Should Miami Beach increase non-conforming F.A.R. within Historic Buildings for adaptive reuse?

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Should Miami Beach increase non-conforming F.A.R. within Historic Buildings for adaptive reuse?:

Ballot question would allow new interior floor space in “cavernous spaces”

At RE:MiamiBeach we don't cover individual political campaigns but we do provide information on ballot questions. This year there are six questions for Miami Beach voters’ consideration. This week we look at Ballot Question #5.

Ballot question #5: Ordinance authorizing new floor area within interior of historic buildings for adaptive reuse
The question from the City’s voter's guide:
Floor area ratio (“FAR”) is the measure the City utilizes to regulate the overall size of a building.
Currently, new floor area cannot be added to the interior of historic buildings that have no available floor area, unless the City’s voters approve an FAR increase, pursuant to Charter Section 1.03(c). 
Shall City Commission adopt an Ordinance authorizing the use of new floor area within historic buildings for the adaptive reuse of such buildings?

What is FAR?
Very simply, FAR (Floor Area Ratio) measures density. It 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. 
With regard to this question, the voter’s guide explains that “'Floor area’ generally means the sum of the horizontal areas of the floors of a building.”
Why this question is on the ballot:
City Planning Director Tom Mooney at a recent meeting of the Commission’s Land Use and Development Committee said, if voters approve the question, Commissioners could enact an ordinance that would allow additional interior floor space to be added to historic buildings, subject to the approval of the Historic Preservation Board.
Mooney cited older buildings that may have had floor plates removed to create more volumetric space, for example a hotel where the floors were removed to make way for a more warehouse-type structure. Most of the examples given were old theaters that may be closed or underutilized.

“We believe from a policy standpoint it is very worthwhile,” Mooney said, adding “It should be very limited in its application.”
Land Use Chair Commissioner John Alemán called it “a cavernous spaces ordinance.” A number of historic buildings, she said, have such large spaces that can only be “a nightclub or be a rentable party space that promoters will use to promote club-type events during high impact periods which is something that has been really a chronic problem in recent years in the City so I think it makes a lot of sense.”
Mooney emphasized the ordinance is about adding interior floor plates without impacting a building’s exterior and that “height was never the intent and the ballot question does not contemplate that. The purpose of this was to grant some latitude for the interiors of these spaces.”
“More importantly, the introduction of these floor plates would require the review and approval of the Historic Preservation Board so if the HPB identified any significant areas that could be compromised, they simply wouldn’t permit the introduction of floorplates,” Mooney said. He added that without interior building surveys it would be “impossible to know how many buildings it could affect” but 300 Lincoln road, Mansion, the Paris Theater, Roosevelt Theater, Beach Cinema, Lincoln Theater, Carib theater, and the Bancroft were among examples listed.
Mooney said the Planning Department has considered the idea for some time, saying it gives “much more flexibility for these interior spaces that, up until now, a lot of them have just not been used and people haven’t been able to do much with them.”
“If they just sit there vacant, you run the risk of the property falling into demolition by neglect,” he said.
Commissioner Ricky Arriola agreed. “It’s good policy. We know we have some really beautiful historic buildings that are not used. They’re boarded up. It affects the entire block and one of the things I worry about long-term is demolition by neglect… How long does the Roosevelt stay dormant and what does that do for 41st street or the Paris Theater? To the outside eye, you will never know what’s happening on the interior and if it creates some economic vitality and use, that’s good public policy. Why is this so complicated?” he asked.
In the staff memo accompanying the ballot question to Commissioners in July, potential requirements to control the scope of floor plate additions were suggested including:
  • The regulations shall only apply to existing structures that are classified as ‘contributing’ in the city’s historic properties database, and which are located within a locally designated historic district or site.
  • Establishing a maximum square footage on non-conforming FAR that can be added to a contributing building. This could be a fixed amount of square footage, or a percentage of the existing floor area.
  • Establishing minimum criteria for restoration and substantial rehabilitation, as well as the long term protection of the structure.
Alemán said at the Committee meeting, “I think the community cherishes these historic theaters and other spaces… Again, any implementation would go to the HPB and they would have absolute control over it.”
“This is a preservation ordinance to keep these beautiful theaters and other cavernous spaces that are historic from being neglected because there’s no use other than sort of a nightclub party space,” she said.
The City’s leading preservation organization disagrees and opposes the ballot question. In a position statement, the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) indicated, “It is unclear what the enabling legislation would look like after voters give their approval to this ballot question. The voters would be authorizing the city to adopt an ordinance, but there are not specifics on the ordinance to be adopted. For example, if theaters are to be adapted, would interior historic features be preserved? For this reason, we suggest a No vote.”
Residents' group Miami Beach United also urges a no vote citing an “overly broad” question that “fail[s] to adequately explain the propositions or the reasoning behind them. This leaves open the possibility of Commission overreach on the specific details when drafting the enacting ordinance.”

For more on the ballot questions and election info, click here.

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