revitalization, preservation, and mother nature

North Shore

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

revitalization, preservation, and mother nature:

planning board discusses nobe conservation overlay

Two hours of discussion and public input at the Planning Board meeting continued to highlight diverging opinions about the proposed Conservation Overlay District for North Beach. Staff indicated the item would be discussion only at the start due to “inconsistencies in the title” which require another public notice before the Board can vote on a recommendation to Commission. That said, there was plenty to discuss… and it will come back, potentially for more discussion, in July.
Planning Director Tom Mooney told Board members, “The purpose of the Conservation District was to ensure that new construction and additions were consistent with the built scale and built context of the surrounding area.” Referring to the North Beach Master Plan approved by Commission last year, Mooney said the authors “made a number of very broad general recommendations. These particular Conservation District recommendations are more specific and they’re more tailored.” He acknowledged, however, that while Staff believes there is good consensus around the recommendations, “[T]here are some stakeholders that still have some concerns with some of the regulations that have been proposed.”
Some of the changes include a proposed reduction in minimum unit sizes within the District from the current 550 s.f. to 400 s.f. minimum unit size for new construction and an average of 550 feet. Contributing buildings that are restored could have a minimum unit size of 300 s.f. feet with an average unit size of 400 s.f. These would also apply to additions on contributing buildings that are fully retained.
In addition to encouraging the retention of contributing buildings, Mooney said the idea was “to provide more latitude for property owners and developers to market buildings to a wide array of potential occupants so rather than just have development regulations geared for a luxury market this would allow for smaller units that could potentially include micro units and could include rental housing that might be more affordable.”
Another significant proposal is to reduce the required amount of parking. For buildings on lots that are 60 feet in width or less, there would be no parking requirement. Mooney said, “That doesn’t mean somebody can’t provide parking. They can provide parking but the number of required spaces for the new construction would be zero.”
Buildings on lots that are 60 feet in width or greater would have a requirement of one space per unit but, Mooney said, the Design Review Board or Historic Preservation Board would be able to waive those requirements.
Developments of six units or less, regardless of lot width, would also have a zero parking requirement. For existing buildings, the ordinance lays out standards for the amount of a building that would need to be retained in order to have no parking requirements.
Mooney said under the legislation, height requirements would also change. Currently the height limit for all new construction in the area is five stories or 50 feet. The proposed recommendation is for a maximum height of four stories, 40 feet for new construction. “However,” Mooney said, “if there is a proposal to retain and preserve an existing building you could go up to five stories, 50 feet for dry lots and six stories, 60 feet for lots that are on the water.”
He added the ordinance provides new design resiliency standards to allow adaptive re-use of buildings and limits lot aggregation to two, three if there are contributing buildings that will be retained.
North Beach property investor Matis Cohen took exception to the Staff memo, which he quoted from. “[It] says ‘The intended purpose of this ordinance is the retention of existing contributing buildings as well as to ensure that the new infill buildings are compatible with their surroundings.’ … The very essence of incentives is to creative something that will proactively – or remove a restriction to – enable these buildings to survive. What have we done here?” Citing “the City of Miami Beach’s number one challenge” of sea level rise, Cohen said property owners need help in reducing the cost constraints that come with being more resilient. He said residents say they want to maintain the affordability of the area, yet, “The commercial properties are the ones housing [the] workforce and these residents. And if you keep on pushing up the costs to them, what will happen to them?” The ordinance, he said, doesn’t take that into consideration skyrocketing insurance costs, additional permitting fees, additional code compliance, and increased water fees to pay for infrastructure, all of which are related to sea level rise and are costs that cannot be absorbed by the tenant.
Cohen also questioned the term “incentivizing” property owners. What he sees are restrictions that will further hinder development in North Beach, an area he said hasn’t seen any major development outside of private homes in 30 years. “You want to incentivize contributing buildings? Incentivize them,” he said. “Don’t take away all other options and call that an incentive. That’s not an incentive. Reducing the height, that’s not an incentive. Reducing the lot area coverage and also how much you build on it… this is one big disincentive.”
Board member Jeff Feldman said he agreed there should be incentives for retaining contributing and historic structures but added, “My biggest issue has always been and continues to be – I just have a hard time getting my mind around it – is putting a blanket over an area where there may be buildings that for numbers of reasons, a. not contributing, b. dilapidated, c. obsolete technology, the list could go on … Putting all kinds of restrictions on them will just further the, I believe, further the lack of progress. That’s my biggest fear is we’re just blanketing it.”
He added another concern about the North Beach Master Plan. “It doesn’t contemplate sea level rise. It truly really doesn’t contemplate it. This ordinance doesn’t really address it. And I fear for locking ourselves into [this]. This is a very restrictive piece of legislation. I’m not saying I’m completely against it or I’m completely for it but there’s a lot in here that will make it very difficult for anybody, particularly Joe Homeowner who owns one building – he may even live in it – to want to ever develop that building or that site. That is what I think the document really is all about is just stopping people from really almost doing anything. It’s very restrictive … I think the idea is very good and I’m supportive of the idea in concept. But I worry about some of the details.”
Cohen said the issues can and should be dealt with through design guidelines. “If the design guidelines are articulated properly then the mass issue is not necessarily the concern. There are magnificent cities all over the world that have tremendous massing but magnificent properties.” Miami Beach, he said, is “so deep into the woods trying to see how can we tie everybody’s hands together that we’re missing the whole idea. If we want to do blanket regulation then let’s concentrate on creating a fabric or a canvas that allows architects and people to come and say ‘Listen, let’s take this and let’s reinterpret the MiMo, let’s have MiMo adapt itself into new language that meets the standards of the modern world.’ Not what it was many years ago.”
Kirk Paskal, a Tatum Waterway resident whose building would be within the Conservation District told the Board, “I am in a sense Joe Homeowner [referenced by Feldman]. I live in my building, own it, operate it … I think a good component of this [ordinance] is searching for ways that we can incentivize it and retain what’s authentic … I don’t think a lot of people actually envision how you recreate MiMo and have an attraction for residents and visitors. … What I worry about quite a lot is losing the allure … the pedestrian friendly allure, the walkability, the attraction of our streetscapes. That worries me quite a lot and I hope we can consider this when this is moving forward.”
When Feldman asked why he was concerned about losing the pedestrian friendly allure of the area, Paskal responded, “It’s the scale, my neighborhood in particular it is on the water, the accessibility, the quality of life for people that I would consider in that realm for affordable housing, you know young working couples that are trying to get ahead. North Beach is very alluring.”
When Feldman’s question about a concern that “large towers” would be built was met with nods from the audience, he said, “I don’t think anybody’s talking about that. I spent hours driving around North Beach… and there are dozens and dozens of buildings that are 5, 6, 7, 11, 12, 15, 20 stories in North Beach. So I’m not disagreeing with you that we have to protect our historic buildings and the character of the neighborhood. I just question what is actually the character.”
“I like it. It’s quaint. It’s charming. It’s low scale. It’s nice,” Feldman continued. “And I don’t think anybody wants to destroy that.” But he said he was still struggling with “a blanket over the whole district which would inhibit” revitalization. “Every building in that neighborhood is not historic. Just because it’s old does not make it historic. There are many, many buildings, many buildings that are old and really dilapidated and just crappy.” He said he doesn’t think “the modern homeowner wants to live in an apartment” that is inefficient and in bad condition and may, in North Beach, be living in those conditions because that is what they can afford. “I’m afraid of this document, this legislation handcuffing people who can actually bring, not towers, not ten story buildings, not whatever this big doom and gloom thing is that I’m hearing from some people, but actually improve their properties and improve the neighborhood … I’m not suggesting we’re building Jetsons’ neighborhoods. I’m just suggesting something that people actually want to live in and don’t have to live in because that’s the area where they can afford it. It’s tricky.”
Eitan Gontovnik, a North Beach resident who also owns a rental unit there, told the Board, “I think North Beach is a great place ... It’s a great neighborhood. It has a distinctive feel. It’s very nice but I have to say, both objectively and as a real estate agent, the quality of the housing is completely sub par. You have mostly studio and small one bedrooms with no parking and unless you’re trying to make this a designated affordable housing district, I don’t think you’re going to be able to attract families and other young professional type people to the neighborhood with the current housing stock.” He urged the Board to think carefully about putting restrictions on the area. “I understand that there’s challenges to keep the character of the neighborhood and to get some good buildings but I would be very concerned about anything that keeps the housing as it is.”
Wayne Pathman, Chairmam of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce and a 57 year Beach resident, urged the Board to “consider the economics” along with resiliency which he noted was only briefly mentioned in the North Beach Master Plan. “All I’m suggesting,” he said, “is if you’re going to do something that’s going to affect one third of the City and probably have a domino effect on the rest of the City going south, at least take the time to look at all the variables before you make a decision.” He cited rising insurance costs, the potential that banks will eliminate the 30 year mortgage for areas at risk of sea level rise, and a need to increase taxes to make the improvements necessary to protect the City. “Where is that money going to come from?” he asked. “Some of the same people today who only advocate preservation and don’t think about all these issues are going to be back here complaining ‘Why are my taxes so high? I can’t afford to live here anymore.’” He said the city does not have all the information it needs to make decisions about development restrictions in the face of sea level rise and needs to get it.
Referring to comments made by Paskal about losing the allure of the area, he said “I’ll tell you that in ten years time you will lose much more than the allure if you don’t look at the issues that we’re faced with today.” Without understanding the “variables” of insurance, banking, increased taxation, “you’re going to make the wrong decision,” he said. “The right decision in today’s world is not about preservation vs. developer anymore. There’s a game changer, Mother Nature. She doesn’t care. She’s not here to negotiate. She’s coming. All the data that I’ve seen … it does not paint a pretty picture for us here in South Florida if we don’t start doing things differently.”
He concluded the Master Plan – and the Conservation District Overlay which came out of the Plan – is “devoid of any issues related to resiliency and economic analysis [which] in today’s world makes no sense to me.” Referring to the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting held in Miami Beach recently, he said, “Our city was the poster child for resiliency. Why doesn’t that apply to North Beach?”
Planning Board member, Daniel Veitia, who is also a member of the Mayor’s North Beach Master Plan Steering Committee, said the Master Plan was not the item being reviewed. He defended the Master Planners who he said had a limited scope though, he added, the document did reflect “consensus on what the community wanted to see for their future” and he believes it did a good job of achieving resident consensus. He argued the form based code to protect the fabric and character of the neighborhood through the Conservation District should be a benefit to property owners and architects as they will know exactly what they can develop and make their analysis based on the specific regulations. "Will the building of the property be efficient? No,” he said. “I think that as our neighborhood is reinvented, it will become more and more expensive. Construction will be more and more costly” which he said would make it difficult to build housing affordable at a lower cost. He believes that is the reason the City’s Office of Housing and Community Services wants to aggregate their lots in North Beach. “They already know that’s the only way they can achieve the economies that are necessary to be able to offer individuals in our community the ability to still live there. And as much as we want to argue that the fabric, the architectural fabric is an important aspect of our communities, so are the demographics,” he said. “So if you’re concerned about not losing every single demographic and really only allowing our neighborhoods to serve a certain type of demographic over time, I think that we have to incorporate some leeway for affordable housing to be able to be efficient and to continue to offer housing for our residents.”
“This ordinance is very bold,” he argued. “This ordinance does a lot of things that a lot of people don’t like. I can tell you property owners don’t like further regulation, further specification, further restrictions. But we were true to the point that this ordinance is designed to ensure that new construction is compatible with the existing. That’s why it’s a Conservation District.”
While many in the neighborhood lament the extreme lack of parking, Veitia said parking is an obstacle to compatible design. “The hardest thing to ensure compatibility of new construction with the existing was the need to meet the parking requirement.” Developers he said have to request variances for setbacks for parking on the small lots in North Beach. “No matter what the Design Review Board would do above that parking structure, what that structure sat on was a box, and it would destroy every effort of what this ordinance is trying to accomplish … We can’t continue to say ‘I want to advocate for preservation and compatibility’ and allow parking to continue to drive that. You’re not recognizing what you’re advocating for. We’ve gotta take the hardships with what we’re trying to accomplish. You can’t have the best of both worlds.” He said the City has the option to build parking garages but, at the same time, has also invested significant money in the trolley system, building bike lanes, and is creating a Town Center in North Beach that will be walkable.
We’ll all be back at it again next month for more!
To see the Staff memo, map and ordinance, click here.

And read our opinion pieces from last week by architect Reinaldo Borges and preservationist Nancy Liebman, taking two perspectives on the issue.

opinion: the case for the north beach conservation overlay district

North Shore

Nancy Liebman
Nancy Liebman
"the community has spoken"

City designates historic areas in North Beach

Normandy Isle , North Shore

Susan Askew
Susan Askew
design guidelines to be drawn up for new construction and adaptations

possible historic districts for north shore and normandy isles

Normandy Isle , North Shore

Susan Askew
Susan Askew
historic preservation board to review