North Beach Town Center: How High and Where?

North Shore

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

North Beach Town Center: How High and Where?:

Back to land use committee this week

The North Beach Town Center guidelines, with a maximum height of 200 feet as recommended by the City’s Planning Department, passed on first reading earlier this month, but refinements are expected to be made at this week’s Commission Land Use and Development Committee meeting that might include staggered heights, with lower height given in the 69th Street residential area and taller buildings allowed in the core of Town Center on 71st and 72nd Streets. That is not a new discussion, but one Miami Beach Commissioners continue to grapple with.
The slow pace of the Town Center development regulations since last year’s voter approved increase in density to a 3.5 FAR (Floor Area Ratio) has claimed at least one victim. Developer Silvia Coltrane, whose hotel project is planned for the block at 72nd and Collins (above), said she lost her hotel flag due to the lack of progress in the area. 
Coltrane implored Commissioners to take action. “Without development there will be no progress. Without development there will be no new taxes generated by those developmnts to address other community needs. There will not be any new jobs. The business community will continue to suffer and some will be forced to closed.”
“Our project is the only project that has been approved in Town Center and I’m grateful for this but I am here pleading for your positive vote today,” Coltrane said. “We started with a lot of enthusiasm and I had it all worked out with the funding, the hotel flag, and we were planning to commence construction in September.” Noting she has already paid more than $1 million to Florida Power and Light to relocate transformer lines, she said, “[O]ur rug has been pulled from under our feet because there’s no possible commitments that my lenders, the hotel flag, investors or anyone involved in our projects can detect because there has been no activity. One project alone cannot make a difference in this town. We will not start on this until we have your commitment and your commitment will be with a yes vote today.”
Regarding the hotel flag, she said, “It has been at a great loss because it would have been a very positive flag for North Beach.”
City staff is recommending a maximum building height of 200 feet with certain public benefits to paid by developers who start projects quickly, obtaining a building permit within 15 months. Higher height, they argue, would allow for more green space and light. 
According to an analysis by Miami Economic Associates Inc (MEAI), an increase in height to 200 feet “would result in no more than 11 – and more likely, 8 or fewer – buildings being developed to a height of 200 feet in the Central Core of the North Beach Town Center during the next 3 to 5 years.”
Most of those, up to six, would be located in the 71st and 72nd Street areas, “where they will face a park rather than any existing residential structures,” according to MEAI. 
“Further, if the draft regulations are amended to include a proposal made by Commissioner Michael Góngora at a meeting of the City’s Land Use Committee on July 31, 2018, that ties increased height to lot size, the number may not exceed 3 with the remaining buildings in the area that are taller than the by-right limit of 125 feet being no taller than 165 feet in height,” according to MEAI.
The analysis stated that MEAI agreed with City Planning staff that these taller buildings with setbacks “would result in better individual projects as well as better pedestrian environments being created. Most specifically the provision would allow more natural light to reach the surface of the street while making the buildings appear less massive.” 
Rendering by City of Miami Beach Planning Department showing the "wall effect" of shorter buildings incorporating the higher density

Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez opposes any height increase above what was recommended in the North Beach Master Plan created by Dover Kohl. “What happened between the Master Plan … and what you are giving us right now?” Rosen Gonzalez asked Rogelio Maddan, the Planning Department’s Chief of Community Planning and Sustainability. Rosen Gonzalez believes voters thought they were getting a maximum of 125 feet in height when they voted to allow increased density in the Town Center area in exchange for new protections on older homes.
Madan replied, “The Master Plan has suggested raising the heights of the area to 125 feet with the intent of creating taller slender towers that don’t impact the street. That verbiage is in the plan, to not impact the street. As we have analyzed this further, that intent was not achieved with the 125 feet height and the 3.5 FAR. They don’t mesh well but that 3.5 FAR is already a fixed component that was approved so we looked at how we could take that FAR and create the best product that will create the best environment for the street level.”
Planning Department Assistant Director Carmen Sanchez said the Department took into account resident and developer concerns in coming up with their recommendations. “This is a fair and balanced approach to what the goals were. The residents actually passed that FAR increase. It didn’t pass with the guidelines. It didn’t pass with something that said ‘You should only have a tower that’s this high.’ They just said ‘We want 3.5 and we want to revitalize the area.’ So this is, in our very best expert opinion, what we’re bringing to you today. Massing on the front creates less of an impact than massing on the sides. It might create a taller tower, but you don’t have that impact on those smaller streets. This is our professional opinion… [of] what actually fits best in that very small postage stamp that hasn’t seen redevelopment for decades. So, we want to see it as much as you do. We want to make sure our residents receive what they voted for and what your vision has been all along.”
Nancy Liebman, co-chair of Miami Beach United, and one of the key participants in a compromise between developers and historic preservationists to allow increased height for new historic districts said, "The only reason that we’re here today talking about how high or whatever’s going to happen is because of a community compromise that brought this community together. Otherwise that FAR would never have passed. We and the preservation community were happy to support a project for 71st Street and its environs. We were happy to work with it and watch what was happening, but now somehow the compromise has gotten out of control.” She noted the Planning Board’s approval of 220 feet and a developer’s request for 240. 
“The Planning Department is right on track,” she said. “The problem is that it’s like a beanstalk, it just kept growing. We support what the promise of this Commission was, and that was to go by what the Master Plan had to say. It wasn’t to, all of a sudden, discover more, more, more and how they could do it. That was not part of it. I hope that you will support the Planning Department’s position. They are right on target with what they said. They are right on target with the height, the height of 125 and then the giveback to the public and then you can go a little higher and a littler higher but until then we support… only what the original plan was with the extra footage.”
MBU Board member Jack Johnson said, “We feel that the Planning Department and the Planning Board have run amok, if you will.” He opposed what he called inconsistencies in the proposed ordinance, not understanding why projects that move faster should get variations in height. “That’s an extraordinary provision,” he said. “I don’t recall hearing of that before. Why should a development done in 15 months or whatever it is have different requirements than a development that takes a little longer?”
Brad Bonessi, an Ocean Terrace resident and member of the North Beach Steering Committee, was dismayed to learn Coltrane had lost her hotel flag. “We have to get something rolling here… We have to come together with something,” he said. “When I hear people like Silvia Coltrane, if she’s going to leave this project because of losing a flagship, which I didn’t know until today... I came here to speak about [other things] but… we have to get this done,” he emphasized.
Another North Beach resident and member of the steering committee, Daniel Veitia said of Dover Kohl, the Master Plan authors, “3.5 FAR, that’s significant density, it’s not easy for a planner like Dover Kohl to recommend that… but that is what they proposed… because they knew that was the type of density we would need to have a successful community.”
The Master Plan also indicated new buildings should “invite a lot of air and light” but the 125 height recommendation with a 3.5 FAR “didn’t account for a wall effect,” the result of having to build short, block-type buildings to accommodate the new allowable density.
Of the taller tower proposal, Veitia said, “It’s like building blocks. They all have to go somewhere. You’re not getting more building blocks, you’re just putting them in other areas.”
Like another speaker before, he said, “My community needs to improve,” a condition he sees every day. “That’s not how it is when I go to South Beach. That’s not how it is when I go to Mid-Beach, Lincoln Road, or Sunset Harbour where development came very quickly. But every time we try to think about improving North Beach, all of a sudden, our medicine is different. Are building’s restricted to 20 stories or lower in any other area of the city? It’s 20 stories all over South Beach but in my community, where I haven’t seen anything, where the whole purpose was to drive investment and development, it’s almost like we’re trying to restrict it with different rules, hiding behind the Master Plan.”
He said he believes in the Master Plan “but they weren’t hired to do the study that our Planning staff did for a year [regarding height and massing of buildings]. I’m holding you accountable to improve my community. Planning staff has given you all the tools to ensure they have a really good development that is in check with density and that ensures that it adheres to all of the principles of the Dover Kohl plan: no street left behind, not car-centric, allowing air and light, allowing for all the density necessary for successful [development] and most important, the tax base necessary to improve my community. I can’t improve it without investment. That’s how a city runs.”
North Beach retail brokerage specialist Willie Quintana told Commissioners, “I’m in the trenches… I walk these streets every day.” He said he has tried hard to fill storefronts. “I can tell you right now, that in the last 4-5 years, I have reached a multitude of national tenants and local operators that still are not wanting to come to North Beach.” The excuses he said range from “North Beach is not ready for our operation” to “The City of Miami Beach is too difficult to work with. They’re never going to get anything done in North Beach. Never.”
The comment he hears the most often, he said, is “That’s all talk. Nothing’s ever going to happen in North Beach.” 
Regarding the discussion on public benefits to be paid by developers for extra height, Quintana said, “The public benefit is what these developers are bringing to North Beach. The list goes on and on as to the public benefit these will bring. [Other speakers] spoke about profiting, that the developers know what their profits are going to be. This is false. They can only do so much due diligence. The real work comes after and most of these buildings – take it from me, I’m in them – are falling apart. We need help.”
“Help us to get this started and get this going,” he concluded. “The developers have been very clear this is what they need to make this happen.”
City Manager Jimmy Morales who was born and raised in North Beach said, “Development hasn’t occurred inherently there.” Acknowledging the “grand compromise,” he said, “Some are alleging that we’ve done a bait and switch. Keep in mind that over 90 percent of that grand compromise is exactly what people thought… we created four new historic districts that now, by our own charter, cannot be undone without referendum. We have on top of that a neighborhood conservation overlay district… to provide the right level of protection.”
“Regardless of what the height of these buildings is, the density is still the same,” Morales said. “The traffic impact is still the same. We’re all in agreement on trying to make this pedestrian friendly and bicycle friendly and the development patterns of sidewalks and setbacks. We’re all in agreement on that stuff… The one thing that really is the disagreement is the height… is it 125, is it 200? We have an outstanding planning staff… I tasked them with looking at what is the right way of looking at this issue and what is going to make the best place.”
“It is their professional recommendation that short and squat like me isn’t the way to go… that you want a height, that has air and sight vision,” Morales said. “I haven’t heard anybody say they’re wrong from a planning perspective, it’s all more about the grand compromise… we’re all on the same page on so much of this... I think we can, hopefully, intelligently or artfully agree or disagree but have a discussion on what’s going to look best … The Planning team told us what they think is best… I support their recommendation and adopted it as mine” in the staff memo.
Commissioner Mark Samuelian said, “This issue has prompted a lot of community outreach… it’s the FAR decision that was the catalyst that drives some of the issues around quality of life, traffic, development. That issue was decided by the voters. We’re here to take it from there.”
He said he understands the concerns expressed about the process. “A certain number of height was latched onto and, maybe looking back,” he said, there might have been a way “to help [residents] better understand" the process that would happen after the vote which, he said, “was the step on a journey but it wasn’t the final answer. But for a lot of people, they heard that was the answer so that was a complication. Nothing mischievous going on but I could clearly see a lot in the community thought we had an agreement” of 125 feet in maximum height.
“We now have to do what’s right with the information that we have,” Samuelian said. “Our goal is revitalize… we need to make sure we get shovels in the ground,” With regard to the public benefit being tied to obtaining a permit within 15 months he said he wasn’t comfortable with that being the only milestone and suggested incorporating temporary certificates of occupancy (TCOs) into the mix. 
“On the topic of height, this is a tough one,” he said. “I’m open to considering going above 125. For me, at this point, I find it hard to believe that we would get anything above 200.” He said he would support the proposed guidelines on first reading, knowing the options for variations in height based on location or lot size would be further discussed at the Land Use meeting this week.
Commissioner Michael Góngora has proposed restricting height by size of lot, with greater height on larger lots and lower height on smaller lots, hoping to restrict the height around the 69th Street residential area. 
Mayor Dan Gelber said he would support the staff’s recommendations. “To a certain extent you have to be informed by professionals… Assuming the height falls within 125 feet to 200 feet, I would support this.”
Góngora’s “staggered tier system” was of interest to Commissioner Micky Steinberg.
Sanchez said the Planning Department wanted more time to analyze that proposal because they didn’t want to create property owner holdouts who would hold hostage a developer that needed a small piece of land to amass a larger parcel that would be eligible for the tallest buildings. For this week’s Land Use meeting, staff has recommended against the lot size criteria and instead suggested larger setbacks closer to 69th Street.
On first reading, the Commission voted for heights of 125 feet but not above 200; to consider including the tiered approach to height; and to finalize and define the public benefits piece allowing additional height for developers who obtain a building permit within 15 months and a TCO or Certificate of Occupancy (CO), whichever comes first, within a certain number of months from obtaining the full building permit.
“The biggest risk is that we line up with all of the other commissioners over the past 25 years that tried and failed [to revitalize North Beach],” Commissioner John Alemán said. Alemán, Chair of the Land Use Committee, said, “I feel we’re very close so let’s keep it going." The vote was 6-1 with Rosen Gonzalez voting no.
For consideration at this week’s Land Use Committee meeting, with regard to public benefits, the MEAI analysis said, increased height brings neighborhood benefits of more light and air but “that provision will also redound to the financial benefit of the developers who decide to take advantage of it by enabling them to potentially reduce their overall cost of construction as well as costs of financing and to enjoy premium revenues on the space they develop above the by-right height.”
“Accordingly, MEAI believes that the amount of the Public Benefits Fee should be set at a level that will enable the City to share in the enhanced financial performance enjoyed by the developers of projects that exceed the by-right height to the point that it can collect significant amounts of money to address community needs, however, we also believe that the amount of the fee should be viewed as an add-on to the increased ad valorem taxes that the prospective project can be expected to produce by virtue of its enhanced revenue potential, thus also set at a level that will not run risk of deterring them from building structures that are taller than the by-right height on the sites that can accommodate such structures,” the report states.
“MEAI believes that the calculation of the proposed Public Benefits Fee should be based solely on the square footage of rentable or saleable space on the floors within a structure above the by-right height… As a result of the analysis MEAI performed, we suggest that the Public Benefit Fee should be paid at a rate of $3 per square foot of rentable or saleable space above the by-right level. This suggestion assumes the land development regulations are adopted as currently drafted by the Planning Department rather than in accordance with previously referenced proposal by Commissioner Góngora at the Land Use Committee meeting on July 31, 2018” for height based on lot size.
As noted, the staff memo to the Land Use Committee recommended against that proposal stating “As it relates to implementing a minimum lot size in order to exceed 125’ in heights, staff has analyzed different scenarios, including those proposed by the [Committee], and has concluded that it could create difficulties in the aggregation of such lots and to develop viable projects. Such a regulation could encourage the property owner of the final lot necessary for such an aggregation to demand significantly more than fair-market value because of the power that it wields over the viability of a potential project; potentially keeping beneficial developments from getting off the ground. Additionally, the FAR limitations naturally limit height due to square footage limitations. With the proposed increase in the required setback from 69th Street, staff believes that this will ensure that taller structures will be limited to just south of and to the north of 71st Street. Accordingly, staff would not recommend a tiered approach to building height based on lot size.”

Staff chart analyzing height and public benefits along with consultant’s report on public benefits here.


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