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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
February 2017

Miami City Commission votes to end special city-developer partnerships

TSAP_1he fate of a controversial 1.3 million-square-foot real estate project near Legion Park in Miami’s Upper Eastside is in question after the passage of a resolution aimed at curtailing the City of Miami’s support of private developers who seek zoning variances.

The resolution, passed unanimously by the Miami City Commission on January 26, directs city manager Daniel Alfonso to prepare an amendment to the city’s Miami 21 zoning code that would bar the city from becoming a sponsor, or co-applicant, on behalf of a developer seeking a Special Area Plan (SAP). Under Miami 21, a SAP allows developers to obtain significant zoning changes, including additional building rights, if approved by the Miami City Commission.

“The city being a co-applicant creates a conflict of interest,” says Commissioner Frances Suarez, a candidate for Miami mayor, who sponsored the resolution. “We’re supposed to be the policing agency, to make [proposed projects] better, to approve or deny them. If the city is a co-applicant, they are a conspirator in the development process.”

Suarez’s resolution is being hailed by Upper Eastside activists who fear that four high-rise buildings a developer wants to construct adjacent to Legion Park, at Biscayne Boulevard and NE 66th Street, will ruin the area’s scale and historic character, increase traffic congestion, and destroy the tranquil atmosphere of the park.

“We’re extremely pleased and grateful to Commissioner Suarez for introducing this resolution,” says Deborah Stander, a board member of the MiMo Biscayne Association and a Belle Meade resident. “I’m hopeful that this is the first step for curbing some of the potential deficiencies in our current zoning ordinances.”

But the developer’s attorney insists that such an amendment to the city’s zoning law won’t kill her client’s plans to build near the park. “No, the ‘Legion District’ is not dead,” says Iris Escarra, a lawyer with Greenberg Traurig, in an e-mail to the BT. “We look forward to continue to work with the city on the best, most community-friendly approach to developing these sites once a broader decision on how to continue with or modify the current SAP process is made.”

A team of developers, led by Brian Pearl, controls 7.3 acres that include more than a dozen empty apartment buildings and the former site of American Legion Post 29. (For more on why those apartment buildings are empty, see “Upper Eastside Renters Feel the Squeeze,” April 2016.) This is where Pearl and his partners want to build 713 residential units and at least 40,000 square feet of retail in buildings as tall as 176 feet.

SAP_2

The current zoning for that land allows only 526 residential units and 2400 square feet of retail in buildings mainly capped at 81 feet, except for a sliver of land near the park that would allow a narrow, 179-foot tall structure.

Because Miami 21 requires that a Special Area Plan must be at least nine acres in size, Pearl wants to join forces with the City of Miami and apply 1.9 acres of Legion Park property toward the project in order to meet the SAP minimum.

In exchange, Pearl and his partners are offering to fund whatever improvements to the park the city wants, offer some of its future 1366 parking spaces for public use, build a new road just south of the park, and employ military veterans to build the project.

The park would remain under the city’s ownership.

Pearl has told the BT that he is willing to negotiate other benefits and specifics of the so-called Legion District Special Area Plan with neighboring residents. He also insists that a SAP will give the project’s architects, the international firm Stantec, more flexibility to create an aesthetically pleasing community that, Pearl claims, will cast fewer shadows than what could be built under existing zoning.

It was an offer that Francisco Garcia, Miami’s planning director, believes was worthy of consideration, though he has often emphasized that the Legion District SAP had a long vetting process ahead.

If Miami officials did accept the Legion developers’ offer, it wouldn’t be the first time a public park was part of the deal. The Chetrit Group owned only 6.2 acres of land by the Miami River. Yet in exchange for a promise to contribute $20 million toward infrastructure improvements and to a workforce housing fund, the city allowed Chetrit to include acreage from neighboring José Martí Park in its Miami River SAP.

The Chetrit Group deal was approved in October 2015, even though there isn’t any language in the Miami 21 zoning code that explicitly allows city officials to apply parkland toward the nine-acre SAP threshold.

“There’s nothing in the code that precludes someone from doing that [including parkland],” explains David Snow, a City of Miami planner. “It just says that a SAP shall have a minimum of nine acres. It doesn’t say who owns the land or what type of land it is. It just says nine acres in size.”

Sometimes a SAP doesn’t even require nine acres. The Miami City Commission waived that requirement in 2013 for Andy Hellinger’s 8.1-acre River Landing SAP at 1480 NW North River Dr.

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, co-founder of the acclaimed Miami-based planning and design firm DPZ Partners, played a major role in creating the Miami 21 zoning code. She says nine acres was established as the requirement for a SAP because it gives developers enough room to “move things around” in their master-planned community on land they control.

SAP_3

“You can add a street to make a block smaller in the designated district,” Plater-Zyberk explains, “or you can push around parking.”

Such latitude has enabled the construction of renowned mega-projects in the City of Miami, such as the redevelopment of the Miami Design District and the construction of the 5.4 million-square-foot Brickell City Centre.

And more SAPs are coming. The city recently approved the 25-acre, 9.7 million-square-foot Mana Wynwood SAP. In Little Haiti, city planners are examining SAPs for the 25-acre Miami Jewish Health Systems at Douglas Gardens; the 22-acre Design Place (soon to be renamed Eastside Ridge); and a 15-acre site assembled by Bob Zangrillo and Tony Cho that includes the former Magic City Trailer Park. None of these pending SAPs, however, includes the city as a co-applicant or “borrows” acreage from adjacent city parks.

Plater-Zyberk is skeptical of Brian Pearl’s desire to include Legion Park in his project’s Special Area Plan. “I think it’s incorrect using the park as part of the acreage,” she says. “Because the point of the SAP was to try to include some things into the city that it doesn’t already have, including benefits like additional park space, additional affordable housing, or additional civic space.”

There wasn’t significant opposition to parkland being counted toward the Miami River SAP. But the same can’t be said for the Legion District SAP. Hundreds of people, mainly Upper Eastside residents, have expressed strong views against granting any zoning increase on private lands near Legion Park.

Those feelings boiled over on January 18, during a meeting held at Legion Park’s community center. The meeting room was packed, standing room only. According to a head count done by Upper Eastside activist Peter Ehrlich, at least 275 people were in attendance.

The gathering, organized by the office of Miami City Commissioner Keon Hardemon, was meant to give Pearl’s team a chance to present their case for a project that’s substantially larger than current zoning allows. Planning director Garcia was also present to explain the SAP application process, and also to obtain input from the community.

Input was forthcoming -- in a big way. A number of Upper Eastside residents loudly voiced their disgust at the idea of upzoning private property next to their beloved park. The possibility of the city itself lobbying on behalf of the developer only made matters worse.

Using architectural renderings, Pearl attempted to compare what current zoning allowed (blocky and unappealing) to Stantec’s polished high-rise design. Audience members booed noisily and shouted down Pearl. (Pearl’s publicist declined to provide the BT with copies of the rendering showing what current zoning allowed.)

SAP_4

Residents at the meeting taunted city officials, especially James McQueen, Hardemon’s chief of staff, when he tried to limit comments from the public to five minutes. “You get five minutes! We get an hour!” one woman yelled, later adding: “What’s the percentage of the kickback for this project? I want to know! We want to know!”

Someone in the crowd demanded to know why Hardemon, whose district includes Legion Park, was late to the meeting while Commissioner Frances Suarez and Commissioner Frank Carollo made it there on time.

McQueen replied, “Did you see the traffic, ma’am?”

That prompted derisive laughter and more taunts: “You want to triple the traffic!” “You’re the reason we have so much traffic, goddamn it!” “What are you going to do with all the cars?”

“You have got to be one of the rudest groups of people I have seen,” an exasperated Francisco Garcia said at one point during the meeting. (Garcia later apologized to Deborah Stander for his tone during the meeting. Stander, in turn, apologized to Garcia for some of the heckling by her neighbors.)

To Commissioner Suarez (son of former Miami mayor and current county Commissioner Xavier Suarez), the crowd’s open hostility carried a clear message: It was a bad idea for the city to partner with private developers who are applying for a SAP -- especially when it involves a public park.

“The public’s land is everybody’s land,” Suarez tells the BT, “and there’s a sense that a private developer shouldn’t be able to use public land for a private application.”

Suarez says he was increasingly skeptical of the current SAP process even before the confrontational community meeting at Legion Park. “I’m seeing significant pushback from residents because of traffic congestion issues,” Suarez continues. “There needs to be serious reforms to SAPs. Now they are kind of like a blank check.”

Elvis Cruz, a veteran Morningside activist, agrees. “I don’t know if the proposed legislation will be in time to affect the Legion SAP,” he says, “but at the very least it sends a strong message that there are conscientious commissioners who do not believe the city should be a co-applicant with private developers and then also sit in judgment of that application. It’s essentially a conflict of interest, and does not pass the smell test.” As for the property adjacent to Legion Park: “It should be downzoned, not upzoned.”

SAP_5Mayor Tomás Regalado has also criticized the proposed Legion District SAP and told Upper Eastside activists in mid-January that if the city commission approves a co-application with Pearl and his partners, he will veto it. (Regalado did not return an e-mail from the BT by deadline.)

But Commissioner Keon Hardemon isn’t sure he’s ready to give up on the possibility of a city partnership with Pearl or other property owners who can’t meet the nine-acre Special Area Plan minimum, but who want to create SAPs in his district, which includes Little Haiti, Overtown, Wynwood, the Design District, and about half the Upper Eastside.

During the January 26 city commission meeting, Hardemon argued that by partnering with a developer in a SAP, the city’s planning department can craft a project that is an asset to the surrounding area. “What I’m afraid of is losing a positive effect in relation to how that project is built next to the park,” he said.

Hardemon ultimately voted with his colleagues for amending Miami 21.

Suarez expects a draft of the ordinance to be heard by the Planning Zoning and Appeals Board sometime in February. The PZA Board is scheduled to meet on February 1 and February 15. After the board rules, the amending ordinance will be voted on twice by the Miami City Commission, in two separate sessions.

Suarez doubts that Pearl’s team will be able to pursue a SAP that includes Legion Park prior to the city commission’s vote on the amendment to Miami 21. “It would be hard for me to imagine that the planning director would agree to be a co-applicant with the developer when the mayor said he would veto it and the commission [unanimously] passed a resolution,” Suarez says.

Deborah Stander, though, isn’t letting down her guard. “I don’t want to count chickens before they hatch,” she says. “We’ll see what the commission decides, but we are very happy about this because it’s a big first step toward addressing this issue.”

Hardemon, meanwhile, isn’t done trying to collect input. He’s scheduling yet another meeting about the development project at Legion Park’s community center sometime this month, says Kiara Garland, community affairs liaison and public information officer.

“The developers will not be in attendance,” Garland adds. “This meeting is between the commissioner and residents.”

 

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