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Written by James Teeple, BT Contributor   
October 2015

Failing infrastructure in North Bay Village means the red carpet for high-rise developers

FNBV_1or drivers this summer there were few worse places to be than the 79th Street Causeway in North Bay Village.

A major water and sewer project shut down most lanes of the causeway for weeks, forcing the 40,000 cars that pass through North Bay Village every day into single lanes. Backups stretched nearly to Biscayne Boulevard on the west, and into Miami Beach on the east.

The construction was just the first in a series of long-overdue infrastructure projects planned by North Bay Village that won’t make traversing the causeway any easier, but which local officials say are necessary if the town is to survive.

“Our sewer lines are failing, we’re infiltrating saltwater, and our water lines are leaking underground, so we have to fix this stuff,” says Frank Rollason, North Bay Village’s highly regarded city manager (and former BT columnist), who took over the administration of Florida’s most densely populated city just over two years ago.

Yes, that’s right: Little North Bay Village, home to a little more than 7000 residents in three-quarters of a square mile, is the densest city in the Sunshine State, and the 12th densest city in the nation.

NBV_2With a low tax base and a failing infrastructure, North Bay Village is looking to leverage the few assets it has. “The selling point we have is waterfront,” says Rollason. “And the land for us has been cheaper than Miami Beach or Brickell or the Biscayne Corridor. So here we sit, this little jewel between Miami Beach and Miami, with a great location to get to the beach or go downtown or anywhere else, and it’s kind of ignored. But now people have picked up on the value of what’s here.”

Village officials have been courting developers for more than a decade, and at least eight residential buildings have been built on Harbor Island in recent years, most before the great recession. The most recent, MODA, a high-end rental with spectacular views at the tip of Harbor Island opened this year.

At least three more residential projects have been approved for Harbor Island, but development has stalled in North Bay Village, especially on the 79th Street (Kennedy) Causeway, despite the creation of the Bay View Overlay District on the causeway in January of 2013, which allows developers to build up to 340 feet in height (up from the previous 240), providing they incorporate setbacks to allow for increased sightlines onto the water.

It’s hard to believe now, but 50 years ago North Bay Village was the place to be in Miami -- at least after the sun went down. Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Dean Martin, who had his own club, Dino’s, on the causeway, headlined the clubs and steakhouses that lined the causeway. And while no one wants to go back to the days of mafia hits and hookers causing traffic jams, there is an effort under way to make North Bay Village a destination again.

Rollason says he’d like to get at least some of those 40,000 cars traversing the causeway to stop for a while. “I think, hopefully, we’re going to become a destination again and not a pass-through,” he adds. “That’s the objective.”

And the key to making that happen is the overlay district, say city officials and developers like Sebastian Barbagallo, a director of B Developments, who moved quickly to snap up waterfront lots on the north side of the causeway in 2013.

NBV_3Five waterfront parcels have changed hands in recent years, and Barbagallo, who bought two of them, says he plans to build two mixed-use projects: one on the site of the old Crab House restaurant, a 1.9-acre site property that his company paid $7.6 million for in 2013; and the other a condo-hotel project on a vacant 1.4-acre site next to Shuckers Bar and Grill, which fetched $6.2 million the same year.

Barbagallo, whose family has been in real estate development since 1931, first in Argentina and since the late 1990s in Miami, says North Bay Village is a diamond in the rough. Plans by the city to build a waterfront linear park will likely transform the area, he predicts. “We’re all on the same page -- developers, city officials,” he says, “and we know the public and private sector need to work together, the public sector developing a bay walk that will unify all the different projects, and the private sector developing some type of cohesive development that includes retail facing the water.”

Barbagallo’s 23-story, 129-unit mixed-use project at the site of the old Crab House, to be called Bali Hai, is now before county regulatory authorities for a second review; a building permit is expected soon, Barbagallo says, and he plans to break ground in 2016.

Because North Bay Village has so little parkland in relation to population, Rollason says, it can build a boardwalk or linear park that would extend out over the water -- something that would be largely prohibited elsewhere. He says the city is now in the process of coming up with some basic plans that would meet state environmental requirements for such a park, and the city should be able to use impact fees from developers eager to build along the water to pay for an eventual park.

The city is mired in contentious negotiations over a separate baywalk on Harbor Island, where condominium dwellers are fighting efforts by the city to open public-access areas along the water that front their buildings. Developers were required to provide public access to the waterfront as part of the approval process to build on Harbor Island, but most areas were gated and closed once the buildings were completed.

Developer Scott Greenwald plans to build Isle of Dreams, a 32-story, 237-unit, mixed-use tower on the site of the old WIOD radio station, the original Broadcast Key. Greenwald was involved in years of litigation with his neighbor, Edmund Ansin, the owner of WSVN-TV (Channel 7), who unsuccessfully sued Greenwald over plans to develop his part of the shared outcropping.

Greenwald, who was also involved in separate litigation against North Bay Village over his plans to open a strip club on the site, says most of his legal issues have been settled and he’s about a year away from breaking ground. “One of the issues years ago was the city actually worked against developers,” he says. “Now they’re encouraging the development of these new buildings, which will supplement the tax base and add necessary revenue to the city.”

NBV_4But not everybody is a believer when it comes to all the development planned for the north side of the causeway. Richard Chervony, a village commissioner from North Bay Island, says while the planning and zoning board has approved all five projects for the north side of the causeway, and all have received the variances they have requested, he doesn’t think they’ll be developed within the next five years.

“If these projects look like the renderings, then we’re going to have a magnificent causeway, but I’m skeptical,” he says. “This is not the first go-round for a lot of these properties. Until I see a shovel go into the ground, I don’t believe it.”

Real estate consultant Peter Zalewski of CondoVultures.com is also skeptical. He says North Bay Village is a cheaper alternative to Miami Beach and the Biscayne Corridor, but it doesn’t pop up on anybody’s radar as a destination.

Zalewski says that 183 condo units in North Bay Village are on the market, with an average asking price of $309 per square foot. That’s more than a ten percent of inventory, and those condos that do sell go for an average $230 a square foot.

Those prices are too low for developers to make any money, he says, even if buyers pay a 25 percent premium for new construction, which is usually the case. But Zalewski notes that if prices continue to rise on Miami Beach and along the Biscayne Corridor, people might start looking at North Bay Village as a rest stop with three great assets; water views, a central location, and comparatively low prices.

 

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