The complex project involved over 180 meetings according to developer Russell Galbut along with a development agreement and ordinance changes to allow the tall, slender tower on the 500 block, an adjacent three-acre public park to be built by the developers and turned over to the City, a small retail plaza in the 600 block, and a surface parking lot for the Floridian in the 700 block. It also includes the pedestrian bridge designed and built by the developers with $10 million in funding from the GO Bond approved by voters in November. The City will also get space for an extra lane leading onto the MacArthur Causeway from Alton Road.
Design Review Board (DRB) Chair James Bodnar kicked off what turned out to be nearly five hours of discussion saying, “This is probably one of the most important [projects] we’re going to see in Miami Beach… and we’re all in favor of it in terms of its general character and the park but the devil’s in the details.”
Galbut said, “It’s not an easy project… It’s taken a lot of engagement, community engagement and political engagement.”
“We’re looking forward to building this park on an expedited basis as well as the pedestrian bridge,” he said. The tower design was the result of all of the community input, a slender building with the smallest possible floorplate to protect views from neighboring buildings.
Architect Bernardo Fort-Brescia of Arquitectonica provided the highlights. He described the park’s amenities, wide sidewalks, an elevated walkway, outdoor fitness area, dog park, open lawn and a children’s playground. “It’s not a flat park,” Fort-Brescia said. “It has undulations that create quiet oasis areas away from the street and it creates a gathering place within the site.”
A “flex plaza” with 29 parking spaces would provide parking for the retail pavilion as well as the ability to host small events such as outdoor art fairs. That feature proved a bit controversial after City staff recommended against it.
Fort-Brescia described the 15,000 sq ft retail pavilion with its green roof as "very much an integral part of the park in how it rolls up and down and within it."
The tower, he said, is “minimalist, simple and pure… There’s a certain purity to the form that was intended... to create this lighthouse or this pylon that announces the arrival in a relatively discreet way.” He noted a ring around the top that glows, “like a halo on top.” A transparent band marks the community space for the upper levels.
When it was time for the public hearing, about a half dozen people who spoke in favor of the project emphasized the importance of the flex plaza and the parking spaces.
Ralph Choeff, an architect who lives at the Floridian across the street from the proposed park said eliminating the parking “would be a great mistake,” noting all of the businesses at the Bentley Bay next door have failed due to the lack of parking.
Floridian attorney Edward Martos told the Board, “You cannot activate that park without parking. Parks need parking.” He used visitors to South Pointe Park who “end up rounding the lot over and over again" as examples.
“If you don’t have parking spaces [in the park at 600 Alton], you’re going to generate a traffic problem and that is something the Floridian cannot accept,” Martos said in urging the Board to approve the plan as proposed.
Gayle Durham, a West Avenue resident said she was “representing nine other people who are part of the Gateway Alliance” in opposing the parking lot. Throughout a year and a half of negotiations she said, “We met to negotiate in good faith and to make sure we got the biggest park and the best park.”
“We didn’t want a parking lot… it’s an unnecessary amenity that does not belong inside the park,” Durham said. “It is inconsistent with the enjoyment of visitors.” She doubted the lot would be used as flex space. “Most likely it will end up being a parking lot 90 percent of the time.”
Allan Kleer representing the Board of the Bentley Bay said they are interested in seeing a “successful commercial venture,” reinforcing Choeff’s observation of the Bentley Bay retail challenges. “We support the project as envisioned by the developer,” he said.
Another Bentley Bay resident, Janet Silverman, said, “We want retail that can be vital. To have a bunch of empty retail there that can’t be rented because they don’t have parking isn’t good for anyone.”
DRB member Mike Stephens said he would prefer to see the retail parking area designed “more as a plaza and not a parking lot.”
Board member Marsh Kriplen said he, too, would like to see a “better integrated parking solution.”
On the tower, the Board members wanted to see more developed drawings of the podium and how walkways connect along with further details on the railings, glass tint, and balcony separations.
Stephens said he was looking for “more information on the amenity band, how that is integrated into the façade. It looks like it’s not really integrated very well.” Though the project is described as “the most important project on Miami Beach,” Stephens said, “Right now the way this tower is rendered and the way it ends doesn’t seem to make it very important at all. I think that this needs a lot of work especially the top third… the amenity band which is the beginning of the top and the top itself.”
After five hours of very detailed questioning, the Board voted to approve the overall master plan for the development and the park but reserved approval on details of the elevated walkways, park furniture, tower balcony separation and materials details, and design of the amenity band and top of the tower. Members asked for adjustments to the flex plaza parking area to be better incorporated into the park.
All are expected to be considered at the June 4th DRB meeting if the architects make a Monday at noon deadline for updated plans. Also carried over are two variances: One to reduce the minimum unit size to 475 sq ft and one for large monument signs at the entrance to the development.
The tower will include 337 residential units. The average unit size will be 1,282 square feet “over 400 square feet above the City’s requirements” of 800 square feet, attorney Graham Penn wrote in the DRB application. “In order to provide for a smaller unit option, the Applicant is proposing to develop up to 40 units at a minimum size of 475 square feet, where 550 square feet would be required. The Applicant believes that providing a wider range of unit sizes will ensure a vibrant mix of residents in the development.”
The Development Agreement with the City prohibits hotel use but allows the developers rentals of not less than thirty days on 10 percent of the units that they control. That number will be a diminishing number as the units are sold. Once the building is sold out, the condo documents would not allow rentals of less than six months and a day.
Variances require a 5/7 vote. The Board had six members on the dais considering the application and two, Kriplen and Marvin Weinstein said they were opposed to the variance for the smaller unit size. Galbut asked to carry the variance over to the June meeting when a full Board is anticipated.
After the meeting, Galbut told RE:MiamiBeach the actions were “really positive news.”
“We will be back with many of the details and improvements suggested by the members at the next DRB meeting,” Galbut wrote in an email. “Overall the Project is on schedule and we are excited about the Impact this Park will have on our community. The neighborhood connectivity to the Baywalk and Beaches will lend to a more sustainable future for our children and grandchildren.”
Next up was the City Commission on Wednesday to discuss the concepts for the pedestrian bridge over 5th Street.
Isis Mojicar-Hunt of Arquitectonica said the bridge is on a fast track with a goal of “building it by the end of this year in time for Art Basel which I know is a very aggressive schedule but we’re working full speed ahead on it, believe me.”
Like the overall project, the bridge design is the result of many complex and challenging requirements including ADA accessibility, having to work around the future Miami-Dade County rail system, maintaining fire department access to neighboring buildings and the Baywalk, and private right of way areas that can’t be built on.
Other FDOT requirements include height (there needs to be a 17.6 foot clearance), 2x2 inch maximum sizes for mesh openings “to keep people from throwing things on cars”, and a minimum height for the cover, again to prevent things from being thrown from the bridge.
What is now on the table is “a very concise, narrow plan of what could be built,” Mojicar-Hunt said. She emphasized the design is not final but the structure itself has “been thought out. All these things are coming together in a tight little space.”
After looking at two options for accessibility and in consultation with the community, the designers settled on one (above) that incorporates an elevator instead of a large ramp on the south side. The elevator will be large enough to handle bikes, though the stair will also have a “bike rail” so bikes can be walked up.
It will be “marine grade” construction “so you’ll have a nice maintainable bridge,” she added.
The Design Review Board is scheduled to discuss the design at its June 4th meeting.
Commissioners, however, were not enthused by the “fins” in the design concept presented to them.
Commission Michael Góngora said he thought the design mimicked the fins on the new Miami Beach Convention Center also designed by Arquitectonica. While he thinks those are “very attractive and it works there,” he said he didn’t like them on the bridge. “It’s not very creative. It’s somewhat industrial.” Góngora said he preferred the early concepts with the “really beautiful pink ribbon that seemed to wrap the property and it was my thinking that that design would carry over and instead it’s just kind of an industrial, cold look. It doesn’t really reflect Miami Beach.”
Galbut responded, “We’re changing the fins. What the final design is, we don’t really know yet.” He said there are “a lot of different ideas and a lot of different artists working on it.”
He urged approval of “the basic structure,” which he said, “is what can be in place for Art Basel.” The “cover” will come back for community, Design Review Board, and City Commission review.
Góngora still objected. “I don’t see this as iconic and I’m not going to vote for a concept plan until I see something a little more iconic, something that represents this city… I think we can do better and I think our city deserves better and I think our residents deserve better.”
Galbut’s partner in a joint venture to develop the project, David Martin, said “We have some of the most amazing artists that are working on this… If we don’t take this step forward today [to approve the basic structure], this project and this process really could veer off in the wrong direction in my opinion.”
“At the end of the day, the components have to be what they are,” Martin said. “We have to have an elevator, a ramp is not able to be done. We have to comply to the DOT specs.”
Approve the basic structure, he said. “The design is something we can come back with.”
Commissioner Mark Samuelian said, “I’m all for improving aesthetics… Let’s make this the most beautiful we can.” However, he said, there was an urgency around safety that needed to be considered. “In the last two years we had 43 pedestrian related incidents.” In the blocks surrounding the bridge location, he said, “There is an urgent public safety issue so we need to move forward and we need to move forward expeditiously.”
Góngora responded, “I know there are a lot of people that want to move forward with this and I’m one of them… I’m supportive of the pedestrian bridge.”
“I do believe this is an opportunity that’s unique in our city,” he added. “I think we can do better” reiterating his support for the “early vision, the more creative interesting renderings with the pink walkways… I’m not trying to slow things down, it’s that I’d like to get the best design possible.”
Commissioner Ricky Arriola said, “It’s important to move forward” but noted that he understood Góngora’s concerns and told the developers and architects, “I do want to challenge you to come back and give us some good options so that we can deliberate… something we can all get really excited about.”
Mayor Dan Gelber said he was excited about the possibility of having the entire City eventually connected via the Baywalk, calling it a “community changing amenity.”
With regard to the bridge, he joked, “Nobody elected me because of my sense of aesthetics… that’s why we have a Design Review Board. Their job is to make sure that things are aesthetically correct.”
“I want this thing to go,” Gelber emphasized. “We’ve got a plan” with “very competent people” working on it. “It’s time to get this thing done… It would be a great legacy for all of us.”
Commissioners bifurcated approval of the basic structure from the design elements voting 6-1 to approve the structure. Góngora voted no. Following the DRB hearing on June 4th, Commissioners are expected to see the design concepts again at their meeting on June 5th.
The project received planning board approval on April 30 for the commercial operations.