500-600-700 Alton Road: How High?

West Ave

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

500-600-700 Alton Road: How High?:

Dialogue will continue on height of proposed tower at 5thand Alton

The City administration, developer, and community members will continue their dialogue about what should be allowed on the 500-600-700 blocks of Alton Road at one of Miami Beach's gateways. Residents lined up this week at the Commission’s Land Use and Development Committee meeting to give their opinions on which proposals they liked best. Developer Russell Galbut wants to build a tall tower on the 500 block, a low-rise building on one side of the 600 block that may include residential units along with retail, and a large public park on the remainder. Galbut currently has approval to build a series of low-rise buildings with 510 residential units and 75,000 sq ft of retail and very little green space. He has proffered three new plans with towers in varying heights of 38, 42, and 50 stories. The size of the building on the 600 block changes (it gets smaller) as does the size of the park (it gets larger) as the towers get taller. Galbut is asking the Commission to “vacate 6th Street” – which would not close the street but allow him to aggregate the allowable FAR (or density) onto the 500 block to build a tall tower. Currently, the height limit on the block is 7 stories.

The Gateway Community Alliance has suggested its own plan for the site which includes a 28-story tower and what they say is more park space and more permeable green space. They object to Galbut’s plan to count a grassy area over top of an underground garage as true green space.

The nearly 2.5 hour discussion was not only a debate about what should be built on the site but which organizations speak for residents.
At the start, Planning Director Tom Mooney said the administration made no recommendation on any of the proposals “because we’d like to see both parties continue the dialogue so, hopefully, consensus can be reached.”
Galbut gave his presentation first in which he noted that he has had 73 meetings with the direct neighbors, the residents of the Floridian and the Bentley Bay Condominiums, who both support his plans. In working with the neighbors, he said his goal was to “significantly reduce density and intensity” from the currently approved project (below).
Approved plan for 600 Alton Road

“It’s not important how tall or short [a building is],” he said. “What is important is how many units you have and how much retail.”
In proposing a tower, Galbut said, the project would keep the scale and character of the neighborhood, which includes a number of larger buildings now, while providing the largest area of permeable space in the City. Citing the City’s efforts toward resiliency, he said his plan would provide the ability to retain water “in the event of an acute shock… It’s a way to provide a down payment on what is true resiliency.”
Showing a map of green space in South Beach, Galbut said, “You will see many parks South of Fifth Street but you won’t see any on West Avenue.” South Pointe Park, he noted, is 1,700 linear feet. The park he’s proposing, “has the capacity to be 1100 feet,” he said.
By building a taller tower with fewer units, he told the Committee, “What we are offering is a major reduction in density and a major reduction in intensity… we are offering the opportunity to reduce traffic significantly.”
Whichever height option is chosen, he said, “The tower will be in scope and in size with all of the other towers surrounding it. It will neither be the highest nor the largest floor plate in South Beach.” And, he added, “We are a whopping 87% permeable surface and that is true resiliency.” The rendering at the top of this article depicts option two in Galbut's proposals with a 42-story tower.
John Honker, representing the Miami Beach Gateway Community Alliance described the group as “a grassroots movement to understand and look at options for the 500 to 600 block and what should really be there.” The question he said is “What do we want Miami Beach to become? Do we want this site to potentially set precedent for massive development that would maybe go elsewhere on Miami Beach?”
“We’re concerned that over development at this site going outside established zoning and FAR could harm Miami Beach in the future.” FAR is Floor Area Ratio which is used to measure the density of a building.
He said several neighborhood associations passed resolutions against the developer’s proposals including Miami Beach United, West Avenue Neighborhood Association (WAVNA), South of Fifth Neighborhood Association (SOFNA), Sunset Harbour Neighborhood Association, and Flamingo Park Neighborhood Assocation.
The concern, Honker said, was that this type of development – vacating a city street and aggregating FAR – “may spread to other parts of the community. This could allow skyscrapers to be created in any neighborhood along with what’s happening on that site. If zoning can be changed there, it can be changed elsewhere.” Any change would require a 6/7th vote of the Commission, a high hurdle.
Honker said the Gateway Alliance is looking to the City “to help design the neighborhood.”
“We don’t think we’re that far off, honestly,” he said. His group wants to see 28 stories “on a smaller footprint and leave the remaining area for park space along the 600 block. The concept would be, instead of putting parks on top of parking garages and buildings, can we come to a solution that allows us to maximize park space but also achieve a financially sustainable development because we can’t plan out a development for Mr. Galbut. That’s not going to work. He’s not going to build unless it’s profitable. It’s got to be able to be profitable.”
Then he threw out a new idea – utilize the proposed General Obligation (G.O.) Bond offering to purchase the 600 block “which creates an opportunity for a 100% permeable public park on 6th Street, eliminates the South Shore Hospital, and gets rid of all this community bickering and fighting over lot aggregation” and number of stories.
The speakers then lined up, each given two minutes to express their viewpoints. What followed was consensus on many items with the main sticking point continuing to be the size of the tower. But another disagreement became evident very quickly… who can claim to speak for the residents of the area?
Dana Martorella, President of the Board of the Floridian, a 334-unit building directly across the street from the proposed development, said, “We really feel that a tower and an expansive park is the best for our neighborhood, the best for preserving the residential feel of the neighborhood… Residents whose views would be blocked are still opting for a tower because of the park space.”
Floridian attorney Edward Martos said, “We have an opportunity to make a difference on this site and we don’t want to spoil it. The primary concern of the Floridian [is] that West Avenue is a residential and relatively calm neighborhood in the middle of one of the most bustling cities in the United States and we want to keep it that way.”
The Floridian’s goals are “that the park is as large as possible… and that there not be residential uses on the 600 block.” The Waves project approved for the site “was too intense and part of the reason why it was too intense is it put a lot of units over a large base,” he said. “Keep in mind there’s a development that is already approved and what we’re trying to do is step away from that Waves project [and that] requires development of a higher height and larger parks.”
SOFNA President Ron Starkman said his association is “willing to support an increase in height up to 280 feet on 5th Street”, giving the developer an incentive while getting a public benefit. “How much height and mass is needed to create the necessary incentive?” he asked. He suggested City staff “determine what is the minimum required to get this building constructed.” 
He concluded, “We are concerned about the potential for any plan that would require vacating 6th Street” adding that they would “support the G.O. Bond idea” to have the City purchase the 600 block. “That’s a terrific compromise,” he said.
Allan Kleer, a member of the Board of Bentley Bay, another building immediately across from the development site, said, “We’re the most direct stakeholders here… we strongly favor moving forward as soon as possible with an economically viable project with Russell Galbut.”
“We believe this will transform the neighborhood and the time has come after ten years of having an abandoned site which is an eyesore and a nuisance and really a security hazard for the entire neighborhood,” Kleer said. “The time has come to move forward with an economically viable project and a park. We strongly favor moving forward with this, one of the variations that is proposed here.” 
Eileen Frazer-Jameson who lives at the North Bay Club which has 347 units, said many of the residents are members of WAVNA though they did not share the same viewpoint about the project. After encouraging residents to attend the WAVNA meeting and Galbut’s meeting on the project, and displaying the proposed options on a common area wall, Frazer-Jameson said the North Bay Club conducted a straw poll of its members. “A huge number responded,” she said. “Only 2% wanted to keep the original design; 98% all went for the park option of which over 70% went for the larger tower with the retail-only on the 600 block and a minimal development of residential on the 700 block.”
Bernardo Sandoval, President of the Mirador 1035 Condo Association then introduced the group to NOFNA, the newly organized North of Fifth Neighborhood Association. “This topic has galvanized our community as nothing else has as of late,” he said. “There’s been a power vacuum on West Avenue and there’s been a lot of misinformation spread by the groups opposing this project and we’re here to basically rectify that situation.”
“We’re here to speak up for ourselves,” Sandoval said. “It’s been a long time coming that this silent majority and the block of the most interested people on West Avenue as you can hear from my neighbors, the Bentley Bay, the Floridians, North Bay building… Southgate and now Waverly, they’re all in favor, strongly in favor of supporting this project as is, at 38 stories or 42 or 50. The opposition groups, they’re disseminating this fear among the community which just is absurd and makes no sense... if we’re going to get a height variance we’re going to get something back for it which is a beautiful park. We have to have it. It’s long overdue. SOFNA, they’re the only ones entitled to this? That doesn’t make any sense and frankly I don’t understand why is SOFNA so involved in this?”
“As far as the G.O. Bond [to pay for the park], that’s money that’s still coming out of our pocket,” Sandoval said. “At this point we’re getting a free park from the developer, okay?, in exchange for some height and it’s going to be a beautiful thing and we need it.”
“NOFNA represents over 2,000 unit owners and the vast majority of them don’t care how high that tower is... They don’t. They really don’t, I’m telling you that right now. We need to get this done as soon as possible. We can’t have it another ten years like that.”  
“The other groups made claims they’ve been working with the developer,” he concluded. “That’s not true. They’ve boycotted the meetings. That’s not leadership. We need to sit at the same table and come to an agreement.”
Rich Cacchione, Vice President of the Mirador, said the association is “very satisfied with the three alternatives” proposed by Galbut. “I think it’s not appropriate for us, if you’re dealing with the greater good, for us to look at the Flamingo Association, Sunset Harbour Association, and the SOFNA Association who, by the way, have their own independent parks but somehow they’re weighing in on what we should have in our local community. It does not seem appropriate.”
He cited the recent ULI visit and summary of recommendations for the City’s resiliency efforts which “clearly stated that in order to deal with our future issues,” more green space and vertical solutions would be necessary.  “If you keep pushing this issue ‘we don’t want towers, we don’t like towers,’ you’re living in the past. You’re not dealing with the future of where this city needs to go in order to solve its problems,” Cacchione said.
Cacchione also noted that at a recent public meeting, Planning Director Tom Mooney said allowing this project to proceed with a taller tower would not set a precedent as each project is looked at separately, a statement that Mooney confirmed.
At another meeting relative to the G.O. Bond, Cacchione said while there was only a small number of attendees, when asked about using the G.O. Bond to purchase the 600 block from Galbut for a park, “The majority of people said ‘No way. I’m not paying for this. This could be paid for by the developer.’”
Then it was Frank Del Vecchio’s turn. Del Vecchio, a long-time community activist is the founder of the Gateway Alliance. He echoed some of the earlier sentiment that the groups have “almost unanimous consensus on every one [of the items discussed] with perhaps one exception.”
The old South Shore Hospital building on the 600 block of Alton Road.

He listed the areas of agreement: Eliminate the old South Shore Hospital building on the 600 block (above), an expanded park, and less intense development of the 600 block.
“It may be true that there is no legal precedent established if you interpret the City’s charter and zoning on a case by case basis, but if the City Commission chooses to do this, it is setting a public policy precedent. It means that you’re open to replicate this on a case basis so I’m concerned about that.” He also said it was important for City staff to analyze the developer’s proposed plans and consult experts as necessary and feasible to help the community understand them better.
Picking up on the resiliency theme, Del Vecchio said, “Resiliency is pervious green space from the ground down and the ground up which does not mean green grass and planters on top of a concrete parking deck.”
He believes that “a 28 story or even higher [tower] if it’s feasible for the developer on the 500 block” could create more ground level public park space rather than the proposed green space on top of a parking deck that is only available to residents. By his estimates, that option could provide one acre of public park space on the 500 block along with 3 acres on the 600 block which would be acquired by the City to create a 4-acre park.
Finally, he said, “The neighborhood associations that have done this, they have not denigrated their neighbors. SOFNA, WAVNA, the other neighborhood associations, they’re all volunteers who started these organizations and have been working for years. They took on the challenge, did their best. We did not have a team of architects. We brought the discussion forward and it’s very unfortunate that we get public characterization as the opposition. We’re the loyal opposition. We’re the loyal participants and we’re not spreading misinformation.”
Prior to the meeting, Del Vecchio led a rally outside City Hall to show support for the Alliance and its proposal (photo below).
Frank Del Vecchio, center in tan suit, leads a rally at City Hall

Jerry Libbin, CEO of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, told the Committee, “You have the opportunity to do something to benefit our community that you know needs to be done” with regard to resiliency. “It’s not even a question. It’s are you going to have the courage to step forward and do what needs to be done.”
“The idea of precedent is really not even something you should consider,” Libbin said, “because each deal looked at individually – who else is going to have a project where they can donate a 3- or 4-acre park? On a case by case basis you won’t find another case like this so there really is nothing to compare it to.”
“You have an unbelievable opportunity to take care of water storage that we know we need, to create a park which will be an amazing amenity for the residents in the community,” he said. “The Chamber of Commerce has taken a position to strongly support” one of the tower and park options proffered by Galbut in order “to capture the resilience dividend and make it available to the rest of the community. We strongly urge you to have the courage and conviction to move forward.”
Alan Sugarman who lives at the Mirador said, “What I hear is consensus. People want a park. They want it to be as big as possible. They want to minimize the impact of the number of people that are in that area... This is very simple to me. Build a 50-story tower, minimize the space around that, build the park around it, have a small retail on Alton Road.”
But, he said, “This is not public land. To use public money to build a park that is going to be built with private money [under Galbut’s plan] doesn’t make any sense so there should be no G.O. Bond [funding]. That doesn’t make any sense.”
Finally, he said, “The fear mongering that I hear going on and the obstructionism by a few activists… the silent majority of working people who own units in this community, if you talk to them, they want something like this. They want to see something built that lets progress happen in Miami Beach. You see progress happening in Edgewater. You see progress happening in Brickell. You see progress happening all over Miami. Miami Beach is falling behind. We have an ugly entry. Build a 50-story tower, complement the Icon to turn the entry to Miami Beach into a showpiece, a legacy item for this community, and don’t allow obstructionists to block that. That progress has been blocked for ten years.”
Seth Feuer who is a resident at the Waverly and owns two properties on West Avenue said, “I want to thank all of the neighborhood associations for all the work that they’ve done. It really is beneficial. That said, I speak from frustration. They’ve been speaking for me for ten years. WAVNA, especially, is a self-elected board, self-appointed. There aren’t open board meetings for us to be considered for such positions. The Gateway Alliance has a subset of WAVNA.”
As to the proposals, he said, “I’d rather see a 50-story tower with a bunch of owners that are going to be second homeowners than a building with smaller units that are going to be rentals adding to our traffic woes.”
Cindy Esquivel also took issue with the neighborhood association representation. She told the Commissioners that she is a SOFNA Committee member who came out to speak as an individual. “The recent SOFNA Board letter that you got was provided by the Board. SOFNA members were not given a chance to give input," no meeting to discuss the association’s position and no survey of residents. “I found it alarming,” she said. Our Board “advised our membership that they would provide their recommendation after they reviewed the developer presentation. This, of course, did not happen. The letter of recommendation with no general member input was sent instead. And that I found very alarming. Though several Board members from SOFNA have opinions on that, all of which I respect, this organization has not opined. I ask that the Commission be mindful of SOFNA’s current Board action as you weigh their agreements on this very important project to all of us as they are not currently, in my opinion, coming from our SOFNA committee as a whole."
Wanda Mouzon from Flamingo Park said while she, too, is “tired of the eyesore” that is the old South Shore Hospital building, she has concerns about the project, specifically with the traffic. “90% of the time,” she said, "traffic issues are related to the street design." She urged the developer to “address the street, create a walkable environment. There’s nothing that kills walkability like a tower in a park.” Mouzon noted, “The South of Fifth towers observe the street well. It’s really key, even if the height is granted and the park is built, that we rethink the way the building addresses the street.” The way to address the traffic concerns is to address walkability, she said.
Jack Johnson, also a Flamingo Park resident, said, “Another speaker said that the Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association should not have a voice in this matter. I believe that any proposed development of this magnitude at a major entrance to the City is a citywide concern and not just a concern of the people who happen to live across the street. It, in part, impacts the Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association because we do, in fact, live right across the other street. We just happen to be on the other side of a different street from the proposed development,” he said referring to the Alton Road side of the project.
The Miami Design Preservation League also opposes a 50-story tower according to Executive Director Daniel Ciraldo. The organization is opposed to “precedence which could affect any other neighborhoods in the City including our historic districts.” The only speaker to call the approved project “a beautiful design,” Ciraldo said, “Having smaller units for millennials is not a horrible thing. Not everyone can afford high rises.”
Gayle Durham, President of WAVNA, said the first unhappiness she heard with the WAVNA process was this week. A large turnout at the group’s regularly scheduled April meeting (which happened to conflict with a meeting Galbut held) “gave us encouragement to move forward.” She said the group has seen “six different concepts over the past five years” from the developer. “We only came up with one. That’s because it’s a work in progress,” Durham said. “It’s not the best concept and neither is the developer’s. We want to move forward to get the City’s input to figure out the best concept.”
Valerie Crawford, a Mirador 1000 resident said, “It’s amazing to me that we’re talking about this project as if the land is public land. It’s private land that a developer has a right to do, a developer that owns in this community, lives in this community, has family that is entrenched in this community, and that we’re treating the developer as if he’s somebody that’s outside the community that doesn’t have a vested interest, that the land is public and that we have a right to decide what’s done on that land. I’m finding that mystifying,” she said.
“The second thing is the density issue. If you deal with the existing plan now you’re actually going to create more traffic problems… when you have luxury condominiums, those people aren’t going to be here all year,” Crawford continued. “If you do the existing project you’re going to have tenants all the time, every day, 365 days.”
“And then the last thing I would say to our elected officials,” Crawford concluded, “no one would consider using a G.O. Bond to fund anything when the community has so many other needs, when the developer is willing to give that to you for free.”
Scott Diffenderfer, a Belle Isle resident, described his neighborhood as “a place with a lot of high rises and a lot of green spaces. It’s worked really, really well. It’s time to stop equating height with traffic. I’ve said it before, and a five-story building with 600 units creates a lot more traffic than a 50-story building with 300 units. We need to start looking forward and stop looking backwards.”
“As far as aggregating land for a green space,” Diffenderfer said, “I hope this is a precedent and I hope it happens other places in the City. I’d like to see a lot more height and a lot more green space when it’s not directly affecting our historic districts.”
Pierre Elmaleh, who owns property at the Floridian said of Galbut, “If he’s successful, we are all successful. It will be a landmark building that will not increase density and traffic because [the owners] will be there like two weeks per year. So please increase maximum height. The higher the better.”
Finally, it was time for the Commissioners to weigh in.
Michale Góngora said the turnout “shows how many people in our community really care about this project. Whatever side you’re on you’re really not that far apart compared to some of the projects that we’ve seen historically.”
He said the two sides appeared to be united in wanting a better design than what is currently approved for the site, agreement about a tower on the 500 block, and creation of a park. “Clearly, we’re going to have a tall tower of some height,” he said. “Personally, for me, the 50-story building seems very large. I would have a very hard time supporting something that tall. That said, I’m also not dead set on the 28-story amount that Gateway is projecting forward.”
“Most importantly for me is the maximization of the green space and the creation of a park,” Góngora said. “I like the idea of the developer building it. We don’t spend the money, but I suspect that this will not be the final meeting on this topic and I’m certainly open to pursuing what it would cost to purchase the 6th and 7th Street lots and have the City do a park but I should also warn all of you that are also following the G.O. Bond that there’s another $1.1B of projects that are already in the pipeline that this would be added to. But I’m not opposed to that idea if that’s what ultimately comes forward.”
“My concern is that this would send a message to the development community that we can do this all the time and that would not be a message that I would want to get out,” he said. “This project is really one of the top projects we’re going to be looking at in our city over the next couple of years. This is the gateway of our city, this is the entranceway to our city. So whether you’re at the Bentley Bay, most directly impacted on West Avenue, over in SOFNA or up in Middle Beach where I think the majority of us live that are up here on this committee, this is a project that impacts our community because we all come over the Causeway. We’re all going to be impacted by the traffic. We’re all going to be impacted by whatever project is there. So this is an important decision that we need to make as a city together.”
Góngora said he was not ready to send the item back to the full Commission with a recommendation. Instead, he said, he wanted the administration to spend more time with the developer and community. “Pursue all options,” he said, “including the potential purchase of the parcels and come back with a proposal next month” for the Land Use Committee to consider further.
Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez complemented the formation of the Gateway Alliance and NOFNA, and both for advocating on behalf of the community. 
“It was very powerful to see the Gateway Alliance come together in favor of the community to maximize the green space in the park. And I’m so happy that NOFNA came together because you guys really are the people directly affected by the project and one of the things that would bother me the most if somebody lost their views that had a view, so the fact that you have come together and made these resolutions is very key.”
“I think the reason the Gateway Alliance was formed and also came together is because sometimes you get sold a lovely idea and it sounds so wonderful and you see what’s built and it’s too late at that point in time… and I think they just wanted to ensure the size of the park,” Rosen Gonzalez said. “That said, and I’m probably going to get jeers for saying this, but poor Russell Gallbut. He’s drawn plans for this thing like four or five times. And what is approved at this time, I don’t really like, very intense, squatty buildings and it will just increase traffic.”
Ultimately, she said, she wants assurances on the actual size of the park that will be built. “I would give height because that’s what the [resiliency] studies told us to do. I’m a person who fought height increases more than anyone else. My first year here that’s all I did was fight height increase,” Rosen Gonzalez said, but added, “I would give the height but have an assurance there’s a park that’s not just an addendum to the tower, but really is a park and if we can get that done I think that everybody would be happy.”
“The neighbors that are most impacted by this are saying, you know, ‘we want this.’ We just want to make sure – and the Alliance just wants to make sure – that they get what they’re being promised. It needs more work. We all want to do what’s fair and we want every single party to be heard.”
Commissioner Mark Samuelian agreed there was a consensus on many items. “As I listen I think we’re more together than apart.” That said, he acknowledged, “We need to get something done.” His criteria for evaluation: “It’s traffic, the aesthetic impact on the neighborhood. It’s the economics as well.”
“Right now,” he said, “we’ve got a lot of options out there. The current plan, which no one is in favor of,” three proposals with towers of varying heights from Galbut, and another from the Gateway Alliance. Add to that the proposal for the City’s purchase of the 600 block, and Samuelian said, “We don’t have a manageable set of options.” 
In addition, he asked, “Is it feasible for the city to acquire or possess the 600 block? I believe that we should seriously look at it… sometimes you have to spend money for the good of the community. This may be one of those rare occasions. We would get a big park, a game changing park, potentially, in terms of resiliency. I think that’s a very important alternative that needs to be explored.”
However, like Góngora and Rosen Gonzalez, he said he needed “more facts and data” including estimates on the value of the 600 block as well as the value of a tower at various heights to the developer to understand the incentive for Galbut. In the meantime, he encouraged the administration to have a dialogue with the developer to see if a deal could be made for the 600 block.
Committee Chair John Alemán echoed the feeling that the groups “have more in common, than we have disagreement on.”
“For me, personally, I don’t know why I would vote to consume bond capacity and use tax money to pay for something that I could get for free without increasing taxes,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we need to take that option off the table, certainly. That’s my own opinion.”
The Committee then voted to direct the administration to negotiate with the developer to explore all options and to work with the community to reach an agreement reporting back to them next month.
 Rendering courtesy Arquitectonica

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