Developer Robert Finvarb wants to swap alley space with city in North Beach

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Developer Robert Finvarb wants to swap alley space with city in North Beach:

Plan would allow for single building fronting 72nd Street

Developer Robert Finvarb who wants to build a mixed-use project on almost an entire block bounded by Abbott and Byron Avenues between 71st and 72nd Streets is proposing an alley relocation in order to build one continuous building fronting on 72nd Street facing the North Shore Park and Youth Center. If approved, it could be the first project to be built in the North Beach Town Center. (Photo above shows the Abbott Avenue side of the property.)
Officially, it’s called an alley vacation but, in this case, Finvarb wants to swap some of his space for City space in two alleys resulting in a net gain in right of way space to the City. He also proposes creating the first bioswale in Miami Beach to facilitate water collection and purification in heavy rains as a public benefit.
At the Commission’s Finance Committee meeting earlier this month, Public Works Director Roy Coley said, “The alley vacation may be better described as an alley relocation” which would turn a straight pass-through in the middle of the property into a curved one exiting on Byron.

(Article continues following the renderings below which illustrate the proposed change.)

Aerial view of the property showing alley bisecting the block between 71st and 72nd Streets

Drawing showing proposed curved right of way

Attorney Michael Larkin explained, “We’re dedicating to the City a 40-foot wide area of our property on the southwest side. Twenty feet of that will be the alley we will construct. The other 20 feet of that will be the bioswale.”
“A bioswale is a more evolved catch basin,” he said. “Typical catch basins are fine [but] with a bioswale you get the additional value of having the plants within the bioswale purify the water to a much greater degree before it reaches the aquifer.”
Larkin emphasized, “The development rights will remain with the alley and bioswale. We’re not taking them into our property.”

Without an alley running through the property Finvarb would be able to construct one building fronting on 72nd Street.
In his remarks Finvarb noted he was born and raised in North Beach. “I know this area inside and out. It’s pretty much the same. It has been since I was 5, 10, 15 years old.”
“The request, in my humble opinion, is a benign request for the vacation of this alley. It’s going to allow us to execute a better project,” he said. “One of the objectives of the Town Center is to activate 72nd Street, to activate that as a corridor that connects the park and the bandshell.”
“If we’re unable to vacate that alley, it’s going to be next to impossible for me to promote an outdoor café and activate the 72nd Street frontage of our property because you’re basically going to have vehicles entering and exiting mid-block,” he said.
“I’m ready to go,” Finvarb told the Finance Committee. “I’ve committed to get this project moving. As soon as we’re able to complete the alley vacation, we will move… I just want to get this thing done.”
If the alley has to remain, the only type of project that he could build, he said, would be a parking garage and standard residential building (see below).

(Article continues after rendering.)

Without alley vacation, rendering of what Finvarb says can be built on the site

Architect Ray Fort of Arquitectonica referenced the “idea of hierarchy among the streets in Town Center, one of the best things out of the [design guideline] process.”
Those guidelines classify 72nd Street as an “A” street and Byron as a “B” street with the idea that the A streets would be prioritized for activation and walkability. Putting “a garage on that frontage doesn’t really make sense in our opinion,” Fort said, hence the request for the alley relocation to make a turn to the west, creating a garage entrance on Byron, the “B” Street. And that would allow the Abbott and 72nd sides to be lined with continuous retail.
City Manager Jimmy Morales, also born and raised in Miami Beach, echoed Finvarb’s observations. “Nothing has happened on that street since I was kid and that’s a long time ago!” He said the proposal was “very consistent" with the North Beach Master Plan and the bioswale is “something we can study and see how it works” as part of the City’s resiliency initiatives.
“If you talk about something being a catalyst project, this could be the catalyst project” for North Beach, Morales said.
“My opinion, this is as close to a no brainer as you get,” Finance Chair Commissioner Ricky Arriola, said. “It leads to a better, more beautiful project. This is shovel ready. The public’s gaining, not losing here. I’m struggling to see if there’s any controversy on this.”
“Sixty years ago, some city planner just did grids and that’s the way we did things, north, south east, west and that’s not the way all cities need to be,” Arriola said. “The great European cities have curves and road closures and things like that and so, for me, when we do these sorts of things, which is sort of rare, we get so wed to ‘Oh my God, we’re going to move an alley or close an alley.’ It was arbitrary to begin with… I’m not sure why we sweat these things as much as we do.”
Carmen Sanchez, Deputy Planning Director, said, “The project espouses all of the principles that we have for the Town Center. It actually moves the entrances away from the main streets, away from 72nd and away from 71st and actually locates them onto the side streets.”
“From a planning perspective, this is a good project,” she said.
Commissioner Michael Góngora expressed reservations calling it “a slippery slope when we start vacating streets and alleyways even for good projects like this and I do think this will be a good project.” 
He also raised issues with the valuation model of projects where there is increased value to a developer over and above their current value as, in this case, an alleyway.  “Even though I understand it’s a relocation and it won’t be a straight line, it will be a curved alley, I know and everybody else knows that it’s going to be more value to the development to do one contiguous building than to have to build two separate structures with an alley through it,” Góngora said. “It’s going to be far less attractive. They’re going to get far less rent, and it will be an economic benefit to the developer.”
“I do appreciate the proffer of the $350,000 bioswale and I think it will be a good public benefit,” he said, adding “I know that I’m always looking for more but I think that’s my job as an elected commissioner to look out for the public and if we’re going to be relocating or vacating or whatever the popular term is that we’re doing, I think we need to maximize the public benefit.” He then threw out the needs of the Unidad senior center which is facing a budget shortfall along with a couple of other City needs, noting the vacation will take a 6/7 vote to pass.
Larkin responded the developer is willing to meet with the executive director of Unidad to “see what we could do to help.”
Arriola pounced saying the reason development was so hard to get done in Miami Beach is all the asks of developers. “By the time all seven of us finish throwing our want list at you or anybody, it kills the project. So, it’s not really fair for any of us to tie our vote to a little thing that they want, that you get to take credit for, because if we all played that game we would sabotage everything in this city. It’s not cool to do that.”
Góngora said, “This isn’t a game. This is a difference…”
“Bobby, I want a baseball field too,” Arriola said to Finvarb.
“Don’t interrupt me,” Góngora shot back. “This isn’t a game. This is a difference of opinion in what’s a public benefit and what our role as commissioners is. I’m less development engaged and more community engaged so I do think it’s incredibly appropriate… I like to get the most for the public and that’s not a game, that’s a difference in mentality. I want more for the public and you want more for the development community.”
“That’s not true,” Commissioner Joy Malakoff said. Malakoff and all of the Commissioners and Mayor Dan Gelber were in attendance for the meeting due to the budget items on the agenda.
“That’s not true and you know it,” Arriola said. “It’s a game you play and you play it well.”
Malakoff added, “Every one of us up here look out for the public benefit. It’s not just one commissioner that’s looking out for the public. This is a catalyst to start North Beach and the Master Plan that we worked so hard on for the last, I think it’s been five years. This is the first shovel-ready project that makes sense. It is for the public benefit. It’s not for the public benefit to just let everything stay just the way it is. That’s why we hired Dover Kohl to do the Master Plan and for you to think that only you are looking out for the public is absolutely wrong and I resent it.”

“That’s not what I’m saying and I would like to clarify my point,” Góngora said. “I would like to see this project happen. The difference is I want to get the most for the public out of the deal. I drive a harder bargain. I’m a harder bargainer for what I think is best for the public and I’m sorry if you find that frustrating, but that’s why I believe that I was elected by the residents to look out for their best interests.”
Finvarb then addressed the Commissioners again. “Frankly speaking, one fallacy that’s been discussed is that it’s going to be a less expensive project” with the alley vacation and the one large building.
“That’s not true,” he said. “If we don’t vacate the alley, I’m going to throw up a pre-cast garage on one side of the alley and I’m going to throw up a building on the other side of the alley and it’s going to be a plantation or some suburban-looking project that’s out of the box. I’m not going to do something architecturally significant. With all due respect to Ray [Fort], it’s beneath Arquitectonica for them to design that project. I’m going to use somebody that does Wendy’s or McDonalds. I can do that.”
“We’re being pioneers here,” Finvarb continued. “New, upscale residential apartments, that thesis hasn’t been proven in North Beach. We have to come in at a compelling price point. We cannot compete with the amenity base that exists in Midtown or Brickell, Design District, Wynwood now, so we’re gonna have to come in, you know, significantly lower to attract those residents that are going to populate these buildings.”
Commissioner John Alemán agreed there are “different philosophies about negotiations and how negotiations get done. For me, as a 25-year Fortune 500 corporate executive, you don’t wait ‘til the end and then throw some surprises at each other on a threat to walk out. That’s not good faith negotiations.”
She added there are other public benefits already built into the district overlay that developers have to pay for including “a sidewalk that’s twice as wide” and trees where the “caliper of the trunk is twice as big as anywhere in the City.”
With a full Commission on the dais, Arriola asked for opinions. “If any of us are holding back, let’s let them know now… because he should go design a different project.”
Mayor Dan Gelber said, “I intend to support this. Like our manager, I grew up in the community… All good development seems to have hop skipped over North Beach, not for the last ten years, I think for the last 50 years… That dynamic has to change. There are problems in that community, quality of life challenges in that community, and I would really hate to wait another 50 years for that to happen.”
“I think it’s smart, frankly,” Gelber continued. “I mean it has to have a public benefit obviously” while commenting that there would be “better vistas and the walkability is better and the activations are better for the community… I don’t think this is a hard call at all and I’ll be supporting it when I have a chance to vote for it” at full Commission.
Góngora said he didn’t disagree with the comments and said he would vote to get it out of committee but he wanted to see an enhanced public benefit.
“Why don’t we all give them our list… all seven of us pile on,” Arriola said before bringing the item to a close.

 UPDATE: The vacation was approved by the City Commission on July 31, 2019.

Renderings: Arquitectonica

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