Miami Beach Commissioners struggled this week with one recommendation of the North Beach Master Plan: activating the Tatum Waterway through non-motorized watercraft rentals and small retail shops, cafés, and offices. Commissioner Ricky Arriola is sponsoring an ordinance that would create incentives for adaptive reuse of contributing historic waterfront structures and allow for activities that create a “pedestrian-friendly allure and promote the unique sense of place and community culture” along the waterway.
Kirk Paskal, a Tatum Waterway resident and member of the North Beach Master Plan Steering Committee, told the Commission’s Land Use and Development Committee, “The people that live along the waterway feel like we have a special area.” Activation of the waterway, he said, would provide “vibrancy” for the neighborhood as well as incentivize preservation of older buildings. “I think that what’s been drafted in this proposal is intended to be very low impact,” Paskal said. “I think all of us would like to start slow … but I’m hoping that we can move forward with something because I think it’s a great idea to activate that area a little bit more.”
Commissioner Joy Malakoff expressed concerns about the viability of a neighborhood-only restaurant while lamenting the parking problems of a successful restaurant that would attract people from outside the local community. “If people come from other neighborhoods, where are they going to park,” she asked. “There’s no parking. As it is that whole area is short of parking.”
Paskal acknowledged the lack of parking but said a coffee shop or juice bar would be “very compatible” with the neighborhood and could have limited hours to not impact parking at night when residents come home from work and the problem is most acute. Arriola’s proposal suggests operating hours from noon to 10 pm.
Another member of the North Beach Master Plan Steering Committee, Daniel Veitia, said, “From a planning perspective, a practical perspective, I will tell you that the North Shore neighborhood is very large. Very large. And the closest commercial district to get coffee is going to be the Bandshell Commercial District.” He said he believes the planners looked at some of the main arterial connections in the area as “a great place to have some introduction of light commercial.” He compared Little Havana, which has some of these light commercial uses within residential areas, to North Beach. He said he’s curious to explore ways to add “small little tiny pockets of very light commercial” that would allow people to walk or bike to “get simple little things.” While he said “It’s worth thinking about,” he added, “It is quite interesting that we’re considering this because we’re so anti anything commercial within a residential district, including short term rentals, so it’s interesting.”
Commissioner John Alemán agreed while expressing concerns. “It’s interesting and it’s creative,” she said. “I have a lot of concerns with it and hours is one. We get countless emails and we have a lot of discussions about the incompatibility of eating and drinking establishments in residential neighborhoods and so … I’m having trouble rationalizing, you know, creating that here.” She suggested the 10 pm proposed closing time “may be too late” and she asked Arriola to consider earlier open and close times. Like Malakoff, she worried about parking. “The parking is very, very concerning. The way this is written right now ... the parking, I’m concerned.”
Arriola said he was proposing something that was both included in the North Beach Master Plan and desired by the community. He said residents have told him, “There’s no place to get a cup of coffee” or buy other staples. Right now, he said, if “you have to go to a local convenience store to pick up band aids or over the counter medication for your baby, you gotta get in your car and drive many blocks, find parking, and take care of business.”
The concept of light commercial within residential areas is not new, Arriola said, “This is experimental but we see it in all the best neighborhoods here in Miami Beach and around the world which is livability, right?” Old City Codes had very hard lines between commercial and residential uses, he said. “There’s no intermingling. But the best communities are the ones that have mixed use.”
Arriola said he sees this not only as providing a convenience to local residents but a way to maintain the neighborhood’s character. “The thought here is to take buildings that we’re all trying desperately to preserve and create some economic incentive by allowing some light commercial use for adaptive reuse so that folks can maybe justify preserving their building. They can maybe get a better economic return by using [their building for] commercial purposes than just purely residential. To me it’s creative and it’s worth trying ‘cause it does work.”
The issue of parking is real, he said, but it’s a catch 22. “I hope that we can build a parking garage in this neighborhood … I think if we do that, it’ll address parking. But because parking’s in such short supply, the people that live in that neighborhood, they’re literally stuck because if they get in their car and drive to go take care of simple things they lose their parking spot. So I just think this is a great thing for the neighborhood and I think it’s worth trying,” he said.
Alemán tried to articulate the delicate balance. “What I always struggle with with these things is if it’s a coffee shop or it’s a bakery and everybody’s walking there we can get excited about it. But if it becomes a hookah bar and it starts to attract people from all over and has a negative impact on the neighborhood … ,” she said, her voice trailing off. She wondered if this could be done on a trial basis but “revocable … in case it doesn’t work.” Her fear, she said was that trying to undo something that didn’t work could result in “having somebody that then gets grandfathered in and they’re there forever.”
The question for the Committee members seemed to be where to draw the line, both in terms of what would be allowed and hours of operation. Malakoff said, “I have no problem with having the non motorized rental vehicles there for rent. I think that’s a good idea to have kayaks, paddle boards and that doesn’t make a lot of noise. It doesn’t require a lot of parking, I don’t think, unless people are bringing their own kayaks.” She agreed that the 10 pm closing time might be too late and suggested 10 am to 8 pm hours for commercial operation. And she continued to worry about parking. “If you have a restaurant and the restaurant is successful, then people are going to come from outside of the neighborhood to dine there to sit outside by the water,” she said. “There’s no place to put their cars. And it’s going to just exacerbate the parking problem that that community has already [but] if you have a restaurant that is not successful, that’s just trying to appeal to the neighborhood, that restaurant is not going to be there very long. They can’t make enough money to make it work.”
Commissioner Micky Steinberg said, “While I appreciate wanting to add vibrancy to these communities … I have real concerns about the concept … opening up a potential Pandora’s box.” She said she’s willing to talk about “small pockets of certain shops and things in areas that you do make more walkable, but as is, I just have real concerns and so I don’t know that I can support it.”
Arriola said of the waterway, “It’s one of the most beautiful areas of all of Miami Beach … the only people that really enjoy the water there are the people that live there and it should be something that folks that maybe live on the interior or other parts of Miami Beach, if they want to come up on a paddle board or kayak, they’ve got a place to go.”
He said he didn’t have any doubts about the success of businesses that would locate there. “The appeal here is that it’s on the water … People will go to sit outside and have their coffee or whatever.”
Despite the concerns, Arriola reminded his colleagues, “This is in the Master Plan, by the way. So let’s consider that the experts also recommended this kind of activation.”
“I’ve seen it work in so many neighborhoods,” he added, “and it’s a shame that we don’t activate that waterway more.” He reminded them, “This actually started as a conversation on historic preservation, how do we create economic incentives to preserve these buildings.” An owner with low rent residential units might be able to generate higher rent on the portion of their building that was used as a commercial space, he said, which then allows an owner to “reinvest in the property and preserve the building.”
Malakoff, the Committee’s chair, suggested another conversation on the issue including earlier hours and some specificity on the types of eating and drinking establishments, citing coffee shops and juice bars.
Planning Director Tom Mooney said, “If you limit the number of seats, that typically will distinguish a coffee shop from something that’s more of a full blown restaurant. But if you want these venues to serve beer and wine, they will need a minimum number of seats to get a liquor license.”
Arriola agreed with a deferral after hearing the concerns. “We’ll have more people be here, more people energized, and we can all think about it more deeply.”
Paskal made one last plea. “I mean, honestly, there really aren’t any other neighborhoods in Miami Beach that I can think of that don’t have this pocket type of activation … We have nothing and people want a little bit of vibrancy.” He said he knows people who are considering moving closer to areas that are more walkable “and that’s why I say let’s start with a conservative plan. Let’s start with something that’s viable and doesn’t create a threat.”