improve your building, keep your F.A.R.?

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

improve your building, keep your F.A.R.?:

commissioners say change needed to keep buildings from falling into disrepair

The City Commission’s Land Use and Development Committee is interested in testing the waters with voters on an amendment that would allow legal but non-conforming FAR buildings (translation: buildings larger than could be built today) to undertake major renovations while keeping their FAR (maintaining their current size). Commissioners say the change is necessary to ensure buildings don’t fall into disrepair. They’ve also asked staff to draft a ballot question to provide bonus FAR for the construction of workforce housing.
A bit of explanation and history first:
FAR (Floor Area Ratio) is calculated by taking the total gross area of a building divided by the gross area of the lot on which it is built. Within the City of Miami Beach, the amount of allowable FAR varies by zoning district. A higher ratio indicates a denser building. In Miami Beach, RM-1 districts, which are residential multifamily, low intensity areas, have a maximum FAR of 1.25. In RM-3 districts, multifamily, high intensity areas, FAR limits range from 2.0 to 3.0.

Due to previous downzonings, there are a number of larger buildings in the City that were constructed when the allowable FAR was much higher. These buildings are now considered legal, with non-conforming FAR.
As many of them now need repairs, they are caught between their non-conforming FAR and building regulations which state that making improvements totaling more than 50% of the value of the building is considered new construction which must be built to current code. In the case of the non-conforming buildings, that means they would have to be demolished and only buildings that complied with the lower FAR (e.g. smaller) could be built to replace them.
In 2001 City voters approved a Charter Amendment requiring a public vote for any increase in FAR beyond the limits allowed at that time.
Which brings us to the discussion held by the Land Use and Development Committee last week. Commissioners Joy Malakoff and John Alemán were reviewing proposed recommendations from the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Sea Level Rise to include resiliency requirements for non-conforming FAR buildings. The recommendations were greatly curtailed after the City attorney’s office determined they would require voter approval.
Two proposals were deleted. The first would allow property owners that had legal non-conforming FAR (the buildings larger than could be built today) to do a renovation in excess of the 50% rule to retain their non-conforming FAR (meaning they wouldn’t have to tear it down and build a smaller building). The second proposal would allow owners of these non-conforming FAR buildings to relocate spaces within their existing property as long as the current FAR was not exceeded (in other words, you can move a space such as a courtyard to another area on the property as long as you didn’t increase the actual size of the building).
Commissioner Malakoff said she thought it was worth a try with voters, “because it doesn’t make sense to me if people are just moving the FAR from one part of the property to another part of the property, that’s not adding FAR. I don’t understand why the public wouldn’t agree to do it.”
Commissioner Alemán agreed. She said it is common sense that after a downzoning, there would be buildings that are larger than what you can build today which isn’t an issue. “The problem,” Alemán said, “is that the owners of those buildings cannot substantially improve those buildings because if they do, they’ll have to bring them down. And no one in their right mind would ever do that.” As a result, she said sustainability and resiliency will not be incorporated into these buildings and without any improvements, they will simply decay. “Eventually,” she said, “we’ll have a bad storm event and everyone who lives in that building will be displaced. And that is not the right answer. I really think it doesn’t pass the common sense test.” Alemán acknowledged it’s a high hurdle to help voters understand what can be a complex topic, “but if there was some way for the voters to understand this issue, I think it would pass,” she said.
Malakoff agreed. “Having voters understand it is going to be the most difficult part because it is complex. You can’t just put something in [simple ballot language].”
However, she thinks it’s necessary to ensure basic fire and life safety improvements get done. “They aren’t getting done because of the expense and the potential loss of FAR,” she said.
Malakoff added, “It’s not an increase in zoning FAR because, in fact, the FAR is existing. It’s not increasing it, it’s what’s there today. To me it just seems logical.”
The Commissioners asked the City attorney to begin drafting a ballot question to allow the non-conforming FAR buildings to retain their FAR if improvements exceeded 50% of the value of the building and to move spaces within their property as long as the current FAR was not exceeded.
They then added another: the ability to allow bonus FAR as an incentive to create workforce housing.
Malakoff said, “Other cities give more density for workforce housing … almost every city that I’ve looked at.”
The issue is being added as a discussion item for the April 26th City Commission meeting.

For further information:
Zoning information with links to the code delineating FAR for each zone.
Planning Department Q&A, scroll down for info on FAR