Compromise Being Considered for 500-700 Block Alton Road Development

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Compromise Being Considered for 500-700 Block Alton Road Development:

Mayor working to find a solution

Mayor Dan Gelber has taken on an ambitious project – trying to find a solution for what he describes as the “deserted” three blocks at one of the City’s gateways – the 500, 600, and 700 blocks of Alton Road and West Avenue, the site of the Old South Shore Hospital building which is now a skeleton that looms over the area. For the past several months, Gelber has convened a series of meetings with property owner and developer Russell Galbut and local residents in an effort to come up with a development plan that works for everyone.
This week, despite dueling community meetings sponsored by Galbut and an opposition group, a compromise may be emerging.
At his meeting with area residents, Galbut and his architect Raymond Fort of Arquitectonica presented three new options for the site in addition to one already approved which includes a series of low rise buildings covering the 600 and 700 blocks. The new options feature a tower on the 500 block of varying heights and a public park on land deeded to the City. 

600 Alton Road Approved Plans
Fort characterized the approved plan (above) with four buildings of 5-7 stories as “congested” with
“as many buildings as you can get on that site due to height restrictions”. The alternative plans, he said, create more open space which the current plan does not allow for.
500-700 Alton Road, Developer's Option 1

Option 1 (above) includes a 36-story tower on the 500 block, moving the square footage from two buildings approved for West Avenue to the tower while keeping the currently approved five-story building with ground level retail. This option includes 2.8 acres of public park and keeping the current South Shore Hospital building for office use.
500-700 Alton Road, Developer's Option 2
Option 2 (above) eliminates the old South Shore Hospital building and expands the first level commercial use of the building on Alton Road, while including the four levels of apartments over the retail space.

Again, square footage moves to the tower on the 500 block which in this option is 42 stories in height. Fort said all of the options include a new 7th Street to allow more circulation around the block with less congestion backing up on the roadway. The western end of the property, along West Avenue, becomes a public park.
500-700 Alton Road, Developer's Option 3
Option 3 (above) features the tallest tower at 50 stories, eliminating the apartments on the building on Alton Road.  In this scenario, the City receives nearly 3.5 acres deeded for a public park. It also includes space to provide an additional lane that turns on MacArthur Causeway and “ramping space to get over West Avenue and potentially MacArthur Causeway to finally connect the Baywalk that is on the other side of the MacArthur Causeway,” Fort said. With larger units in the taller tower and the elimination of the rental apartments, Fort said this plan reduces the overall number of units on the site.
Both Fort and Galbut emphasized that a tower and park are a less intense development than what is currently approved for the site. “The taller it goes, the less intense it is, which means less cars, less units, less commercial,” Galbut told the more than 200 people in attendance.
Whichever option is chosen, Galbut said, “The park will be deeded to the City of Miami Beach. They will receive a fully developed park by Crescent Heights [his development company]. They will be responsible for maintaining it going forward.”
Several residents raised concerns about the scale of a larger tower not being compatible with the neighborhood. Galbut responded it was in scale with the existing Floridian, Bentley Bay, Icon, and Murano Grande condominium buildings. “A community is defined by its cultural centers of excellence and its parks and recreational areas,” he said, arguing that the alternative plans with a park are an asset to the community.
Edward Martos, attorney for the Floridian at 650 Alton Road, said the building is “one of the most directly impacted” and, therefore, has been speaking with Galbut for some time about his plans. He said the problem with the currently approved plan is that it creates “a transient community, a rental community” of 500 units. “We don’t want 500 more units.” He asked for a show of hands of those who would use the proposed park. Most in the room went up.
“We’re strongly in favor of it for that reason. It preserves a residential community in the middle of a bustling city,” Martos said to loud applause. Having a tower of larger condos, versus a block of rental units, he said, would mean less traffic as buyers would be expected to be mainly out of town investors and those seeking winter homes.
As to concerns raised by a few residents that the park would attract “vagrants and homeless”, Martos said having retail and restaurant uses on the park will activate it in a positive way. “Those shop owners will watch over that park and protect that park,” he said.
One resident stood up and said, “Frankly, I’m appalled that people could be against open space. Can you imagine if that issue came up now and people were against Flamingo Park?,” she asked. “You don’t not build a park because of vagrants. You build a park and deal with it later.”
Former City Commissioner Michael Grieco, a resident at First and Alton, said he sees the “dirt pile” on the site every day.  Speaking of the approved plan with 550 rental units, he said, “You can picture all of them getting on the Alton flyover and making a left at the same time [coming home].” He said he was taking “no position on what it should look like” but said he is most concerned with “what has the least impact on my quality of life and the quality of life of my neighbors”, and, in particular, the least traffic impact. “It’s not about height,” he said. “The smaller, shorter buildings approved now will have a significantly greater impact on our lives. Multiple buildings with multiple entrances will be exponentially worse.”
“We can’t try to outlive all our problems, we can’t outlive all these developments,” he added. “Developers have a right to develop their property.” As to the park, he said, the City’s Park Ranger program will expand into it for security.
“Think about what’s going to negatively impact you the least when it comes to traffic, when it comes to walking around the neighborhood,” he concluded.
Dana Martorella, president of the Floridian Condominium Association, said when she saw the current plan, she went to Commissioners and said “I don’t know what you’re thinking. West Avenue can’t support something like this.” There is already a lot of traffic backing up onto West Avenue, she said. “Putting this density on those blocks terrifies me.” While the tower isn’t ideal, she said, it is better.
Floridian resident Scott Weikel spoke of his initial opposition to a tower as he is one of the units that will lose its view. “I was on the side of no tower,” he said. “I have a beautiful view.” His first thought, he said, was “No way we can do this. This is going to bring a lot of people…” Then he asked himself, “What am I really losing? The imprint [of the tower] on the neighborhood is minimal.” Next he asked, “What am I getting? I’m getting this huge park.”
“30 vs 40 vs 50 stories?” Weikel said. “Let’s use common sense. There’s not a lot of difference if we’re going to lose these rentals. I’d rather have wealthy investors in a 50-story tower.” The audience interrupted him with applause. “This is a beautiful building,” he continued. “It actually completes the skyline. We’re going to end up with a lot more benefits.  I tried to be logical about this and this is going to impact my daily life the least.”
The meeting got a bit tense when a resident of the Mirador who gave her name simply as Donna said, “We are not Brickell Avenue. We don’t want to be Brickell Avenue. You are a member of the community. You could have chosen a shorter building, more in line with the community.” She accused Galbut of “waiting to get the right mayor and the right commissioners to get what you want.”
“Be a part of the community, do something for the community and not for the profits,” she challenged him.
Galbut raised his voice in anger and said, “No company or family has given more time and effort to this City’s cultural institutions than my family. No family is more committed to our quality of life. The right development is a high-end, quality condominium where it is less intensive for the community. We don’t do things for profits. We do things that are right for our community.”
At the same time a meeting was taking place just two blocks away sponsored by the Miami Beach Gateway Community Alliance which, according to a press release, consists of the West Avenue Neighborhood Association (WAVNA), South of Fifth Neighborhood Association (SOFNA), and local residents. More than 100 participants listened to a presentation taking issue with Galbut’s plans for the site.
For the most part, the group’s desire for a 3.4 acre park deeded to the City and a “low-rise residential and/or commercial development on the eastern side of the 600-block" seems to be in line with Galbut’s plans, however, it only supports a 28 story tower on the 500 block.
“Residents are going to have to decide what kind of a city they want,” the group’s statement says. “One like Miami, where the sky is now obscured by towers and continued overdevelopment, or the Miami Beach we have created, with towers on the perimeter, and historic districts and low-density neighborhoods safeguarded with limits on density and height.”
The group continued, “Our plan answers the Mayor’s challenge to improve this gateway entrance to the City. We are prepared to support and advocate its acceptance by the community and its enactment by the City Commission. We will not support Mr. Galbut’s proposals as recently distributed to the neighborhood as we believe they call for significant overdevelopment and will continue to fight to protect the community we have worked so hard to create.”
Miami Beach Gateway Community Alliance Proposal
Miami Beach Gateway Community Alliance Proposal
Along with its statement, the group distributed a rendering of the plan it supported (above).

In flyers distributed to residents, the group also marked up Fort’s renderings (below), claiming Galbut’s plans would only allow for a 1.15 acre park and not 3.5 acres. 
Miami Beach Gateway Community Alliance Flyer

Architect Fort took issue with the group’s markups, saying they misrepresent the size of the park, claiming it would be 1.15 acres with the 50-story tower versus the 3.5 acres the developer says he will deed to the City. In addition, he said, the group “distorted” the footprint of the 50-story building, making it appear larger than the smaller tower options. In reality, Fort said, the footprint is the same, the building is just taller.
In an email exchange to attempt to clarify the differences, RE:MiamiBeach received these answers from Gayle Durham, President of the West Avenue Neighborhood Association.
Durham said her group is not counting the park area represented by the developer in the 700 block as it will be located on top of an underground parking lot. "A 'park' on top of an underground parking lot is not a bona fide public park, it is on private property. So nothing on the 700 block should be considered part of this project.”
In addition, Durham writes, “The developer has represented on multiple occasions to multiple neighborhood groups that underground parking is challenging due to insurance requirements for the lot. Sea level rise is also a huge concern regarding underground parking. We doubt the claims that underground parking is feasible. Therefore, we do not count this land additive to park space.”
While Galbut shows a combination of a public park and private amentity space for the tower on the 500 block, the group does not count the public space on that block saying “Any remaining public park land is inconsequential as it is not contiguous to the rest of the park. Small strips of grass on each side of the tower pedestal do not create a cohesive plan for the West Avenue Park.” The group says its plan, with a 28-story tower, creates the larger park and “provides the greatest true public park for our neighbors and the greatest value to the City overall, while minimizing density, traffic congestion and protecting our community from overdevelopment.”
The last word – for this week – goes to Mayor Gelber who sent a letter to residents today. “For years the future of this lot has been the subject of much debate. Rather than continue accepting this eyesore, I would like to address its future and want to engage the residents most impacted.”
Regarding the currently approved plan, Gelber wrote, “While it is relatively low in height, it is high in density and will effectively create a wall from 5th to 7th street on West Avenue. I am not a big fan as all this project will do is bring greater intensity into an already congested intersection.”
He continued:
“There is another option that is being floated by the developer and some of the neighbors.
“If the City would agree to give a variance to allow the Developer to build a taller and skinnier building on the 5th street block (which is currently beyond the Developer’s rights), the Developer would agree to donate most of the remaining land on the 6th and 7th street blocks for a park of between 3 and 4 acres.
“It could include many amenities consistent with the neighborhood such as [a] dog park, tot lot, health walk, and possibly water elements. It would also include commercial/residential elements on the east side of the 6th and 7th street lots that would permit cafes to activate the area. The developer would build and grant easements for a walk-over that would connect the bay walk from south of 5th to north of 5th. All of these details are up for discussion.”
Showing Option 2 with the 42-story tower, Gelber's letter continued:
“From my perspective this plan is intriguing. A tall skinny building will have less residents and many of them will likely not even live here full time. The current development plan will likely have many more full time residents who will further congest the area. And of course there would be no park in [the currently approved plan]. The Developer would have to find a way to accommodate the parking for the Floridian that currently uses a surface lot on 7th Street.
“As is often the case, the challenge to finding consensus is in the details. And there are many details at issue:
  • The height of the building;
  • The size of the floorplate of each floor;
  • The building’s orientation;
  • Whether we allow the Developer to move some or all of his FAR [the City’s method of measuring density] from 6th and 7th street to 5th;
  • The size of the park;
  • How close the park is to street level grade;
  • Parking for the Floridian residents across the street
Gelber noted that “different iterations of option #2 have emerged. A group of interested residents have created their own iteration of option #2. I am sure other versions will emerge.”
He emphasized, “No decisions have been made, but I am committed to moving this towards consensus.”
Gelber wrote the City Commission will briefly discuss the proposal at its meeting on Wednesday “without public debate and likely refer it to our Land Use Committee where it is my hope that it will receive plenty of attention and community input.”
“I urge you to engage our Commission and City Staff so we, as a community, can make an informed and thoughtful decision,” he concluded.
Renderings: Arquitectonica and Miami Beach Gateway Community Alliance

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