East” portion of Pearl’s project was on the agenda of the city’s Urban Development Review Board the very next day.

LegionPark_4Pearl and his partners want to build Legions East, an 81-foot-tall, 237-unit apartment building on land it’s leasing for the next 75 years from American Legion Post 29. At the MiMo Biscayne Association meeting, Jacqueline Ellis, the city’s acting chief of land development, explained that because Legions East is being built in accordance with the land’s existing zoning, notice requirements were limited to postings at Miami City Hall on Dinner Key.

So a group of Upper Eastsiders quickly journeyed to Dinner Key and urged the Urban Development Review Board to reject Legions East because it was being heard without the context of the more massive Legions West portion.

The fact that Legions West wasn’t being heard along with Legions East perplexed board members so much, they had trouble obtaining a motion to approve or reject the apartment building.

“What’s going to happen with the rest of the SAP?” asked board member Fidel Perez. “Looking at this building by itself, I have no idea how it will relate to [Legions West].”

Pearl’s land-use attorney, Iris Escarra, told the board it still isn’t clear if the SAP will be approved. “We’re doing this building, regardless of the SAP,” Escarra said. “It has a different timeline.” (Pearl tells the BT that construction will commence on Legions East as soon as the city approves the building. Construction on the more massive Legions West will start in around five years.)

Escarra’s answer disturbed board member Anthony Tzamtzis. “I have this big unknown in my head,” he said. Tzamtzis then made a motion to approve the Legions East project pending a series of design changes that included adding view corridors to the bay and making alterations to the areas abutting Legion Park.

Tzamtzis’s motion was approved 3-1, with Perez, who insisted that both phases be judged together, dissenting.

Following the meeting, Upper Eastside activists surrounded Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso, and peppered him with questions. Alfonso assured the residents that the city hasn’t made any decision about the project, although he did admit that funds for fixing up parks citywide are limited.

Kevin Kirwin, the city’s parks director, tells the BT via e-mail that his department hasn’t seen any proposal from the developers. However, Legion Park does have needs, some of which aren’t budgeted. “There are improvements that must be made to the building, the boat ramp, parking lots, access control, seawall and grading to address sea level rise, playground enhancements, tennis court enhancements, fitness court enhancements, and walkway lighting enhancements,” Kirwin states. Other than the building and playground, the balance is unfunded.

In an interview with the BT, Regalado says he’s fairly certain the city has the money needed to address Legion Park’s needs and doesn’t think it is “necessary” to ask the developers for money. “But we have commissioners who believe that parks need money, so it’s up to the city commission,” Regalado says, adding that he’s reluctant to use his veto power.

City commissioners will likely defer to Commissioner Keon Hardemon, whose district includes Legion Park. Hardemon’s staff did not return e-mails from the BT by deadline. However, during the MiMo meeting, Hardemon’s chief of staff, James McQueen, said his boss, in his one meeting with the developers, instructed them to communicate with the residents.

(A recent Friends of Legion Park e-mail newsletter claimed that Hardemon wants to hold a community meeting about the proposed Legion District SAP sometime in December. This could not be confirmed by deadline.)

Brian Pearl emphasizes that the Legion District is a work in progress and that residents’ concerns will be factored into the final product. “We’re going to respond to the comments that were made,” he says, “so we have the architects working on that.”

Deborah Stander says she and her neighbors will oppose the project if the developers try to build more than what’s currently allowed: “We’re going to continue to fight this in every way that we can.”

 

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