North Beach Town Center: After thirty years, is now its time?

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

North Beach Town Center: After thirty years, is now its time?:

Development guidelines approved by miami beach commission

After thirty years of failed attempts, North Beach residents and property owners are hoping they now have the tools to revitalize their community. This week, Miami Beach Commissioners gave final approval to development guidelines for the Town Center, a ten-block area that is envisioned as a hub of multi-family residential units, restaurants, offices and retail that embody the live-work-play concept.
The new guidelines allow for taller buildings to accommodate the new increased FAR (floor area ratio or density) approved by voters without forcing developers to build short, boxy buildings that span entire blocks. Miami Beach Planning staff and supporters of the height increase argued taller towers allow for more green space and open view corridors. 
Town Center is bounded by 69th Street on the south, Collins Avenue on the east, 72nd Street on the north and Indian Creek Drive/Dickens Avenue on the west. With the approval, buildings could be taller than 125 feet if a developer agrees to a public benefit, either in the form of expedited construction or a fee. The areas where additional height is allowed have been tiered in an effort to keep height away from the residential area around 69th Street. Specifically, for lots under 20,000 sq ft, the maximum allowable height is 125 feet. For lots between 20,000 and 45,000 sq ft, the maximum allowable height is 165 feet, and for lots greater than 45,000 sq ft, the maximum height is 200 feet.
During the discussion, Commissioners agreed to add the potential for a waiver of an additional 20 feet above the 200 but only for lots greater than 50,000 sq ft north of 71st Street which impacts just two blocks that overlook the North Shore Park and Youth Center and a parking lot.
The guidelines build on the latest Master Plan for North Beach created by Dover Kohl with input from thousands of residents and stakeholders. Approved in October 2016, it suggested a vibrant Town Center flanked by new historic districts to protect older buildings and single-family homes that supporters say have provided more affordable living opportunities.
The first of the historic designations for North Shore and Normandy Isle were completed in 2017 but did not include the Tatum Waterway due to concerns over the area’s vulnerability to sea level rise.  After an historic compromise between developers and preservationists, an agreement was reached to support an increase in density as recommended by the Master Plan in exchange for including Tatum Waterway in the new districts. Voters approved the FAR increase last November. In total, more than 400 buildings now have some form of protection.

As they have on many occasions, residents and property owners told Commissioners it’s time to move forward.

Roger Abramson, a long-time North Beach resident, said he’s kept a book that is full of press releases and announcements about master plans and invitations to the many community planning charrettes that goes back to the 1990s noting “I don’t have any more room in my book.” 
“Miami Beach is in a situation where we’ve kind of lost a lot to a lot of other communities,” Abramson told Commissioners. “Don’t hide under the covers thinking that hasn’t happened. I don’t care if it’s Brickell. I don’t care if it’s Hialeah, Little Haiti, Wynwood, the Design District, it goes on and on and we’ve lost all of this and young people. So, we now need to step up to the plate and say ‘Okay, this is it. It’s time to go and take action.'”
Obtaining a full building permit for new construction in excess of 100,000 sq ft quickly would constitute a “public benefit” and would provide an extra 75 feet in height (above the 125 where permitted). When that is not possible, the other public benefit option – a fee – could be paid by developers wanting the extra height. 
A consultant hired by the City recommended the public benefit fee be set at $3 per sq ft of floor area above 125 feet. Several Commissioners in attendance at the September Land Use and Development Committee meeting where the issue was discussed asked for a higher fee.

Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales wrote in his memo to Commissioners prior to the final vote that the Administration recommended going with the consultant’s $3 proposal and only for those projects that did not meet the expedited timeline.
“[T]he Administration has concerns that increasing the fees above $3.00 per square foot could result in developers foregoing additional height and, in turn, not going forward with a project, or developing a project that would not provide more significant overall benefits for the area," he wrote. "Additionally, a number of the standards of the ordinance, including mandatory requirements for the undergrounding of utilities, minimum pedestrian paths and size of required street trees, will result in significant public benefits. As such, the Administration recommends that the public benefit fee be set at $3.00 per square foot, in accordance with the recommendation of the economic consultant.”
Jerry Libbin, a 36-year Miami Beach resident, 29 of them in North Beach, said during that time “Other than North Beach Youth Center, I don’t think there’s a heckuva lot that’s been done up there.” Libbin who is also President of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce said North Beach has been “left behind.” Now, he asked, with regard to a proposed 15-month timeline for getting building permits in lieu of paying a public benefit fee, “Why are you treating North Beach differently? It’s unfair. In Washington Avenue you allowed development with increased height with no fees. Why are you extracting a fee in North Beach when you didn’t extract one on Washington Avenue?”
“On Washington Avenue you allowed the developer three years to get building permits. Why is it 15 months in North Beach?” Libbin asked. “Are we trying to kill the projects? Because it’s been very successful in killing it so far. If you want something to happen, get out of your own way. Vote to make it happen and make it equal to the rest of the community. You can’t penalize North Beach and expect it to be developed. It’s got enough of its own problems. You’ve got developers ready to step up and make it happen. You need to at least partner with them and not put impediments in their way.”
Daniel Ciraldo, Executive Director of the Miami Design Preservation League, was one of the key participants in the compromise to get the historic designations along with the Town Center. “We’ve been involved since the beginning encouraging the Master Plan and that was a really great effort where everybody got together and talked about the vision,” he said. “I hope in the future we can do less of the developers and preservationists because I think this example is where both sides have come together and worked out something.”
“There’s a lot of things we might never agree on,” Ciraldo said, “but the Master Plan seemed to be something that we did. And just a reminder that we did get the largest historic preservation in 30 years based on the Master Plan. Now it’s time for the Town Center. So I’m honoring my commitment to you all to support the Town Center.” More than 400 buildings were protected between the new historic districts and a conservation overlay. 
Ciraldo said he understood the concerns about height but, “I think it’s a positive direction that you’re all talking about public benefits because if it will exceed the originally planned height then there should be the public benefit involved.” He said he’s looking forward to “the real work” of getting the shovels in the ground. “We’re all looking forward to a bright future for North Beach.”
Joel Piotrkowski, an attorney and property owner on 71st Street for over 40 years, said he represents developers and land owners in the neighborhood. He asked Commissioners to consider that “There’s no developers lined up yet. They’re all waiting on your actions. And I would tell you this, the area is so depressed that you shouldn’t have any impediments on the fees and the height. You should make the fees as low as possible and the height as large as possible. Otherwise, whatever you think you’re trying to do today may not succeed.”
Tom Richerson, another North Beach resident, reminded Commissioners of the requirements in the ordinance for developers to provide amenities such as wider sidewalks and shade trees. “Everybody’s talking about the public benefit and maybe they should pay because the developer’s getting this great benefit but… there’s tremendous public benefits in the [ordinance] that I don’t think is taken into the cost equation of what it’s going to cost the developer… We shouldn’t add on top of that all these extra fees… Please don’t try to squeeze every penny out of this so that these benefits that are going to come to the community will never come to fruition,” he pleaded. “The community is going to get a lot more than the developer is ever going to get on this.”
Belle Isle Residents Association President Scott Diffenderfer offered his perspective on the height, pointing to a development under construction on Belle Isle originally supported by residents that is only five stories. “We’re really not thrilled with the results because it’s this wall of buildings super close to the sidewalk blocking everybody’s view under the 6th floor that used to get a sliver of water. They’re now getting none.”
He also cited the buildings going up at 17th and West Street. “Those buildings are only five stories tall. They go block to block. They feel so oppressive when you’re going down [17th] Street. It’s like a canyon and, even though it’s only five stories, the residents I’ve spoken to overwhelmingly would have much rather seen ten stories there with wide sidewalks, protected bike lanes, medians in the street. We could have done so much more. So, let’s not make that mistake in North Beach. Height is not the enemy.”
Attorney Michael Larkin who represents property owner Matis Cohen asked for the option for the Design Review Board (DRB) to give a 20-foot waiver above 200 feet but only for the properties north of 71st Street over 50,000 sq ft. With that restriction, there are only two blocks that could potentially have a 220 ft tower. 
Those sites, Larkin pointed out, overlook the North Shore Park and Youth Center and a parking lot. The closest building, he said, is 500 feet away so the towers “are not going to negatively impact any neighbors.” Those waivers are a normal part of the DRB process, he noted. 
Architect Ray Fort of Arquitectonica provided some context (see slide below).
“We really fall at the lower end of the taller buildings” in the area, Fort said. 
Cohen, another of the participants in the "grand compromise," owns or is under contract for all of the parcels located on the block between 71st and 72nd Streets and between Byron and Carlyle Avenues which is the only fully aggregated block in Town Center now. The block now contains a Post Office, pre-school, and two-story apartment buildings and is one of two blocks where a waiver could be granted for height up to 220 feet. The other is a site aggregated by Robert Finvarb located east of Cohen's property between Abbott and Byron Avenues. It contains a gas station and laundromat.

Speaking of a Town Hall meeting sponsored by Commissioner Ricky Arriola earlier in the week, Cohen said, “It was truly, truly amazing to see… how many residents, home owners came out to speak and express their support and wonderment of why this is taking so long.”
“We’ve been here before. In 1983. In 1986. 1994. In 2001, 2007, and 2014,” he said. “That is how many plans have gone to this Commission and failed. North Beach today is on the same par as Allapattah. That should be an embarrassment for all of us sitting here in this Commission. We have the opportunity – and after the largest [historic] designation in 30 years in North Beach – we have the opportunity, and the promise that was given, to create a vibrant and robust Town Center.”
“What is different now than any other attempt, this is the first time that investors stepped up to the table,” Cohen said. “This is the first time that investors, property owners and developers came up and risked their money as part of the process and they are saying we’re ready. The Commission responds by saying ‘Okay, let’s find a way to extract some funds out of you today.’ [That] is not only unfair, it’s unjust. You should be looking to incentivize us to make us move as fast as possible, to embrace the opportunities that are in front of us as opposed to trying to figure out should I go to the maximum height, should I go to this height, what will cost me less, what will cost me more. It just makes no sense.” He pointed out he wasn’t asking for an “unfettered” 220 feet, but for the opportunity to ask the DRB for a waiver. He noted that right would only exist for two sites in the Town Center.
Arriola, one of the champions and co-sponsor of the item who has expressed frustration on the delays and impediments to doing business in the City said, “We’re not talking about the whole Beach. We’re talking about a couple of blocks in the most blighted area of North Beach where the community is desperate and we’re making it more difficult… Let’s try to create an environment this late in the economic cycle to get these folks out there to start building which is what the community wants and we’re here making it more difficult… I don’t know why we’re putting restrictions when we’re trying to create incentives. We are being outhustled by every single municipality in this County and we should be ashamed of that.”
Sponsor Commissioner John Alemán, who has largely driven the passage of the guidelines, explained the fee waiver for expedited construction as the incentive. “We didn’t go through this whole process to create property rights that someone would just sit on for a decade. That’s why we’ve got these timers on this thing. We want to see the implementation of the Master Plan. We want to see the Town Center be realized… not to discourage development but to encourage it to be sooner rather than later so that all the property owners who have made a commitment to North Beach feel that imperative to get going.”
Commissioners did agree with Larkin that the time to obtain an expedited building permit and be eligible for the public benefit fee waiver should be increased to 21 months from the effective date of the ordinance (which is ten days from passage) to more closely reflect a realistic timeframe. That time could be increased with a 4/7th vote of the Commission if there are undue hardships created by outside agencies such as Florida Power & Light, the Florida Department of Transportation, or the Miami-Dade County Department of Environmental Resources Management. Any such request would require a public hearing. 
They also agreed to no more than a $3 public benefit fee and only for buildings that did not make the expedited timeline. With those terms and the ability to go to 220 feet with a DRB waiver on the large parcels north of 71st Street, Commissioners voted 6-1 to approve the development guidelines. 
The lone no vote was Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez who said, “At this point it’s not a question of height. I don’t think it’s going to make any difference whatsoever.” With regulations that allow for smaller unit sizes and co-living units, she said, it’s not about height but the number of units and quality. “The issue is what are attracting, what are we building?” she asked.  “So, at this point to squabble over 165 feet to 220 feet and setbacks, that’s not really the issue here. The issue is the quality of what we’re about to build in the center here.”
Commissioner Michael Góngora said, “There’s a lot of really good things in this ordinance," including, he noted, the fact that only two blocks would have the potential to go to 220 feet.

“I am not a fan of height. I’m generally opposed to it but I feel kind of awkward considering that we’re only talking about two potential sites that could take advantage of 20 feet with the 220… when we earlier approved 520 on South Beach,” Góngora said referring to Russell Galbut’s 500-700 Alton Road project. Saying he heard the North Beach community, he added, “I would rather us err so they can see something happen than see nothing happen.”
After the vote, Cohen said, “It was a long and hard journey that attracted people to come out of their homes to support it. After 30 years of failed plans, we finally have a chance to bring true revitalization to North Beach and compete with our neighboring cities.” He said he and his architects will begin working “right away” on plans.
Alemán said “I feel a great sense of accomplishment. I’m really proud of the way it was developed which is by the professional staff without a lot of political meddling. Now the ball’s in the court of property owners, but I do believe that we have created a development envelope that’s going to inspire them to finally, after thirty years, create a really great North Beach Town Center.”
Her sentiments were echoed by Margueritte Ramos, a North Beach resident who chaired the North Beach Master Plan Steering Committee. In a message to RE:MiamiBeach she wrote, “Two decades ago I had NO idea that new investments and development would take this long!” With the vote, she said, “There is now real hope that North Beach might just become the ‘it’ place we have all been waiting for.”

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