drb decisions get scrutiny

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

drb decisions get scrutiny:

commission supports two, will hear appeal another

Several recent decisions by the Design Review Board were under the microscope this week at the Miami Beach City Commission meeting. In two out of three cases their decisions were upheld. A third – an appeal of the approval for large digital super graphic signs on 1212 Lincoln Road – will be heard in January.
1212 Lincoln Road variance for 175 s.f. hotel rooms
First up was a request by the City Manager and Planning Director for guidance on whether or not an appeal should be filed with regard to a variance for smaller hotel rooms – 175 s.f. – at the proposed 1212 Lincoln Road project. Earlier this month, the owners indicated plans to bring a CitizenM Hotel to the property to cater to business travellers. The CitizenM model utilizes small rooms with amenities located in the public spaces including a coffee bar and “subdued lobby for the business traveller that wants to grab a beer or a nice cocktail after work,” Tyler Lavin of CitzenM told the DRB on October 3rd.  “We’re not trying to create a party scene,” he said. The CitizenM guest “is in bed by 10:00 because they’re on a flight the next morning to London at 7 am.”
“We’re going for A+ locations because we want to have out our front door all the amenities that we’ve stripped out of the hotel,” he said. “The great food and beverage, the shopping, the arts, and that’s really what we’re seeking and that’s why 1212 is such a natural complement for us.”
At the DRB presentation, attorney Michael Larkin said the variance would increase the number of rooms from 100 to 168 but that the owners agreed to limit the occupancy in each room to two people so instead of an allowable occupancy of four people in 100 rooms for a maximum total of 400 guests, there would be a maximum of two people per 168 rooms, or 336 guests at the hotel.
At the Commission meeting this week, the discussion centered on two items: whether or not the City should amend its Code to allow for 175 s.f. rooms for CD-2 properties along the Alton Road corridor and remove requests for these rooms from the land use board variance process and, separately, if the decision for 1212 Lincoln Road was proper.
Commissioner Joy Malakoff said she thought the current review process on a case-by-case basis was the best way to handle these requests. She acknowledged smaller hotel rooms are “a new standard throughout the country” but, she said, “There are a couple of companies that are specializing in these smaller hotel units and they have different criteria that go with it.” She noted the Ian Schrager hotel model. “They have several restaurants and bars in their public spaces and the small rooms. I don’t think that that’s something we want on Alton Road which is near West Avenue which is gonna emit a lot of noise, a lot of people dining and drinking at night. I don’t think we need to introduce that on Alton at that point.” The other models, like the CitizenM model, she said, “are fine to have on Alton Road but I hesitate to allow the sub par hotel units as a blanket on Alton.” A similar ordinance was passed for Washington Avenue “because there had been no redevelopment, no renovations, nothing happening on Washington Avenue”, she said. “We wanted to bring back Washington Avenue so we did allow it there to get some investors interested in bringing back and restoring the buildings and adding hotel units …  I don’t believe we need that at Alton Road.”
Commissioner John Alemán raised the issue after the one dissenting vote on the DRB said he thought the matter should be handled legislatively rather than through a variance to the code. Her concern with decisions being made case by case, she said, is that she doesn’t want it to be about “who you know and if you’ve got a friend on the Commission or you’ve got a friend on the DRB, then you’re able to get a project passed that doesn’t meet the zoning. I would rather see this go through the proper planning consideration process.”
Malakoff reiterated, “I think it should go through the variance process. I would rather have DRB or HPB [Historic Presevation Board] … to look at the particular hotel operations to see if it makes sense” rather than have it be a blanket approval as part of the code.
City Manager Jimmy Morales then asked the Commission if it wanted to appeal the DRB ruling on the variance granted to 1212 Lincoln. Variance appeals would be made to Circuit Court.
Planning Director Tom Mooney said that staff had recommended to the developer that rather than seek a variance, they should look at the Code and come before the Commission. Mooney said, “They elected to go through the variance process and were awarded.”
Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalaz said she did some research on CitizenM after hearing about the project. “It’s a really cool concept,” she told her colleagues. “It’s smaller rooms but they’re super luxurious and it’s a Millennial type of hotel. I think that this is the type of business and the type of people that we want to attract to come to Miami Beach so we should encourage these kinds of projects.”
There was general agreement from the Commissioners. Ricky Arriola said, “As far as these small hotel units are concerned, it is a trend. I think as a tourist destination, we have to be open to all kinds of products and innovation in the market and I think the small hotel rooms, there’s a place for it and it attracts tourists. Tourists want it.” He noted that when he travels to New York he sometimes stays in a hotel with smaller rooms. “I’m okay staying in a small room because I’m basically just going to sleep in it”, going out to eat or see a show. “There’s a product for that and I think we have to make sure we have sufficient product for our tourist market whether they’re larger hotel rooms for families or smaller hotel rooms for folks who plan to be out at the beach all day. We have to accommodate what the tourist market needs and so something like this should be studied and we’ll craft appropriate zoning to accommodate for it,” he said.
Morales responded, “It sounds to me like there’s not an appetite to appeal the [DRB] decision. You’re okay with it at that location.”
Arriola asked, “I’m just curious why we’re appealing this. Who and what is driving this? I fully support it and DRB did as well, so why are we appealing something like this?”
“The reason we put it on the agenda,” Mooney said “was to bring to your attention that this significant variance had been granted and while we’re still in an appeal period we just wanted to make sure that we properly vetted it with you to see if there was an appetite for the manager to file an appeal. If there’s not then we’ll clearly just leave it alone.”
By unanimous vote, the Commission voted not to appeal the decision. The discussion about whether smaller rooms should be part of the Code or remain part of a variance process was referred to the Commission’s Land Use Development Committee for further study.
Digital Super Graphic Mural Ordinance
While City Manager Morales has indicated he intends to appeal the DRB decision to waive the maximum size of two LED super graphic signs for the 1212 Lincoln Road project, Commissioner Malakoff raised the question of whether the DRB should have the ability to make that decision and proposed an amendment to the ordinance removing that authority.
“In what was passed in the sign ordinance,” she said, “it gave the Design Review Board the ability to waive the size. I think that’s wrong. I recommend rescinding the Design Review Board’s ability to waive the size of digital super graphic signs and murals.” Under the ordinance passed last year, the maximum size permitted is 100 s.f. unless an exemption is granted by the DRB or HPB. There are two LED signs proposed for 1212 Lincoln Road: one 24’ 11’ wide by 43’ 3” high or approximately 1,000 s.f. and a second of 90’ 8” wide by 37’ 9” high or approximately 3,300 s.f.  Of the larger one, Malakoff said, “I think it’s egregiously too large and I recommend taking away that ability to waive the size.”
Commissioner Micky Steinberg said there needs to be more comprehensive guidelines that include both size and content. “If super graphics are going to be the trend going forward we really need to be very mindful and careful because we don’t want to open up the door to, as we’ve discussed many times before, to tweety birds on the side of a building perhaps showing up or some other things that have happened without any control of this body.” She recommended sending the item to committee to “work on real guidelines and have a dialogue about preventing tweety bird on the side of buildings.”
While Malakoff argued they are two separate issues, the City attorney pointed out that rescinding the DRB authority would require an ordinance change which would need to be vetted through Committee so both conversations were referred to the Land Use Development Committee for further review. (At the DRB meeting approving the signs, Board member John Bodnar suggested the City take on a review of the content process rather than approving proposed content for the signs now. “Three years from now [when the project will be up and running],” he said, “a really fantastic, interesting, fascinating curated whole agenda can be put out there, right? And we would like that to happen.”)
In response to a question from Daniel Ciraldo, Executive Director of the Miami Design Preservation League, Morales said he planned to bring the appeal of the sign waiver before the Commission, probably at its January meeting. In this case, because it did not involve a variance, the appeal will be heard by the Commission.
Ciraldo added, he supported an ordinance change “instead of saying altogether it’s not possible but having the Commission to approve it rather than the Design Review Board.”
Steinberg responded, “And that’s what I want to come up with, those guidelines at Land Use so that we have a 'it’s not one size fits all situation.'”
2120 Lucerne Ave, approval to replace an existing pre-1942 house
Finally, the Commission heard an appeal from neighbors of an approved project for 2120 Lucerne Avenue on Sunset Island.
Chief Deputy City Attorney Eve Boutsis told Commissioners, “This is the first time in over three years, if not four or five years, that you’ve had a DRB appeal.”
Arriola said, “That seems unusual” having three issues raised now.
The main concern raised by attorney Tucker Gibbs, representing the neighbors, is the compatibility of the “three level, single family home” noting the original application did not meet 4 of the 18 criteria for consideration. He stated, “In relation to the surrounding community”, it is “not compatible for mass and scale”.
Alfredo Gonzalez, attorney for the homeowners, characterized the design as a “two-story house” noting “It is actually the first house on Sunset Islands that addresses sea level rise after this Commission, with their foresight, took on the effort of adding freeboard up to five feet.” Under the City’s new guidelines for resiliency, new structures must be built at a minimum of base flood elevation (BFE) plus one foot and up to five feet. The design approved by the DRB is for the maximum allowable elevation of BFE plus five. Prior to the new rules, Gonzalez said, homes were not elevated. He argued that through the DRB process, compromises were made and the design eventually met all 18 criteria.
Nick Kallergis from the City Attorney’s Office, acting as Counsel to the DRB, told the Commission that all rules and ordinances were followed.
Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez said, “On a macro level, I completely understand because a house gets built next door to our regular size houses and they’re out of scale. I’m having one built next door to me and, I mean, it’s ruined my home. I have people looking over into my pool now. I’ve lost all my privacy so I’m like the worst person to have an appeal like this come up … I understand you. It’s awful but I think my responsibility here, even if I hate the Code and voted against it and lost, I have a responsibility to just look at the facts.”
While expressing concern about its compatibility with its neighbors from a height perspective, Malakoff said, “This is what houses are going to look like in the future in Miami Beach, in Miami, in all of South Florida. As sea level continues to rise, any homes that are built anywhere near the water, built on limestone, have to have the three levels. We don’t want stilt houses like in Key West. Personally I don’t think that belongs in Miami Beach … The first level has to be built in an attractive way to the neighborhood as much as possible and yet be open or surrounded by lattice work in some way so that it works in the neighborhood. That’s why I think this is a well designed home but they have to be higher and, yes, my house isn’t tall. Kristen’s house isn’t tall. Any of the older houses built in the 20s to 30s, even the 50s and 60s are going to be shorter than the new homes but new homes have to be built taller because that’s the future of South Florida.”
Mayor Philip Levine said, “My opinion is I do not in any shape or imagination have any lack of confidence in our Planning Director or in our DRB board. I believe that they followed the law and I’m going to not in any way vote to overturn this. As a matter of fact, I think it’s a magnificent home.”
Arriola concluded, “The DRB followed the rules and we all appoint the DRB and we empower them to make these kinds of decisions. I’m loathe to overturn something that was studied fully, argued, and it seems like there was a lot of back and forth and compromises given and if they followed the rules according to our City Attorney, I am not going to overturn this.”
The initial vote to uphold the DRB decision was 6-0 with Commissioner Michael Grieco absent. Once the tally was completed, Rosen Gonzalez changed her vote saying, “Make mine a nay. It doesn’t matter anyway. I get you. I’m sorry” she told the neighbors.