Glaser, an early investor in the Design District and Wynwood with Scott Robins and David Lombardy, sold his interests there to concentrate on building high-end single-family homes. He thinks the area that’s tentatively dubbed West of West or WoW presents the potential to create “one of the most exciting things to come to Miami Beach… in a long, long time.”
He talks excitedly about a “city of the future but done in a way that is friendly to the locals," resilient in its construction and elevation, that includes greenspace with tropical plants and pavers but no curbs, and a promenade that meanders north to south along the three blocks with a central plaza and a fountain where kids could play with motorized boats while parents “read their newspapers and get a cup of coffee” in a café. Small retail spaces – think art galleries – would face Bay Road and West Avenue leaving the inside for community spaces. A 1.5 acre park would connect the two streets from east to west.
While building a city of the future, he’s also harkening back what Miami Beach was. He remembers visiting artist Carlos Betancourt who used to live in the back of a storefront on Lincoln Road where he had his studio in the early 90s. “That’s what Miami Beach needs again,” he said. He wants WoW to include art galleries and artist lofts. “It will be a way of life for people in Miami Beach, locals and visitors. Anything and everything Lincoln Road is not.”
Plans are “loose” right now and consist mainly of Glaser’s ideas. DOMO Architecture + Design has created an overview of the area with “a general master plan portraying his vision,” wrote Francisco Llado Neuffer, Principal, in an email. A “more detailed urban planning design and mixed use zoning buildings that will promote a local pedestrian friendly neighborhood feel to this area” are forthcoming, he said. The rendering (top and below) displays generic white boxes that show “the potential code implemented allowing properties to be combined for a more pedestrian friendly experience avoiding breaks between buildings.”
Glaser emphasized, “These plans are for massing only… They are in the early development stages and is in no way the intent of [what] the area will look like.” More detailed site plans are expected in mid January.
Realizing the vision requires a rewriting of the West Avenue Bay Front Overlay, a zoning designation that has been in place since 2002 and which does not allow for commercial uses. The full district is bounded by 17th Street to the north, 11th Street to the South, Alton Alley to the east, and Biscayne Bay to the west. It does allow buildings of five stories with a 1.25 FAR (floor area ratio or density) something that intrigued Glaser though there are restrictions on lot aggregation. He first learned about the district when developer Russell Galbut received approval to build 1212 Lincoln Road, a project that includes tearing down the Wells Fargo bank building and its mosaic murals. Glaser said he was unaware the area could be rebuilt from the ground up thinking it included protections afforded to buildings in the City’s nearby historic districts.
Planning Director Tom Mooney explained the West Avenue Overlay as being “preservation-like” meaning, he said, “It’s not a requirement for the preservation of existing buildings. You can remove, replace the buildings. There’s no Preservation Board requirements.”
What the Overlay does, according to Mooney, is “incentivizes the retention of the significant low-scale, primarily Miami Modern buildings in the area and creates a framework for new construction to adhere to the existing context, the low-build context, primarily individual buildings on individual lots.” The incentives include allowing office use and hotel suites without accessory uses such as restaurants if you renovate an existing MiMo building within the Overlay. The Overlay was put into place in response to some of the large projects that went up in the 1990s, he said. While he was not involved in the crafting of the West Avenue Overlay, Mooney said his understanding is there was “no traction to create another historic district in that area” but a desire to maintain the low-scale context, hence the restriction on lot aggregation.
Glaser envisions smaller residential buildings of four and five stories but which cover larger areas and include cafés, small retail shops and a plaza similar to what you find in European cities to create a “cohesiveness” and more pedestrian friendly area. He estimates there are now 120 properties, about half single-family homes and, the rest, small apartment buildings with 4-8-12 units sprinkled throughout. (See context photos at end of article.)
Glaser and several other investors including brothers Sean Posner and Jarrett Posner, Charles Ratner, and Fred Carlton, have purchased a total of six properties. The group has been “slowly and surely” buying property over the past 2.5 years. It’s an area that Glaser says has “very little turnover.” He acknowledges that “eventually it will turn into a speculation fest” but his interest is in seeing it get done. “As long as enough stuff gets accumulated and it gets done," he said he'll be happy.
“This is as ambitious as the Design District was, pulling it all together,” he told RE:MiamiBeach.
In addition to commercial uses, Glaser wants the Overlay to allow the aggregation of more than two lots. He says that in the 16 years the Overlay has been in place, only three new projects have been built which he says indicates the incentives have failed. “It didn’t motivate any developers,” he said.
Mooney said new development wasn’t really the intent of the Overlay but rather "to encourage the retention of existing buildings and ensure replacement buildings would be more consistent with that scale."
While they may disagree on the intent, both Mooney and Glaser point to Gregg Covin’s Treehouse Residences project at 15th Terrace and Bay Road that is almost ready for delivery. Mooney describes the project as being “very sensitive and contextually compatible” with the area. Glaser and Covin invested together in Zaha Hadid’s 1000 Museum project in Miami. Glaser called the Treehouse project “definitely a Gucci-type site” saying it could be included “into our cohesive program.”
The other two projects built since the 2002 Overlay are the Alliage at 1428 West and SOBE Bay Condo at 1577 Bay Road, also in Glaser’s target area.
Rock Soffer also bought a single-family house in the area, Glaser said. “He didn’t buy based on my idea but in an area that he thinks is up and coming.” Soffer is “definitely a guy I would say put in” on the project.
Glaser has begun reaching out to City Commissioners, large property owners, and community leaders to “feel the temperature” of revisiting the Overlay. Commissioner Ricky Arriola plans to put the idea on the Commission’s January agenda as a referral for discussion by the Land Use and Development Committee (LUDC). Glaser says he's walking the area with LUDC Chair, Commissioner John Alemán next week.
“I think it’s an interesting concept and worthy of discussion,” Arriola told RE:MiamiBeach. “I think the area has become very stagnant and if you’re an existing homeowner and you want to unlock value, this is a potential avenue for that. It potentially makes for a more interesting and creative neighborhood.”Both Arriola and Glaser referred to the area as a “forgotten neighborhood.”
“What Todd has proposed is innovative and forward thinking,” Arriola said. “I think it’s a win-win for everybody… to create a much more beautiful urban landscape that’s more walkable, that’s more safe and that visually can become more attractive.”
Arriola who was recently the subject of an article in the Miami Herald asking “Has Miami Beach lost its mojo” and Glaser agree the City has lost some of its allure.
“The City has been obliterated by Wynwood,” Glaser says. People may come to see the iconic 1111 Lincoln Road structure but “when they walk around and see all these empty stores, they’re going to Wynwood.” He envisions his project as not only a cohesive district but the completion of a large path around the City connecting Lincoln Road, Española Way, Ocean Drive, and WoW.
The City also faces the challenge of sea level rise. “In the next two to five years flood insurance is going to destroy the neighborhood,” Glaser says. On the single-family home properties that he owns in the area, flood insurance that used to cost $1,200 annually has risen to $5,800 in two years. Many of the homes are three to four feet below the minimum elevation requirements for new construction, he says. He points out that if premiums go as high as $15,000 to $25,000, owners of properties valued at $250,000 could end up paying full property value within ten years in flood insurance. The more resilient a building, “the more boxes you can check off” for insurance discounts, he adds, another benefit to his plan.
Mooney said that “replacement of lower lying buildings” with code compliant structures is something that is going to happen over time in “any multi-family area that’s outside the historic district.” The City, he said, has been modifying the RM-1 and RM-2 residential zoning district regulations in anticipation of that. “The West Avenue Overlay certainly as written does not prohibit that.” He noted Covin’s Treehouse Residences “bear that out because those have been designed in a very resilient manner.”
“You can do a highly resilient project in that Overlay… there are no restrictions on replacing any of those buildings… nor prohibitions on converting to a multi-family” project, Mooney said of the current zoning in the area.
There are “two issues Todd is going to have to deal with in terms of a Code change,” Mooney said. “One would be whether or not there should be some relaxation of the lot aggregation restrictions to allow for larger buildings that have the types of connections he’s looking for… which could impact the context” of the neighborhood. At the time the Overlay went into effect, he said, residents were supportive of the restriction.
“The other that’s going to need further study is the introduction of non-resident uses,” he said. “In 2013 hotels were banned in the entire area at the request of residents” because they didn’t want amenity and commercial uses in the area. “Up until now, there has not been a big appetite for introducing non-residential uses,” Mooney added. He pointed to the proximity of commercial uses on Alton Road a block away and West Avenue south of 11th Street to indicate residents in the area do have places to eat and shop.
Gayle Durham, president of the West Avenue Neighborhood Association (WAvNA), has lived in Glaser’s proposed WoW district since 2004. She’s met with Glaser but said in an email, “Honestly, I do not yet understand the concept of the proposed project.” She’s not a fan of the commercial area to the east on Alton Road mentioned by Mooney, however. “If [Glaser’s project is] more cell phone stores and fast food places… then that is not an improvement. We already have that. It’s called Alton Rd.”
That said, with the West Avenue Overlay buffeted by two projects being developed by Russell Galbut’s Crescent Heights, 1212 Lincoln Road and 500 Alton, she said, Glaser’s proposed overlay should offer lower rents than both while providing “potential customers within walking distance to shops in the proposed overlay.”
Her concern is neighborhood quality of life. “The city has crafted ordinances in the area of the proposed overlay specifically to incentivize retaining original buildings,” Durham wrote. “Todd’s wish list goes in the opposite direction. The area is protected because alcohol is prohibited. The area (zoned RM-1) is unique in that suite-hotels are allowed where otherwise they are not allowed in RM-1 citywide. But since there is no alcohol the suite-hotels are quiet and calm.”
“I hope we move in the right direction” with any changes, she said.
For his part, Glaser has promised no bars or nightclubs, only “small 60 seat restaurants.” He doesn’t want additional height but wants to be able to aggregate lots and bring buildings up to today’s code including resiliency standards. The retail shops he envisions are on the smaller side at 2,500 square feet. “Marshalls isn’t coming in,” he said.
And he wants residents to be able to stay. He’s proposing relocating residents for a couple of years while the project is being built and then “bring them back here because they’ve lived here so long,” he said. “I want them to be able to stay in the area and not drive by and say I used to live there… We want a community.”
He knows it’s a big idea and he talks of “building a legacy” with this project. “This is something I could put my name on and make this City world class again.” In some ways, it is like the Faena District, he said, which was “an area that was once rundown” but is now “an area where people are coming” and that has that “cohesiveness of culture” that he’s looking for.
“It’s a long shot,” he says, “but I didn’t think I could build 1000 Museum.”
Maps courtesy DOMO Architecture + Design
Context photos by Susan Askew, RE:MiamiBeach