Implementing the NoBe FAR Increase

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Implementing the NoBe FAR Increase:

voters gave it the go ahead, activists say go "slow"

The uneasy alliance between developers and preservationists that successfully gained an increase in FAR for the North Beach Town Center in last month’s election faced its first challenge this week as the new City Commission discussed the path for implementation. FAR or Floor Area Ratio is the maximum allowable size (density) of a building.
Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who helped broker the agreement for preservationists to support the increase in FAR in exchange for including the Tatum Waterway and Crespi Boulevard areas in the historic districts proposed for North Shore and Normandy Isle, proposed referring the enabling legislation to the Commission’s Land Use and Development Committee. When his colleague, Commissioner John Alemán suggested sending the proposed ordinance for implementing the FAR as approved by voters directly to the Planning Board and other Town Center zoning items as recommended in the North Beach Master Plan to Land Use, a 45 minute discussion ensued with developers and preservationists on opposite sides.
Alemán explained, “I don’t think there’s anything even ready for Land Use. What we have to talk about for Town Center is uses, setbacks, parking, streetscape, bike lanes, dedicated bike lanes, alleys, lot aggregation, sidewalks, landscape, all kinds of things that we haven’t even started discussion on. … In the meantime we have the voters approval on the FAR increase. We need to implement that straight away.”
The Town Center area is located between 69th and 72nd Streets from the West side of Collins Avenue to Bonita Drive, an area that has generally deteriorated over the years.
Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez objected to moving the ordinance directly to the Planning Board without stopping in the Land Use Committee first saying the Commission has a process to send issues to Committees first, then back to Commission, then to the Planning Board. 
She said she wanted  “to make sure that when we write this ordinance we’re doing the right thing. This ordinance went to Land Use under a prior Commission. We now have newly elected officials. We are starting over again. We have heard the electorate and we understand that this FAR increase has been approved but the right thing to do so that this is fully vetted by the new Commission is follow the process and not rush it along and send it first to Land Use where we will do all of that hard work that Commissioner Alemán is talking about to make sure that North Beach and Town Center shines.”
The reason the electorate approved the measure, she said, was because of the promises made for the North Beach historic designations. “Once those historic designations are set, that is when we increase the FAR and go through the ordinance. We have to do this all together. It has to come as a package deal. This is a community process. The right thing to do is make good on our promises that we made to the electorate and only then do we send it to the Planning Board and have it become zoning in progress.”
Alemán responded. “There’s absolutely a handshake agreement in here between the FAR increase for Town Center and preservation in North Beach and I think everyone is on the same page with that. Everyone understands that and, in fact, the historic district designation is further along. We’re voting on it today. We’re voting on two new historic districts and a neighborhood conservation district today for first reading. This is simply a referral to the Planning Board so I want to make sure everyone understands the historic preservation district is actually in advance of the Town Center FAR increase at this point.”
Arriola agreed. “That’s the point. We’re trying to craft enabling legislation that implements the will of the voters and what my colleague Commissioner Alemán is trying to do is get that done sooner rather than later. So I do support the direction she’s heading in which is take care of the FAR portion, which the voters have been very clear on, and the more nuanced components of it, send them to Land Use. At the end of the day, if it goes back to Land Use you’re going to bifurcate it there. We wait another month … remember you’re bound by the will of the voters, you have to increase the FAR … all we’re trying to do is remove a step.”
Preservationist Nancy Liebman, who was a member of the North Beach Steering Committee and one of the key players in the compromise with developers said, “We did more than shake hands. We agreed that we were going to support the FAR in exchange for them coming out to support [historic designation].” Now, she said, “We’re trying to get the community together so there’s not going to be another war when all these guidelines start happening. To separate it and rush ahead at the Planning Board I see as something that is not in the best interests of the best plan."

Regarding the density increase she said, "It will happen and it’s going to take a long time. There are no guidelines for anything. It’s not just slopping FAR onto a community. There have to be guidelines that are reasonable … It has to be one step at a time, together. We have to move together, FAR people and preservation people. Let that work. The community is going to be involved in this the same way as they were for the two years that we did the [North Beach] Master Plan and that’s how this should work. It can’t be some developer needs some FAR so we march ahead. That’s not how it’s gonna work.”
Another key player in the compromise, Miami Design Preservation League Executive Director Daniel Ciraldo said, “It was nice to get everybody onboard and now we have this kind of dilemma because it is the first time ever doing an FAR increase. So if there’s just any way we could figure it out so that everyone’s comfortable … so that it can kind of happen in a way that everybody gets what they want. I don’t have the answer to that but let’s keep it going forward so that we all have a new great thing happening in North Beach.”
North Beach resident Paula King asked, “What’s the rush here? Why are we rushing to get FAR into the works? We need to just slow down and look for the best things that can happen for our community … I would like to see this be a very slow process where we have input from neighbors, input from everybody else …  I want to see this go slow. That’s what I’m requesting from you as elected officials is go slow with North Beach, please.”
Kirk Paskal, another North Beach resident and member of the Steering Committee, said, “The point [of the Master Plan] was not about having a more dense Town Center and having a historic district that was stopped in time. The point was having a thriving Town Center and a thriving historic district and I think the details matter. My feeling is to send it to Land Use would open up the door for proper dialogue to ensure that the details are included and I hope that we could take that approach.”
Former Mayor Neisen Kasdin who represents the developers of the City National Bank property and the hotel planned for Collins and 73rd in North Beach said, “59% of the people gave a mandate to increase the FAR to 3.5 consistent with the Master Plan without any conditions, restrictions, or limitations. That’s the mandate of the people. That’s the referral. That was the ballot question." He said the recommendations for the historic districts are moving forward and by the time any recommendation came back from the Planning Board on the FAR increase, the historic designations would likely be in place. He also noted that the additional recommendations for Town Center included in the Master Plan that will be considered by the Land Use Committee are “all items that would liberalize and incentivize development, not restrict it … They will in no way limit the 3.5 FAR which is standalone." He said there are projects ready to move forward under the new FAR as approved by the voters and calling it "a mandate of the people", he urged the Commission to move it ahead to the Planning Board on its own.
“With all due respect, this is precisely the fear that North Beach residents have is that developers will rush in to build buildings that have been roughly sketched out based on the existing provisions of the code without taking into context the overall development of the community which is what the North Beach Master Plan was designed to do, not to cherry pick item by item,” said resident Tanya Bhatt.
“Nobody’s talking about or suggesting not honoring the FAR,” Bhatt said. “The mere simple fact is that haste makes waste. And if these projects which were under development several years ago in a very different situation are permitted to proceed willy nilly through the process before the rest of the planning takes place so that they are developed in context and in a congruous vision with what the entire community center, Town Center, is supposed to be then we are really not doing our jobs, any of us, because it’s supposed to work in tandem. You’re supposed to walk into the North Beach community and feel like it’s a community. Not a block of high rises and then a block of this or a block of that and if we can’t pause long enough to have a fair, open, frank and honest discussion about that, then we are all of us in this room wasting our time.”
After one more resident urged the Commission to “move slow and not rush decisions”, Sandor Scher, the developer of the block bordering Ocean Terrace, said, “We have cherry picked the Master Plan. We’ve done it in the way that we all wanted to which is we pushed those historic districts as quickly as we could, which is why you have first reading today, which is why next month you’ll have second reading, and then that’s going to be done. That will be done before this thing even is heard by Planning, so I think this is something we’re losing sight of here.”
Both sides have done a dance around trust and fear, as Scher acknowledged. “In order to plan to use this FAR in two years you really need to know today that it’s going to happen and I think the fear in the development community is sort of echoing the fear that we’re hearing from the preservation community but that we’ve ameliorated by having first reading on the historic districts. The fear is that this thing is going to go to a committee and then another committee and then another committee … if this goes to Land Use, let’s just play this out, right? Then what? Then what happens? Does it go to another Land Use, does it go to a workshop, do we form a blue ribbon [panel]?”
“At the end of the day,” Scher said, “the development community needs certainty from this Commission. They need to know what the will of the Commission is going to be as far as implementing this FAR and the idea of moving this to Planning sends a really strong message to the development community that this is something that we’re really serious about and this is something that you can count on because without that, it’s almost like why spend money on an architect, why move forward? It’s almost like telling the development community ‘look guys, pencils down, once we figure this out come back to us’ … The risks are extremely high.”
Local historian and preservationist Jeff Donnelly suggested, “I think we have a consensus here that a good idea would be to assure that the Tatum Waterway designation and the FAR hit the Planning Board at the same time. That’s physically possible because HPB could designate Tatum Waterway or request the designation of Tatum Waterway” at its meeting next week “and if they hit the Planning Board at the same time, then the crucial element of the common vision would be realized.”
Rosen Gonzalez agreed. “We would like to see everything happen as a package deal at one time and I’d also like to point out that when we took a vote for the FAR, we also took a vote on the new Commission and that new Commission is going to appoint a new Planning Board in January and that will be reflective of this new body … I would like to at least wait until this body gets the opportunity to appoint a new Planning Board based on who we feel are the right people to be on the Planning Board.”
Newly elected Commissioner Michael Góngora said, “I spoke in favor the FAR. It passed. And it will be implemented.” He said his concern with sending the FAR ordinance directly to the Planning Board was that “the public really hasn’t had a chance to consider whether fast tracking the FAR by itself to Planning would be good or bad. My bigger concern is procedurally. While many people that I respect spoke today and said there were no strings attached to this vote, respectfully, there were strings attached. A lot of members in the community were promised many things. They were promised a historic district … I believe it’s my job as a new commissioner to make sure those promises are fulfilled and the best way we can do that as a body is to keep these two items together as originally referred and send them to the Land Use Committee and deal with it all together.”
“I assure you it’s not going to go to committee after committee after committee,” he said. “It’s going to go to one committee. It’s not going to take a year but there’s going to be an opportunity for the public to be heard on the item and I believe it should move together.”
Arriola objected to the “fast tracking” comment. “Just a point of clarification. A lot of comments were made about we’re fast tracking this. The Master Plan was discussed ad nauseam by thousands of members of our community and it was a very well thought out process, multiple years were put into it. FAR increase for Town Center was one of the center points of that Master Plan. It’s been years in dialogue so nothing is being fast tracked here.”
Mayor Dan Gelber then weighed in. “I supported the FAR increase because I want to see good things happen up there. I want it to become a community.” To the developers he said, “I don’t think it will be a year. I don’t think it will be 6 months. I don’t even think it will be 90 days.”
He supported sending both measures to Land Use and, perhaps, referring it to Planning Board next month once the Land Use Committee has discussed it. “That would mean you have to wait thirty days but that’s thirty days to give the public a chance to come to a hearing to think about it … I don’t think it’s a long time and I don’t think it will create insecurity in the market.”
Alemán said there is already zoning in place for Town Center which is not being modified by the proposed ordinance. It is only adding the increased FAR as approved by voters, she said.
The amendment to send the FAR ordinance directly to Planning Board failed 5-2 with Alemán and Arriola being the only votes in favor. The group then voted to send the FAR ordinance and Town Center zoning discussion to the Land Use Committee.
Later, North Beach resident Carolina Jones, another member of the North Beach Steering Committee spoke during the Sutnick Hour which is open for public comment. “This morning I heard the conversation and debate about the FAR and I’m sorry that I wasn’t here to add my comments to that. What I would like to challenge this Commission body to do is to be as efficient and effective as we can be moving forward. I heard the words ‘slow down’ used this morning. We’ve had blue ribbon panels, we’ve had the North Beach Steering Committee. We wrote a book about what should happen," she said holding up the North Beach Master Plan. "There is no doubt about what the people want. So I think the only way to really regain some trust here is to move expediently with the residents’ wishes.”
“It’s on you,” she said. ‘When it goes to the power boards, to the land boards, make sure that they know that you want this back, fast, that you want the work done. Don’t kick it to the next meeting. Don’t say we don’t have enough time to talk about it. Let’s get it done because the time is now. And I’m speaking not as a preservationist, not a developer but a resident that has been waiting for something to happen for 15 years. So, hopefully, you’ll take it as a challenge. You know, let’s see how efficient we can be in this year.”
Later in the meeting, Commissioners voted on first reading to establish the Local Historic Districts for North Shore and Normandy Isle. It will get its second reading / final vote in January.
The Conservation Districts mentioned above were approved on first reading but sent to Land Use for further discussion as requested by Commissioners Góngora and Rosen Gonzalez who wanted more time to better understand them.
The Historic Preservation Board (HPB) will consider the designation of the Tatum Waterway and Crespi Boulevard areas at its meeting next week and could have a designation report by March for consideration by the Commission to consider in April or May. In the meantime, demolition moratoriums for both areas were extended.