Miami Beach City Commissioners approved a 250-ft height limit for a tower in the City’s Faena District that is proposed to be an Aman Hotel and Residences. The previous allowable height was 203 feet, but developers Len Blavatnik and Vlad Doronin sought the height increase to allow a taller, slimmer tower that the development team argued would provide greater view corridors and have less impact on the historic Versailles Hotel which will be restored as part of the new project.
Neisen Kasdin, Akerman LLP Miami Office Managing Partner, said, “Without the overlay amendments which increase height but also significantly decrease the setbacks from the north side and the south side of the property, there is literally no room to build any additional construction without jamming it up against the historic structure.”
“This is much better from a preservation perspective and from a planning perspective for the development [of the property],” he told Commissioners. Kasdin reminded them that the Planning Board in August gave a favorable recommendation to the text amendment.
The Commission vote took place a day after the Historic Preservation Board (HPB) voted 6-0 to oppose the amendment indicating it won’t be an easy path for the project when it gets to them for design approval. The Board has the final say on height and, as the members demonstrated with the recent Raleigh Hotel project, they are not afraid to push back. In that case, they refused to approve the allowable height of 200 feet given by Commissioners last year for a new luxury residential tower and, instead, negotiated a 175 structure to be constructed on the site of the historic Raleigh, South Seas, and Richmond Hotels. Following that situation and the new text amendments for the Aman Hotel, the Board flexed its muscles further, passing a resolution that any future changes to the City’s Land Development Regulations pertaining to height, massing and scale in historic districts should come to the HPB for review before the Planning Board and before being voted upon by the City Commission.
Mayor Dan Gelber and Commissioners emphasized the fact that the project would still go through the rigor of being reviewed by the HPB but, by a vote of 5-2, indicated their support for a taller, slimmer building on the site with open view corridors and resiliency benefits proffered by the developers. In addition to restoring the Versailles Hotel at 3425 Collins Avenue, they are offering to pay for nine new injection wells in the Indian Creek basin as part of the City’s efforts to mitigate flooding and pay for restoration of the Jack Stewart “Apollo” mural that was removed from the old annex to the Versailles and install it at a location of the City’s choice, if the HPB approval is secured.
Fran Scola, CFO of OKO, the developer of the project, assured Commissioners of Doronin’s commitment. Doronin, the sole owner of OKO and the ultra-luxury Aman brand, is a Miami Beach resident. “This is where he’s bringing up his children,” Scola said. “That means this is a bit of a passion project for him.”
“This is not one of our most profitable projects by any means,” he noted. “To give you an indication of what’s involved in bringing an Aman to Miami Beach, the cost per hotel room of this project is predicted to be just under $5M to build each hotel room. That is the level of commitment and the level of luxury that we’re trying to bring here to Miami Beach.”
“He is willing to go forward with this project as long as he doesn’t lose money. I think he’d be happy to even come close to break-even because of its location and as long as the project doesn’t damage the Aman brand because, that brand, he paid a lot of money for. It means a lot to him,” Scola said. “He really wants to do this project but certain things need to happen in order for that to go forward and that is he needs to be able to have a project that he won’t lose money on and he needs to have a project that does not damage the brand. And that’s why we’re here today, in order to get those elements that we need to be successful.”
In opposing the project, Daniel Ciraldo, Executive Director of the Miami Design Preservation League, said, “I know Mr. Doronin bought an expensive brand, but he’s also going into a city that has a really important brand to protect, one of scale and sensibility.”
Attorney Tucker Gibbs reiterated the opposition of the King David Towers at 3411 Indian Creek Drive. Calling the proposed height “out of scale with the Faena District,” he reminded Commissioners the decision was not about an Aman Hotel but about the zoning of the property “that could allow a number of different projects, not just this one” and he urged them to fully “understand the building envelope that can be built under the amendment.”
Jack Finglass as HPB Chair voted unfavorably on the amendment at the HPB meeting on Tuesday. At the Commission meeting the next day, speaking as an individual, he urged the Commission to deny it. “We are in Miami Beach and not in New York or Sunny Isles,” he said. “The Versailles is the centerpiece jewel of this district and must not be overshadowed by this monstrous megalith that’s proposed at 250 feet.” He, too, focused on the amendment going with the property and cautioned, “It may not be Aman, it could wind up being a Hilton.”
Speaking for three condominium associations in support, Steve Gombinski said, “It will significantly enhance the quality of our neighborhood.” He noted the Caribbean Condominium Association along with the Mosaic and Beach House 8, all within two to four blocks of the proposed development, “strongly support” it.
“The proposed project will not only allow the Versailles to be magnificently restored and add a beautiful residential tower bringing significant and much needed property, resort, and sales tax to the city, [it] will also provide significant amenities to its condominium neighbors" as well as an increase in property values.
Tom Stern, president of the Board of the Faena House which is directly adjacent to the development site, said the condominium association remains “strongly opposed” to the increase in height and reduction in setbacks. The height increase is “entirely incompatible and negatively impacts the historic district, overlay district, and the historic Versailles Hotel,” he said.
“The legislation you vote on today could very well set an unnecessary precedent and open the door to a wide array of applications for oversized developments in historic districts,” he stated.
Stern pointed to the HPB opinion, noting, “The strong comments and unanimous vote made by the HPB members at yesterday’s hearing makes clear it is highly unlikely that they will approve a project consistent with the proposed text amendment.” He implored the Commission to vote it down saying it would “set a terrible precedent for Miami Beach.”
Nancy Liebman, another HPB member, said she wanted to “reinforce what we on the Historic Preservation Board did yesterday and that was a total denial of the Faena Overlay.”
“Developers, in general, have lost all concept of what it is to be in a historic district,” Liebman said. “The project, as it is, is outrageous. It’s like the City is hungering for high rises because they think that that is going to save their economy. I have never heard – and I have lived a long time – I have never heard of such a concept to try to make a city better. It is the historic district that has made Miami Beach great and it’s time that we stop the nonsense and go back to the concepts of preservation.”
During Commission discussion, Ricky Arriola said, “I’ve been pretty consistent. Height is not my bogeyman, within reason, and in this case, it is consistent with the neighborhood... Other buildings within the district are just as tall. It’s a great brand for Miami Beach. It’s consistent with what’s already been created with the Faena District so I’m very supportive of this.”
Commissioner Michael Góngora, who noted he is typically opposed to height increases, likes this particular project. “In my mind, having the Aman brand in Miami Beach elevates the Faena District and, therefore, elevates our city.”
“There are a number of people that I respect that are opposed to this project and I respect their opinions,” Góngora said. “And, quite frankly, I think the project’s going to have a hard time at the Historic Preservation Board based upon their, kind of, outward rejection of it at yesterday’s meeting.”
“To me this is one of the more minor height requests that actually gives something back to the community,” he said noting the proffer of installing the injection wells which he called “an important public benefit” along with the restoration of the Stewart mural.
Commissioner David Richardson pressed for a commitment last month during first reading of the amendment that the City wouldn’t find itself in a bait and switch situation after approving the height increase for the property.
Kasdin noted a letter had been sent to the Commission from the developer affirming “the purpose of the venture to create an Aman Resort and Residences.” He said he was “a little bemused by some of the comments about what this could be other than an Aman hotel.” With “the cost of doing 56 rooms of unusual size and extraordinary amenities” expected to be almost $5M per room, “this is not going to become a Holiday Inn,” he said.
Richardson said he understood that, but he wanted to ensure that “if we greenlight this and it moves forward, the project doesn’t change and you build $200,000 rooms.”
Scola told Richardson, “Vlad [Doronin] owns 100% of Aman and he is not here to build anyone else’s brand… We’re only here to build our brand if we get what we think we need to go forward.”
After Richardson pressed for a way to tie the approval to Aman, City Attorney Raul Aguila said, “You have to be comfortable with the proposed zoning changes and not base your approval on the project.”
Kasdin offered to make the Aman brand part of the site plan approval process before the HPB. In that case, if there were any changes in the future, those changes would have to come back for approval. “We could include that as a condition with respect to the site plan approval. That’s the whole purpose of this venture so there’s no reason we couldn’t say that as part of the site plan approval,” he said.
Mayor Dan Gelber said “I’m not deeply concerned that this is going to become a different project. I think it is going to be an Aman because nobody spends this much time trying to do all this if they’re not pretty interested in doing it. It would be an enormous waste of time.”
“I am excited about this brand and I am excited about this district which I think has become a real cultural district and an anchor right in the vicinity of Collins Park and Mid-Beach so it’s really a very important area,” Gelber said.
“I appreciate the concerns of the neighbors… but I think this is a very modest change and one that carries a good amount of benefit for the community and one that is, by the way, extremely consistent with what Urban Land Institute told us we should be doing and what we have been doing which is to try to create more views and vistas at the ground level of our beautiful city and our beaches,” he said.
Commissioner Steven Meiner wondered about the HPB opinion. “They’re likely to shoot it down,” he said.
Planning Director Tom Mooney responded, “I wouldn’t want to prejudge the [Certificate of Appropriateness] application which will contain significantly more detail and probably renderings that will address any issues.”
“The HP Board could potentially require a lower height… whether they would or not, I’m sure they would be objective about it and wait before the application got before them,” he noted.
“It does make me a bit uneasy,” Meiner said. “I do believe we’re exposed here somewhat. We’re approving a height increase that will stay in perpetuity… without any certainties this will be the project that goes forward. I think we’re all excited about Aman but not anything else.”
Commissioner Micky Steinberg said, “I don’t believe this is going to be a bait and switch… I believe the intent is pure and clean.” That said, Steinberg added, “I have a hard time wrapping my arms around supporting [the height increase].”
“This is a tough one,” Commissioner Mark Samuelian said. “Clearly there are some important tradeoffs. I’m actually more comfortable with what we’re doing today because I know it’s going back to HPB and, in the end, they get the final review.”
“At the end of the day, this zoning change is in the long-term interest of the City,” he said.
Final vote, 5-2 with Meiner and Steinberg voting no.
*Renderings are concepts and are not full design drawings. Those will be presented when the project gets to the HPB.
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