North Beach Town Center: Still Debating Development Guidelines

North Shore

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

North Beach Town Center: Still Debating Development Guidelines:

Height, public benefit contribution continue to be sticking points

While members of the Commission’s Land Use and Development Committee voted to move a staff recommendation to allow buildings up to 200 feet in the North Beach Town Center to the full Commission, the proposed development guidelines are far from being a done deal.
As promised at the Commission meeting earlier this month when the recommendations passed on first reading, six Commissioners showed up to work through the details prior to its being heard on second reading in November. Mayor Dan Gelber was not present for the discussion.
Staff is recommending buildings up to 200 feet in the core of Town Center on 71st and 72nd Streets and lower heights near the residential area of 69th Street. The proposed guidelines include a public benefit fee for height above the current “by right” height of 125 feet with a fee waiver for developers who move quickly to revitalize the area. [A rendering of potential height increases is shown above as created by City staff.]
Miami Beach Planning Director Tom Mooney said the waiver is designed to incentivize developers who “immediately take a risk,” a benefit to the City as the first to build often attract others who “wait to see where the market goes.” The staff proposal includes waiving the public benefit requirement for those who obtain a building permit within 15 months of the ordinance taking effect and conclude construction within a 24-month period.
Andrew Dolkart, an economic consultant hired by the City to provide expert analysis on what the public benefit should be said he considered increased rent rolls and the ability to charge higher rents on higher floors. He said he believes it is “quite appropriate that the city should find a way to share in that benefit that is created for the developers by being able to go taller in the building heights.” That said, he told the Committee “You don’t want to make the fees so high to discourage them from something you actually want them to do.”
Dolkart proposed charging a public benefit fee of $3 per sq foot only on height above 125 feet and only on saleable and rentable space (e.g. not corridors and elevators). In his opinion, the uses of these buildings is likely to be residential, either condos or rental units.
Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez who has expressed frustration at the potential for more hotel rooms and short-term rental units, said, “You made an assumption these were not going to be hotel rooms… It has to affect your price… which I kind of find on the low side. If those were hotel rooms, how would that affect your analysis?”
After a bit of back and forth, Dolkart said, “Profitability of hotels is a lot lower, frankly.”
Commissioner Mark Samuelian said he thinks it is important that all projects contribute to a public benefit fund. He said he supported some incentive, but maybe through a discounted fee to ensure all projects contributed. He also said he wanted to “raise the bar” and require an “elevated” level of stormwater retention rather than offering that as a public benefit contribution. 
Committee Chair John Alemán said, given the lack of activity in North Beach and the need for revitalization, “It’s not appropriate for North Beach to be the most expensive, most regulated place to build.” In crafting the guidelines to allow for the increased density approved by voters last November, she said, “We want to make sure that we haven’t gone too far, that we still have something that is inspiring.”
Rosen Gonzalez said, “If you want to go higher, you have to pay and you have to pay a significant amount… they’re going to be making a lot of money on this construction. Take the $3 [suggested fee] and make it $30.”
Commissioner Michael Góngora said of the $3 fee, “I think it’s low but I’m willing to work with it… if we’re going to approve height… then I think you should pay for it.”
“I think this is absurd,” Commissioner Ricky Arriola said, “picking the pockets of developers.” Adding too many fees and requirements will “make it cost prohibitive… luxury projects will be the only ones that can afford to absorb these costs.” Layering on expenses and restrictions, he said, would result in “no meaningful development in North Beach.”
“This is an area of our city that’s been neglected,” he said. “We have the chance to change the fortunes and we’re about to kill it.” Arriola said Commissioners need to make a choice between more affordability and more walkability or increased fees. 
Photo courtesy North Beach Now

“Somehow we have this complete aversion to height but we’re not talking about skyscrapers,” he said, noting several nearby buildings that are taller. North Beach and the City will benefit from revitalization in the area, he said. “I think we just have to get over this fear we have of height… We have to be reasonable and not onerous here.” (The Town Center boundaries are shown in the photo above, along with heights of nearby buildings as depicted by North Beach Now, a group that supports the height increases.)
Samuelian said he can see discounts to the “public benefit as a catalyst” and said he was open to “land on a number at 3 plus” per square foot. “If we do want to have incentives for development it seems rational to me that you pay less. I think that’s a big lever to get stuff going, to reduce the amount of the benefit.”
Rosen Gonzelez who says that when the community voted on the compromise for the increased FAR in exchange for additional historic districts, they thought building height throughout the Town Center would be 125 feet. She held up renderings from the North Beach Master Plan prepared by Dover Kohl and asked why the staff presented a “recommendation that wasn’t in scale with what planners sold the community?”
Assistant City Manager Susy Torriente said the Staff recommendation “does meet the intent of the Master Plan and the voters' guide… We always said that we would work on the Master Plan." Planners say that when calculating the allowable FAR on building sites, maintaining the lower height would result in large, boxy buildings that would cover entire properties, cast shadows and not allow light to come through, and create a less pedestrian-friendly environment. Torriente said the Master Plan called for an FAR of 3.5 but did not include a detailed analysis of building configurations that would support it as was done by City staff.
Góngora said, “The voters voted to go up to a 3.5… the challenge we have now… is how we do it in the most tasteful manner for the community.”
Daniel Ciraldo, one of the parties in the “grand compromise” called the effort “tricks” to get away from the 125 foot height limit the community expected.
Torriente shot back that these were “professional staff recommendations” based on a thorough analysis, “not pulling tricks.” She said, “People will have different opinions,” but no one was “pulling tricks.”
Developer Matis Cohen addressed the debate over the public benefit fee. “These are fees paid upfront with no risk to the City… Are you going to take part in the loss if the market turns?” he asked. “Interest rates went up, but yet you're saying [the fee recommended by the consultant] is not enough.” He called those “capricious statements without any basis.”
“You hired [the consultant]. We had zero interaction with them… this is the number they came up with,” he said referring to the $3 per sq ft above 125 feet.
Cohen cited developer Silvia Coltrane who told the Commission earlier this month that she lost her hotel flag on the only approved development in the Town Center area due to a lack of action on the development guidelines. “She can’t get off the ground. She paid $1m to FPL to underground lines,” he said. “You’re thinking about windfalls, calling us greedy developers. The fact is not one [new developer] has come to the table” to do a project in the area.
Activist Nancy Liebman, another participant in the North Beach compromise, said it’s been three years of working on the issue. “Let’s get something done.” She suggested some of the public benefit money be applied to a preservation fund but she said with all of the discussion, “It’s not moving. You had an expert who told you something” about what the fees should be. But “there’s not a project moving. We have to get beyond those kinds of things and start to do something.” 
“The height, we compromised on to get the FAR going. I think you want to get something done. Start compromising on it,” she said adding, “The only thing residents are not going to accept is going beyond 200 [feet].” Liebman said she was in support of the staff recommendations.
North Beach resident Carolina Jones, a member of the North Beach Steering Committee, said the 3.5 FAR doesn’t match 125 feet but voters approved the 3.5. “That ship has sailed,” she said. “We have to do the best we can.” She said she supported a taller height of 200 feet with public benefit fees along the Park on 72nd Street. “It’s not my favorite but I have to trust staff” and their professional analysis, she concluded.
Attorney Michael Larkin, representing the largest stakeholders in the Town Center including Cohen, said the City has done much better when it takes a “carrots vs sticks” approach as it did on Washington Avenue and in Sunset Harbour and he urged the Commission to provide incentives for development.
As the discussion wound to a close, Samuelian said, “One thing people said is they want us to move forward.” He proposed increasing the public benefit fee recommended by the consultant and to use a “discount as a catalyst” to move development forward. He also reiterated his desire to have more robust requirements for stormwater retention and reuse.
Arriola said he wanted to see the public benefit fees stay in North Beach and asked his colleagues to consider their desire to increase the fees carefully. He said he has heard them say they want to provide incentives but also to keep the area affordable. Raising the fees on developers would be “more costly to the renter or buyer. It’s incongruous to say we want affordability but put a tax on the developer… there is a repercussion," he said.
“Which of the two do you want to accomplish more? Right now, I’m very concerned about the affordability factor," Arriola said.
Alemán summed up: There seemed to be agreement to go with the staff recommendation on the guidelines but that some of the Commissioners present wanted to look at the public benefit number again and “go higher than our economist recommended to us, but we’re okay with a big step down” as an incentive to build immediately, along with elevating the stormwater requirements.
Chief Deputy City Attorney Eve Boutsis said if Commissioners wanted the consultant to bring new numbers to the Commission on second reading, she asked to ensure there was a basis for the number in the event of a legal challenge.
The Committee, which consists of three of the six Commissioners in attendance, voted 2-1 to send the recommendation to the Commission. Alemán and Góngora voted yes. Rosen Gonzalez voted no.


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