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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
January 2020

Residents and developers weigh in on the pros and cons of Miami’s controversial Special Area Plans

ASAPs_1s the City of Miami enters a new year, officials will be reviewing its massive zoning code, known as Miami 21, which was enacted ten years ago.

But will the Miami City Commission repeal a provision that allows the development of mega-projects?

The answer to that question may come in the next few months. On January 15, the City of Miami’s volunteer Planning Zoning and Appeals Board will discuss whether or not to recommend repeal of a Miami 21 provision that permits developers to exceed density and height restrictions under specific circumstances.

Special Area Plans, commonly known as SAPs, allow property owners with more than nine contiguous acres to submit their own streetscape and zoning plan for that land to the Miami City Commission for approval. SAPs can include changing how roadways are configured, and setting design guidelines for future buildings. The SAP provision also requires applicants to create new public spaces within that future development.

SAPs_2The SAP provision enabled Craig Robins and a team of foreign investors to transform the Miami Design District into a luxury shopping destination. Miami Jewish Health’s ongoing Empathicare Village project at NE 2nd Avenue and 52nd Street, which aims to care for and study patients with dementia, is a Special Area Plan as well. So, too, is the expansion of Ransom Everglades’ private school campus in Coconut Grove.

But primarily SAPs are used by developers to push for zoning changes that enable the construction of massive projects with retail, offices, hotels, and thousands of (mostly) market-rate apartments and condos.

The two-million-square-foot River Landing, now under construction in Allapattah’s Health District, is an example of such a mega SAP project. So, too, is the ongoing Brickell City Centre project, which will be 5.6 million square feet in size once all phases are completed. (By way of comparison, the Pentagon is 6.5 million square feet.)

Large SAP projects that have been approved by the city but have yet to be built include Mana Wynwood (9.7 million square feet), Miami Produce Center in Allapattah (2.9 million square feet), the Magic City Innovation District in Little Haiti (8.2 million square feet), and River Walk in Little Havana (4.2 million square feet).

SAPs_3The developers of Miami Produce Center, River Walk, and River Landing weren’t even required to have more than nine acres, and none did. Instead, the Miami City Commission passed special exceptions, allowing these projects to proceed as Special Area Plans.

Some urban planners laud SAPs as a tool to create logically planned communities, but critics say that such developments inflate property values in the surrounding area and attract land speculators, making it difficult for many small businesses and residents to remain.

“Because of their scale, Special Area Plans have the possibility of impacting long-established neighborhoods, where primarily low-income people of color live,” says Meena Jagannath, an attorney and co-founder of the Community Justice Project.

When Planning Zoning and Appeals Board members discussed repealing SAPs during a December 4 workshop, they expressed doubt that the city commission would actually follow such a recommendation, but they felt it would send a message about the potential for adverse impacts on existing neighborhoods from large SAPs.

Indeed, Commissioner Keon Hardemon, whose district includes the Magic City Innovation District, is against an outright ban of SAPs. “There is room for improvement on many things, but to blanketly say they should go away, for some enumerated reasons, is not something I can agree with,” Hardemon tells the BT.

SAPs_4Commission Chairman Ken Russell likewise expresses a preference for improving SAPs rather than banning them. “There have been issues,” he says, “and I welcome a closer look at SAPs and how they can be done better.”

But Commissioner Joe Carollo says he “doesn’t have any objections” to eliminating SAPs.

Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla did not return a message seeking comment by deadline. Mayor Francis Suarez also didn’t return inquiries from the BT.

Commissioner Manolo Reyes declined to share his opinion with the BT, claiming that the city administration neglected to tell him that Appeals Board members were considering a ban on Special Area Plans. However, Reyes brought up a late-night “pocket item” at the commission’s December 12 meeting, demanding a comprehensive review of Miami 21, including SAPs, within 120 days.

One of Reyes’ motivations in seeking a review was to find a way to encourage the construction of affordable housing for households making below the county’s median household income of $51,800 a year. The resolution was unanimously approved. Mayor Suarez and the other four commissioners even asked to be named as co-sponsors of the resolution.

Seth Gordon, a public affairs consultant and lobbyist, represented the developers of the proposed Legions West SAP near Legion Park in Miami’s Upper Eastside. The project was rejected by the city commission following an outcry from neighboring residents.

SAPs_5Gordon believes it’s possible the city commission could support the repeal of SAPs. He says SAPs aren’t all that popular with real estate developers. For one thing, SAPs attract too much negative attention from residents. For another, most developers aren’t trying to build gigantic projects. “So, I think [repealing SAPs] would have a limited negative impact on the development community,” he says.

Neisen Kasdin, a land-use attorney and former Miami Beach mayor, whose clients include the developers of the Magic City Innovation District, agrees that SAPs can use some reforms but insists they’re primarily beneficial for Miami. “This is a true case of throwing the baby out with the bath water,” Kasdin says. “The SAPs built to date are some of the most spectacular, highly regarded projects in the country.”

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, a renowned urban planner and chief architect of Miami 21, says SAPs can play an important role in reshaping poorly designed areas of the city. Still, she says SAPs should be revised to prevent huge projects that are out of character with their surrounding areas. “It was not the intention to be enabling wholesale upzoning,” Plater-Zyberk says. “The intent was to make the city a better form.”

But Edward “Ned” Murray, an associate director of the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University, says without proper guidelines, zoning exceptions like SAPs are destructive instruments, and probably best repealed.

“A SAP is a dangerous thing absent a clear policy and plan,” says Murray, who will be unveiling the Metropolitan Center’s affordable housing master plan for the city this month.

The Miami 21 review and possible repeal of SAPs comes at an interesting time. The 15-acre Magic City Innovation District is still stymied by litigation after Little Haiti resident William Perry sued to overturn the SAP, claiming the city improperly rejected his request for “intervenor status,” which would have allowed him to present additional evidence contesting the project. Perry is being represented pro bono by Meena Jagannath and attorney David Winker. The City of Miami has until January 17 to file a response, according to court records.

Meanwhile, Judge Abby Cynamon issued a ruling December 13 that orders the Appeals Board to vote for or against SPV Realty’s proposed 5.4-million-square-foot Eastside Ridge SAP, or show cause why no decision has been made.

The proposed Eastside Ridge would demolish the low-rise, (relatively) low-cost 400-unit Design Place apartment complex in Buena Vista, and replace it with a dense, mixed-use high-rise development. It is just one mile from the Magic City Innovation District and directly across the street from Miami Jewish Health.

The Appeals Board has already postponed a vote on the Eastside Ridge project five times. SPV Realty, which is controlled by members of the controversial Podolsky family in New York, is demanding an up or down vote so the proposed development can proceed to the Miami City Commission. The Eastside Ridge project is scheduled to come before the Appeals Board on February 20.

Although Hardemon vows to vote against “rogue Special Area Plans” that harm communities, Eastside Ridge critics fear the commissioner may endorse a last-minute deal that won’t require the developers to build housing set aside for low-and moderate-income households.

That’s what happened with the Magic City Innovation District when, less than three days prior to its first hearing with commissioners on February 28, the developers offered to give $31 million to a trust managed mainly by Hardemon’s appointees that will build affordable housing elsewhere within the Little Haiti neighborhood. Previously, Magic City developers offered to give $41 million toward public benefits and reserve 550 out of the project’s 2700 apartments for affordable and workforce housing at below-market rates. In the end, the $31 million trust deal was passed by the commission by a vote of 3-0 on June 28.

SPV Realty, which applied for its Eastside Ridge SAP three years ago, is currently offering to reserve 317 of the project’s 3370 residential units for affordable and workforce housing, as well as $10 million for Little Haiti cultural programs. Eastside Ridge, like Magic City, is located in Hardemon’s commission district.

Hardemon argues that SAPs, when done properly, can bring more shopping and dining opportunities to his district and make neighborhoods safer. “I’m interested in having a City of Miami that we’re proud to live in, every single one of us,” he tells the BT. “Sometimes that means Special Area Plans. Many times, it does not.”

In 2002, prior to Miami 21’s passage, FIU’s Metropolitan Center released a study advocating the transformation of an old railyard into a complex of residential towers with retail and office mixed in as a means to promote economic development. The result was Midtown Miami, and Ned Murray contends it helped spark the revival of Wynwood, Edgewater, and the Design District. At the time, affordable housing wasn’t an issue, but that changed “very quickly” with the onset of Miami’s housing boom in 2004. “It was a perfect storm,” Murray says.

It was a storm that has led to displacement and economic hardship in the City of Miami, where the median household income is just $36,638 a year while, according to Zillow.com, the average rent is $1704 a month and the median home value is $366,159.

The Metropolitan Center states that City of Miami rents are 44 percent higher than the national average, yet 70 percent of its residents rent because condos and single-family homes are far too expensive for most to purchase. Also, according to the Metropolitan Center, 55 percent of Miami residents spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

“The fastest growing cost-burden segment in Miami is what we refer to as ‘severely-cost-burdened,’ those who pay 50 percent or more [of their income] on housing costs,” Murray says. “When you hit that 50 percent threshold, there goes your quality of life and your reason for being here.”

Having legislation that allows developers who amass land to rewrite their own zoning code only speeds up the decimation of rentals charging below $800 a month or homes priced lower than $250,000.

“Large-scale urban renewal in a city setting does not typically work,” Murray says, adding: “Once you start going into neighborhoods in a hot real estate market, with land values that are through the roof, and scarcity of land, you’re really creating a situation that is creating havoc in those areas.”

It doesn’t help when a zoning code lacks clear policies with regard to preserving neighborhoods and affordable housing. “A zoning code without a master plan is like a boat without a rudder,” Murray explains. “It just drifts and goes in any direction, and those with the most influence steer it.”

That’s part of the reason City of Miami officials will be discussing strategies to preserve and create more affordable housing for Miamians. The Metropolitan Center will propose that the city form a Miami Affordable Housing Finance Corporation to help fund the construction of affordable housing with the $85 million the city has left in bond money dedicated to that purpose.

Commissioner Carollo sponsored a resolution calling for a $250 million fund, collected from grants and loans, in order to build cheap homes that current Miami residents can purchase at cost within the city’s five commission districts.

Another idea is to approve legislation either requiring or encouraging developers to include affordable and workforce housing in their projects. Toward that end, Commissioner Reyes wants the city to narrow the parameters of what is considered workforce housing. Under federal Housing and Urban Development guidelines, workforce household incomes range between 80 percent and 140 percent of a county’s “area median income.” Because Miami-Dade’s area median income is $51,800, an individual making up to $74,060 a year, or a family of four with a household income of up to $105,700 a year, qualifies for workforce housing. That also means a workforce efficiency apartment can rent for up to $1851 a month, a one-bedroom $1982 a month, and a two-bedroom $2380 a month under HUD guidelines.

Reyes wants to lower that range to 100 percent, while Appeals Board member and developer Andy Parrish, says the AMI workforce ranges should relate to a particular neighborhood and not the entire county.

Andrew Frey, a developer who owns property in Little Haiti and Wynwood, says the city should step away from “custom zoning” concepts like SAPs and instead provide more density in places designated for small apartment buildings and townhouses, like zoning categories T4 and T5. Currently, residential density is limited to 36 units per acre in T4 zones and 65 units per acre in T5 zones. Frey argues that developers wanting to provide housing for people with modest means needs around 150 units an acre. The 150-unit mark exists within Wynwood’s neighborhood conservation district, but not in places like Little Havana. As a result, small apartment buildings are being ripped down while nothing is constructed in their place.

“T4 and T5 is not seeing a lot of infill development,” Frey offers. “We should take a look at that.”

Ned Murray of the Metropolitan Center agrees. In fact, encouraging builders to create smaller-scale projects is part of the master plan that will soon be unveiled. “These are areas of opportunity that we have already noted,” Murray says.

Affordability isn’t the only aspect that has made some activists wary of SAPs. There’s also the out-of-scale character of some proposed SAPs, with high-rises taller than 20 stories in neighborhoods dominated by low-rise apartments, duplexes, and single-family homes.

Elvis Cruz, an activist residing in the Upper Eastside neighborhood of Morningside, wants SAPs to be repealed because he feels the city is under the influence of developers.

“SAPs are required by [Miami 21] to be in character and scale with the surrounding area, but the city has approved building 24-story skyscrapers in two-story neighborhoods,” Cruz tells the BT. “That’s a clear violation of the law, but unless someone has the time and money to take it to court, the city gets away with it.”

Plater-Zyberk, the architect of Miami 21, has a simple solution: Don’t allow zoning increases within SAPs. Instead, limit the capacity -- density and height -- to the land’s original zoning. This will allow developers to adjust the existing zoning categories within the SAP area, but it won’t allow upzoning. This, Plater-Zyberk says, will “avoid the kind of speculation” many residents fear.

Land use attorney Neisen Kasdin hates that idea. “I think the SAPs that happened did require some increase in zoning,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons SAPs are not bound by the successional zoning rule of Miami 21.” (Under Miami 21’s successional zoning clause, a property owner can only seek zoning that is one-level higher than what a property is already zoned for, except in SAPs.)

Kasdin also insists that SAPs can’t be blamed for the affordability crisis the city faces: “That sort of hysteria is the equivalent of Trump and others whipping up fears of invading hordes crossing the border.”



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