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Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
February 2018

North Miami residents face high-rise, dubious bond issue

CPix_MarkSell_2-18_1ould this be war? This being North Miami, you could say…well, yes.

The struggle over the city’s future is picking up, whether about waterfront condos, the bond issue, or Florida International University. February will be eventful, so let’s break it down:

Condos: While the mere words “zoning meeting” can help cure insomnia, the January 11 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting was like a midday jolt from a dozen coladas.

Police were called to calm the raucous overflow crowd of about 150 as the commission voted 3-2, over catcalls and boos, to let Brickell Motors president Mario Murgado, owner of space-strapped Ocean Cadillac in Bay Harbor Islands, build an 11-story, 52-unit condo tower on the site of the shuttered 1969-vintage White House Inn at 2305 NE 123rd St., just before the Broad Causeway.

That’s a big deal because the north side of the street is intended as a low-rise buffer between the gated, single-family Keystone Point neighborhood to the north and denser development to the south.

This doesn’t sit well with Keystone Point residents, whether they own $4 million waterfront mansions or struggle to pay the $600,000 mortgage. They vote, they mobilize, and they’re represented by council members Carol Keys and Scott Galvin.

The Keystone Homeowners Association held a packed meeting January 18, effectively forming an anti-high-rise war council. The city council will hold two public hearings, at 7:00 p.m. Tuesday, February 13, and again February 27. Since this vote includes a higher-density zoning change, it will require a 4-1 supermajority.

Some residents suspect that Murgado doesn’t really want to build, that he intends to flip the property he bought for $7.8 million in 2014 (the city had resisted a car dealership there) and get an asking price of $17 million for upzoned land, thereby opening the door to an even more ambitious high-rise.

With such hurdles, you can bet that lobbyists will work the council members just as hard, if not harder, than they did with the P&Z Commission.

Voting for the project and zoning: Chair Kevin Seifried and planning commissioners Kenny Each (pro-development former police chief) and Jason James. Against: Bob Pechon and Charles Ernst.

Bond issue: It’s big, at $155 million, and lots of people are still clueless about it.

Elected officials have clamored for improvements for years, and voted 4-1 on January 9 to take a bond issue to ballot. The council must vote on this again, almost surely this month, possibly on the 13th. District 2 Commissioner Carol Keys is hosting a workshop at the Margolis Center at 6:00 p.m. Tuesday, February 6.

City staff are pushing for a referendum on April 24. Why the rush? Why not save the cost of a special election and piggyback the vote on the primary election August 28? At least that would give the city more time to communicate its plan. Its January 25 bond-issue workshop offered a hapless performance by assistant city manager Arthur “Duke” Sorey, who was greeted with cross-talk, bewildered questions, and anger from stupefied residents. Is the city rushing this vote to ensure a mercy killing?

The bond issue breaks down into four tranches: $86.3 million for community centers and parks; $43.25 million for infrastructure improvements: sidewalks, street resurfacing, landscaping and lighting, and transit station upgrades; $20 million to acquire or build single- and multifamily affordable housing; $5.45 million for technology, such as an automatic plate readers, servers, Wi-Fi, and an enhanced emergency operations center.

But there’s nothing on replacing water and sewer pipes, many over 60 years old. Repairs have been “pay as you go” over the years. Hurricane Irma and recent tides exposed an aging sewer system at its worst (see “Sewage, Sewage Everywhere,” October 2017, and “Sewage Spill, Part II,” November 2017). Nor is sea level rise mentioned.

Why not just start with a comprehensive review, and plan for those pipes? You can’t build or even pave over rusty ones.

As Sorey described it, the transit station is the thing, at the tracks near 125th Street. There’s another on the way west of Biscayne on 151st Street, cater-corner from SoLeMia, where the car dealership and two residential towers now rise seven stories out of the ground. The city expects SoLeMia to help with the tax base in 2020.

Plus, $155 million is a lot to swallow in a city whose average household income is $39,000. The four tranches on these 30-year bonds would be issued every two years until 2024. Over the life of the bond, which ends in 2054, a homeowner with an “average” homestead assessed value of $134,000 would pay an extra $254.47 per year. A $500,000 assessed house would average $934.41 per year. The payments would peak in 2024, when all the tranches come into place, and then fall very slowly until 2054.

While voters in the City of Miami just passed a $400 million Miami Forever bond, nearly half of that went to address storm system upgrades, flood pumps, and sea walls to curb flooding. The City of Miami’s budget is 16 times North Miami’s, or at $1 billion-plus versus $68 million, while its bond issue is just two and half times larger. That’s one heavy load.

We’d suggest taking a hard look at those pipes and sea level rise. Playing whack-a-mole with leaking, burbling pipes invites litigation and an eventual building moratorium. Just ask Fort Lauderdale.

FIU: It’s back, big time. For months now, city staff and FIU have gone back and forth about the comprehensive plan for the Biscayne Bay campus, which the state requires every five years.

On January 23, John Cal, FIU’s associate vice president for facilities management, presented the plan, which includes a 222,000-square-foot magnet school (the top priority); a 177,600-square-foot “Academic Health Center” (a possible medical school); a 100,000-square-foot parking garage; 65,000 square feet for graduate student housing; and a 98,000-square-foot hotel.

That’s a big expansion for FIU, now getting boxed in at the Modesto Maidique campus near Sweetwater, 25 miles to the southeast.

The council approved the plan but inserted language emphasizing 135th Street’s median as a designated “passive park,” and tried but failed to have Cal guarantee that FIU would never try to open the city’s 11-year-old paved nature trail to traffic. That was political theater, as such an assurance is above Mr. Cal’s pay grade, but it drove home the message.

Council members would prefer that FIU get its coveted second access point from the widened SoLeMia entrance at 143rd Street and Biscayne Boulevard, rather than the protected land. That would require plenty of permitting, environmental approvals, and money.

The resulting standoff and cease-fire with FIU is still on, but artillery can come any time.

 

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