Local Residents Organize Around 500-700 Alton Road Project

West Ave

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Local Residents Organize Around 500-700 Alton Road Project:

Non-profit and political action committee established to pursue alternative plan

A group of citizens led by community activist Frank Del Vecchio has formed a non-profit corporation and political action committee to advance their proposal for the site of the old South Shore Hospital and one of its neighboring blocks. Developer Russell Galbut has proposed a development for three blocks from 500-700 Alton Road that includes a residential tower, a low-rise mixed-use building, and park land deeded to the City.
 
Del Vecchio’s coalition was initially part of an effort earlier this year spearheaded by Mayor Dan Gelber to break the stalemate over the skeleton of the hospital building that has loomed at one of the City’s gateways for a decade. Since then, there has been a split in the community over which plan to support – the one advanced by Del Vecchio’s group or one of the plans proposed by Galbut’s firm, Crescent Heights.

Galbut has presented three options, all of which include a slim tower on the 500 block but varying in heights of 36, 42, and 50 stories. In option one, the South Shore Hospital building would remain on the 600 block and be used for office space along with a new five story mixed-used building. In options two and three, the old hospital building would be eliminated while the footprint of the mixed-used building would change. In each option, allowable square footage on the lots would move to the tower if approved by the City Commission. All three options include park land deeded to the City with the amount of green space increasing along with the height of the tower. At its largest, the park would be more than three acres according to Galbut and architect Raymond Fort of Arquitectonica.
 
Both sides are working within City law which for the past twenty years has required a public vote for any increases in FAR (floor area ratio or density). The FAR code change in 1997 grandfathered in buildings that were already standing, including the South Shore Hospital. Once torn down, any new development needs to comply with current limits. By keeping the old hospital structure in place, Galbut is able to maintain the height and FAR on the property until a decision is reached on what can built there. An already approved plan would allow for several low-rise residential buildings but virtually no greenspace. Galbut and a group of residents of neighboring buildings are now supporting his plan for the taller tower and park.
 
While everyone is tired of the building’s rusting hulk, Del Vecchio places some blame on the City which he said “should have required him to tear [the building] down years ago, but he has managed to keep it there and in return he wants the City to violate every principle of zoning that has made this city great for the last twenty years.”
 
In a letter to the Mayor on March 26, Del Vecchio wrote, “In order to aggregate the floor area ratio necessary for either building proposed by the developer for this location, the city commission would have to sell or lease Sixth Street between West Avenue and Alton Road to the developer and take back a public right-of-way easement. Such a transaction seems designed to evade city law, which prohibits lot aggregation for parcels of land that are separated by a public right-of-way … Such an action by the city amounts to a developer giveaway. Residents would no longer be able to rely on limitations on zoning height and mass that were in effect when they bought their apartments. No neighborhood would be safe. For these reasons, we reject it.”
 
The Miami Beach Gateway Community Alliance, a Florida non-profit corporation, was established four days later on March 30. On April 4, the Political Action Committee was formed. Del Vecchio is President of the non-profit corporation and President/Treasurer of the PAC. Gayle Durham is Secretary of both the non-profit and the PAC. Shawn Patrick Bryant is the non-profit’s Treasurer.
 
The Alliance supports a 28-story tower on the 500 block and an increase in allowable height from 75 to 280 feet, a low-rise residential and/or commercial building on the 600 block, and a 3.4 acre park over those two blocks with a 30-year maintenance fund, and the prohibition of nightclubs and other entertainment destinations. According to Del Vecchio, they believe the tower should include “70-80-90 condo units instead of a few hundred units” to have less of an impact on traffic in the congested 5th and Alton area.
 
The group rejects the developer’s inclusion of green space on the 700 block as Del Vecchio says the space, which is located over an underground parking garage, would contain "limited soil that would not percolate into the ground" and should not be counted as park land. Galbut, at a recent Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club meeting, said the area above the garage could be 18 inches up to 5 feet depending on the type of landscaping, a technique he has used before in other developments. Del Vecchio objects, saying that’s “a technique the industry uses to create illusions” of resilient areas. He says the Alliance’s plan is more resilient by including more permeable area.
 
The Gateway Alliance is also calling foul on the developer’s request to aggregate the lots on either side of 6th Street. Del Vecchio, a retired attorney, told RE:MiamiBeach, in his opinion, the plan would “evade [current] zoning restriction by getting a 6/7th vote of the City Commission to sell him 6th street that will enable him to aggregate the properties on both sides of 6th Street. If the City Commission does this, that’s the death knell for the rest of the City because clever developers and property owners will option properties on alleys and streets … and get a 6/7th vote to put a tower on one side.”
 
Del Vecchio also doesn’t believe the developer can move the FAR allowed for the 700 block over into the 500 block. “That is illegal under our law,” he said. “It cannot be done under our law which does not permit aggregation except for commercial and mixed-use entertainment zones.” By including the 700 block and adding “limited soil” on top of it, Del Vecchio accused Galbut of using the city’s embrace of resiliency for his purposes to give the City a larger park as a means of transferring the FAR to build a larger tower.
 
While he said the proposed development “is the most distressing development ruse I have seen in my 20 years in Miami Beach so we’re not going to stand for it.” He added, “On the other hand, we are not obstructionists. We know that we are confronted with the developer’s unwillingness and the City’s incapacity to get him to clean up his mess. We agree it’s got to be cleaned up.”
 
“We want it cleaned up … but to do that we had to get our own experts,” Del Vecchio said. He emphasizes the Gateway Alliance is first a grassroots community organization that wants to work with the City on crafting a final plan for the 5th and Alton area. But, if the City does not hire the experts to evaluate Galbut’s plan, the PAC can be activated to do that.
 
“There’s only so far that I as an individual and individuals can go,” Del Vecchio said. “We need legal advice, architect analysis, appraisals, and science. We have done what we could to identify the questions that need to be asked and we are asking of the City Commission that they will not grant waivers of appraisals as they have done in the past, that they hire expert appraisers to validate what their own staff have come up with … value that will accrue to Galbut as a right of a height increase.”
 
“The PAC gives us a structure,” he continued. “It gives us the ability to accept contributions which will enable us to present our findings and our proposals in a much broader way than me, by individual emails, these [neighborhood] organizations by their individual websites.”
 
But first come the efforts of the Gateway Alliance community organization, which Del Vecchio said, was “incorporated for the purpose of education in the best sense. That is, educating Miami Beach residents to the law and the issues involved … What’s pending now before the City Commission are zoning issues, upzoning and transfer of floor area ratio, all matters that are addressed by the City charter and land use regulations.”
 
The political action committee, if needed, will be limited to Miami Beach legislation. To date, there have been no monetary contributions or expenditures. Del Vecchio is emphatic the group will not accept developer contributions. In addition, “Officers cannot be politicians or political candidates. It’s a true resident representative political committee. Nobody gets paid, there are no salaries,” Del Vecchio said.
 
While the organization and PAC began with one particular development project, Del Vecchio said he sees it continuing beyond it. “The issues that we’re championing are citywide so I see this as a PAC which is going to continue and it’s going to grow the more people understand this. It’s kind of a movement … to prevent our zoning from being ignored and superseded by some  in the name of resiliency when it’s an abuse.” This week, the group launched a website to introduce itself to the community.
 
PACs are generally not associated with grassroots movements here. Most recently, two groups dominated by business interests, Building a Stronger Beach and Citizens for a Safe Miami Beach, were set up to support the North Beach Town Center FAR increase (the former) and to defeat the Ocean Drive 2 am ordinance to close outdoor cafés early (the latter). Both of those groups achieved their desired outcomes.
 
But, while it is an unusual move, it is not unprecedented. In fact, the Gateway Alliance has its roots in Save Miami Beach, another grassroots organization and PAC set up in the late 90s to advocate for the very law Del Vecchio is trying to uphold.
 
Mark Needle, organizer and co-founder of the original Save Miami Beach twenty years ago, said South Beach was mostly transient. Residents were unorganized and did not have much of a voice. Outside of the Flamingo and Ocean Drive Historic Districts, there were no restrictions on development and corruption was part of the process. As high rises started to pop up in South Pointe, Needle said, there were attempts to work with the City on a proposal for a land swap with a developer. When a compromise failed, Needle and a group of citizens opposed to the taller buildings created the Save Miami Beach organization and PAC in the fall of 1996 to prevent the upzonings necessary to complete what they felt was a bad deal but also to create an effort that would be “framed to have relevance not just to that deal but to other parts of the City”.
 
Save Miami Beach was successful in getting an initiative on the ballot to change the City’s charter so that any increases in FAR would have to be approved by Miami Beach voters. Despite spending “less than $15,000” against a war chest that Needle said was $15 million, the initiative passed. Save Miami Beach wasn’t so much about education, he said, but about solving a problem. “We didn’t need money because we were providing a solution to a problem which everyone believed needed a solution,” he recounted. “It was a very threadbare grassroots operation at that time to get the initiative onto the ballot and advocate for that.” The money raised was used for campaign handouts.
 
Needle said the initiative still allows for growth, it just requires that increases in density be subject to a vote. “The public can evaluate the pros and cons,” he says.
 
Miami Beach in the 90s “was really ripe for more of a revolutionary moment,” Needle said.  “You had virtually universal sentiment amongst the large majority of people that development was somewhat out of control and heading in the wrong direction.”
 
Twenty years later, he said, developers are starting to “chip around the edges” of the law that Save Miami Beach worked to enact, “and see where we can squeeze things in here and there and how far we can push things before people react”.
 
The landscape is a bit different now. “In the late 90s,” Needle said, “there was not a single neighborhood organization in South Beach.” There were business associations, he said, including one in South Pointe to which he was appointed by the City as a resident representative “that was dominated by other interests”.
 
“One of the things I’m proudest of” is an article that appeared in The Daily Business Review, in which “they wrote that this was kind of the dawning of resident consciousness in an area that had long been dominated by special interests,” Needle said. “Now there are six or seven neighborhood organizations in South Beach and I think that is fantastic.”
 
Asked about the use of PACs by residents, Needle said, “I’m all for them. I think it’s one of the things that makes our area a little bit special is that we have the ability to initiate change, and a PAC is simply a tool to do that.”
 
“I definitely think that citizen organizing is one of the great things about democracy and having it happen on a local level is where people are most aware of the problems and the solutions,” he continued.
 
“PACs are used all the time in politics for candidates who represent any number of positions and issues. Where I think it gets more concentrated is when a PAC is organized around an issue,” he explained. “And it doesn’t have to be a PAC. It can be just a political coalition or organization that is formed to advocate for a particular need or reform,” like the Gateway Community Alliance which is both.
 
“The framework we put in place calls for elevating the discussion and having the public be able to approve any specific increases,” Needle said of the 1997 initiative.  “It put in place a process of making sure that those things aren’t decided by five people on the Commission but rather they’re decided by the Commissioners but then ultimately approved by the public.”
 
Speaking of the most recent FAR increase approved by voters for the North Beach Town Center and the current issue on Alton Road, Needle said, “When you talk about North Beach or possible efforts to skirt the public vote by vacating an alley or a street [on Alton Road], these are not really challenges to Save Miami Beach, they are resolutions of conflict under the framework that we set up. Vacating a street is a way of evading the power of the public to approve an increase in density so I would say that that is subject to legal challenge.”
 
“I think that the formation of a resident alliance to counter the deep pockets and unlimited patience of developers is really important,” Needle said. If developers are “successful in pushing the limits” he believes we will see more initiatives like the Gateway Alliance. “The resident involvement has definitely been increasing in all the time I’ve been here and I think will continue to increase because we have a very informed and educated and engaged civic population and we’re very sensitized to being impacted by all kinds of threats to quality of life, not just development, but uses, so that’s a definite progression that should continue over time,” Needle said. “The use of a particular tool depends on whether there’s a threat that’s continuing or not.”
 
 
 

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