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City Finds Itself in Conflict with Itself PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
July 2017

Miami can’t “co-apply” with Legion Park developers to sidestep its own zoning regs

TLegion_1he Miami City Commission has unanimously approved an ordinance barring the city from becoming a co-applicant in a private developer’s proposal for a “special area plan,” or SAP -- at least for now.

The ordinance, passed on second and final reading June 22, effectively prevents builders from using parkland or other city-owned properties in their efforts to obtain the nine-acre threshold required for a special area plan, or SAP.

Under the city’s Miami 21 zoning code, developers can apply for new zoning or design guidelines if they control at least nine acres of land. However, developers with fewer than nine acres have sought to count city parkland as part of their SAP applications.

The passage of the city ordinance is expected to have an immediate effect on Legions West, a proposed high-rise project adjacent to Legion Park that is opposed by many residents of Miami’s Upper Eastside, as well as users of the park at Biscayne Boulevard and NE 66th Street.

Through the SAP process, a partnership of developers, led by Brian Pearl, has been seeking the right to build 476 condo units and some 40,000 square feet of retail in three buildings that range ranging between 115 and 176 feet tall.

The current zoning for the land -- roughly between NE 64th Street and Legion Park, and NE 7th Avenue and a retail complex on the Boulevard -- only allows 434 residential units and 2400 square feet of retail. Height is also capped at five stories, or 85 feet, except for a sliver of land near the park that allows a very narrow 179-foot tower.

Pearl and his partners controlled only about 7.3 acres of land, so they asked the city if it would be a co-applicant, thus allowing them to count part of Legion Park’s acreage in order to reach the nine-acre SAP threshold. In exchange, the developers promised to pay for park improvements.

Legion_2Now that this option has been repealed, it isn’t clear what Pearl will do. He did not return an e-mail requesting comment by deadline, although the developers have already demolished the 17 apartment buildings onsite that once provided market-rate affordable housing.

In past public meetings, Pearl indicated that his Legions West proposal was a far better design than what he could build under current zoning. Pearl’s attorney, Iris Escarra, has also suggested that the developers could seek zoning variances through other means.

The repeal won’t affect Legions East, a five-story, 237-unit apartment building that will be constructed on the 3.6-acre site at 6445 NE 7th Ave., where the old American Legion Post 29 once stood. Legions East, which will include a new facility for the war veterans club, will be built in accordance with that parcel’s zoning.

Nevertheless, Upper Eastside residents who feared that the Legions West project would overwhelm the park and overload roads with traffic expressed relief that the ordinance passed.

“Massive out-of-scale high-rises do not belong on top of the four low-rise historic districts that border Legion Park,” states Bayside resident Peter Ehrlich in an e-mail to the BT.

Deborah Stander, a board member of the MiMo Biscayne Association and a Belle Meade resident, says she heard rumors that the project’s architect and developer were trying to defer the second reading until after the city’s November 7 election and then work to kill the ordinance.

“But that didn’t happen, thank God!” Stander tells the BT via e-mail. Stander says she hopes to see a project “that will enhance and reflect its neighborhood context,” adding: “Glad it’s behind us. That was one tough fight!”

Morningside activist Elvis Cruz sees this as just a first step. Cruz thinks the city should amend its SAP law to forbid developers from seeking greater density than is already allowed.

“The City of Miami is already zoned to allow the building of eight times more housing units than were counted in the 2010 census, before any new SAPs come along,” Cruz states in an e-mail. “It’s insane. Traffic is already a nightmare, and we have problems with potable water supply, sewage capacity, hurricane evacuation time, and more.”

Commissioner Francis Suarez, a candidate for Miami city mayor, has stated that apprehension from residents over mega-projects is why he proposed the SAP ordinance in the first place. At the very least, Suarez reasoned at a May 25 commission meeting, the city should avoid being co-applicants of the very projects that municipal planning staffers must judge.

“I think there’s a conflict problem with us scrutinizing application, and I think there’s a secondary problem, which is people using our land to fulfill a nine-acre requirement to get a SAP,” Suarez said.

During the May 25 meeting, commission chairman Keon Hardemon, whose district includes Legion Park, expressed concern about banning the city from co-applying with developers. Hardemon pointed out that not all SAPs seek more density, just some change of use or design guidelines. Hardemon also said that being a co-applicant could encourage a future developer in Little Haiti to provide improvements for Little Haiti Park and the surrounding area.

“It’s a sledgehammer, really,” he said. “Because you’re taking away the capabilities of the city to work with a private land owner to make something beneficial for the city.”

“You make a good point,” Suarez replied. But the reform, Suarez argued, doesn’t have to be permanent. “Just because we do something today because we see a trend happening doesn’t mean we can’t undo it tomorrow if the danger is over and there is some positivity in doing it,” Suarez said.

Although Hardemon was critical, he voted for Suarez’s amended SAP ordinance, which passed unanimously on first reading on May 25. The code was passed unanimously at second reading on June 22 without discussion.

 

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