Miami Beach will appeal decision that overturned 40 years of density calculations

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Miami Beach will appeal decision that overturned 40 years of density calculations:

Impact is citywide but was specific to 500 Alton Road project which is now in limbo

Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales informed Commissioners he intends to initiate an appeal of last week’s ruling by the Board of Adjustment to redefine how density is calculated in the City. The Board agreed with the developers of 500 Alton Road that elevator shafts, stairwells, and mechanical chutes and chases should not be included in the calculation of Floor Area Ratio or FAR, the measure Miami Beach uses to calculate density. The Board’s decision overturned 40 years of City precedent for measuring density.

Following the ruling, developer Russell Galbut said his team would begin construction before the end of the year on the 500 Alton Road project which includes a public park deeded to the City but an appeal, he said, would delay the construction start date.
The ruling, if it stands, would allow Galbut and partner David Martin to have two additional floors within their proposed 519-foot tower. Due to the height and footprint of the building being set within the development agreement with the City, the additional FAR would not impact its size as viewed from the outside, but rather allow for more floors within the building. Galbut and Martin want 40. The current FAR measurement criteria would allow for 38, according to Galbut.
“The City Attorney will be scheduling a meeting with Appellants’ counsel this week to discuss next steps,” Morales wrote in his letter to Commissioners, noting the limbo the City is in between the election and the next Commission meeting in December. “At my first opportunity following the election, I will bring this matter before the City Commission for a full briefing and presentation of potential options, solutions, and next steps, including, but not limited to, continuation or withdrawal of the appeal.”
Reacting to the appeal, Galbut said, “This was a real win for the home owners and property owners of our community. We hope the city will expedite this silliness and move forward quickly in the interest of Miami Beach residents.”
Neisen Kasdin, former Miami Beach Mayor and now Managing Partner of Akerman's Miami office represents the developers. As he did at the hearing, he again emphasized that the ruling is not about 500 Alton Road but about the definition of how FAR is calculated. Elevator shafts, stairwells, and mechanical chutes, he said, represent “a very, very small part of any building so the impact on Miami Beach, I would say, is nonexistent or virtually nonexistent.”
But, he said, “The other side will say the sky is falling,” 
One of the voices on the “other side” is the residents’ group Miami Beach United (MBU). Board President Tanya Bhatt said, “This feels like it is, once again, an end run around the [City] charter” which requires that residents vote on any increases in FAR. The Charter, she said, “puts it in the hands of the public to make these decisions that affect their quality of life and it just doesn’t feel like that is what happened here.”
Saul Gross, an MBU Board member, former City Commissioner, and real estate developer said, “In my personal opinion, the level of development and traffic that we are currently experiencing on Miami Beach is more than our city can handle comfortably. I believe it is a violation of the Miami Beach charter to increase the allowable FAR on all future projects, without first getting approval by a majority of the electorate. Given that Beach residents voted last week against increasing FAR on Washington Avenue and Alton Road, I seriously doubt that a majority of Beach residents would vote in favor of this increase in FAR which will increase density and traffic.” The ballot question Gross referenced would have allowed the same incentives to increase FAR for office uses as are now given to hotel uses on parts of Washington Avenue and Alton Road.
“At the end of the day, it is a policy decision on whether a City wants to be more generous in their interpretation of what is excluded from the FAR calculation for the purpose of giving developers the right to build more habitable square footage in their project,” Gross said. “I estimate that the decision of the zoning board to allow the developer of the 500-600 Alton project to build an additional 21,000 square feet of habitable space was a $21 million dollar benefit,” a value he arrived at by multiplying the additional 21,000 sq ft of habitable space the developer would have if the ruling stands by $1,000 per sq ft.
Kasdin said the decision is not about 500 Alton Road but the definition of FAR. “They just happened to be the party that had the willingness to challenge the definition. Others in the past wouldn’t have because they had to get their projects approved and they couldn’t wait two years for a court proceeding to be resolved… it’s really about the definition.”
The ruling, he said, would mean “virtually infinitesimal changes to the built environment of Miami Beach. The other thing is there’s not that much development activity going on in Miami Beach. There are very few projects coming through the pipeline [and] very few that could take advantage of it.”
Gross disagrees. “The more FAR you have, the bigger drive there will to increase height so that [developers] can use all of the FAR.”
John Stuart is a Professor with FIU’s Sea Level Solutions Center, Executive Director at the Miami Beach Urban Studios at the College of Communication, Architecture + the Arts (CARTA), and a member of the FIU President’s Climate Commitment Task Force. Until the end of December when he is term-limited out, Stuart is a member of the Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board. He viewed the Board of Adjustment ruling through his perspective on resiliency.
“In some of Miami Beach’s historic districts, a ruling that excludes stairwells, elevator shafts and mechanical chutes and chases from FAR calculations may make it easier for building owners to address sea level rise and preservation issues,” he said. “I could imagine that these changes to the calculations, particularly on smaller historic sites, might provide enhanced economic viability for creative projects that showcase historic structures and feature innovations that are highly accessible, flexible and resilient.”
Jack Johnson, Chair of the Miami Design Preservation League, the City’s leading preservation organization, said the MDPL Board has not yet taken a position on the ruling.
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