Planning Board Recommends 519 Feet for 500 Alton Road Tower

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Planning Board Recommends 519 Feet for 500 Alton Road Tower:

Project now goes back to city commission for decision

[We first published this as a breaking news story on October 23. It was updated on October 27, 2018 with more details of the meeting and the latest renderings. We have quoted supporters and opponents extensively in previous coverage of this project. Today we focus on Planning Board members and their comments, highlighting their reasons for recommending approval.]
The 500-700 Alton Road project is heading back to the Miami Beach City Commission with a unanimous recommendation from the Planning Board for a 44-story tower with a height of 519 feet. Last month City Commissioners on the Land Use Development Committee recommended 44 stories, 484 feet.
Mayor Dan Gelber, who is sponsoring ordinances to change the City’s code to allow developer Russell Galbut to combine the FAR (Floor Area Ratio) on the three-parcel site to build a taller, slender tower on the 500 block, asked the Land Use Committee and Planning Board for their recommendations on the maximum tower height. Now the ordinances go back to Commission for two readings and a final decision.
Galbut has been negotiating with neighbors since early this year when Gelber challenged the community to come up with a solution to move development forward on the parcels which currently contain vacant lots and the rusted shell of the old South Shore Hospital building. The adjacent buildings agreed to support a tall tower in exchange for a minimum 3-acre park to be deeded to the City.
The tower would contain 410 units. The Planning Board agreed to Galbut’s request for some hotel use within the property, also with support of the representatives of neighboring condo buildings in attendance. Based on the recommendation that will go to the Commission, the project can contain “up to 60 hotel units or 20 percent, whichever is less.” 
Galbut said his firm, Crescent Heights, provides hotel services “at almost every one of our projects and every one of our ground-up projects which this will be one of.”
“We believe in highly amenitizing product,” he explained. “All of our high rises that we built in the last ten years, they all have hotel services.” He used the Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton as examples. When asked if a major brand would sign on with such a small number of rooms, Galbut responded, “They will sign on for the entire building so it’s a residential style. All of these high-end products have residential components.” He used the Four Seasons in Surfside as an example which he said contains only 50 hotel units, “but all of the apartments get the services of the Four Seasons.”
It was noted by the Board and City staff that short-term rentals of units by their owners are permitted in this area of the City and that right cannot be taken away due to State law.

The park in exchange for the height was the focal point for the community and members of the Planning Board. Architect Ray Fort of Arquitectonica described the pink pathway that will wrap around the park and the tower, gradually elevating in order to be able to eventually connect to an elevated bridge over West Avenue and 5th Streets to connect the Baywalk on each side. $15 million in funding for the connector has been included in the Parks G.O. Bond question that is being considered by Miami Beach voters this year. Early voting started this week.

Fort noted the usable portion of the park is 4.4 acres due to the green spaces around the private development that will also be open. The park will include interactive water features, fitness areas, playscapes, a dog park, and “flex space” to be used for activities such as weekend markets and other activities including outdoor dining.
Park area to be deeded to the City of Miami Beach

Private green space combined with public park

The development is designed with maximum resiliency in mind. There will be a green roof on the retail space in the 600 block, a bioswale for water retention, and other permeable space.
Planning Board member Daniel Veitia said, “The community seems willing to trade height for this public benefit and they seem really strong about that.”
After spending a great deal of time with area residents, Michael Barrineau confirmed that observation. “I do believe these folks have made peace or are completely comfortable with the idea of trading some height for a park.”
“I don’t think there’s a substantial difference between 484 and 519 [feet],” he added. “I’m very comfortable that the immediately affected neighbors are okay with that. I do believe that the folks outside of that that are most affected have a psychological aversion to anything over 500 feet. I understand that but I don’t think 19 gives me any problems so I’m comfortable with 519 and 44 stories.”
Then David Weider added his thoughts. Weider, a former member of the Historic Preservation Board, said he and Galbut “have had our run-ins over the years,” but then said, “I can tell you that this is a brilliant project. I’m looking at the contextuality of the entire neighborhood. You have a lot of towers down there, people are crossing into Miami Beach, the skyline of Miami has changed. I don’t see any significant difference in 484 and 519 feet. If you look at downtown Miami and the Miami Beach skyline, it forms a kind of harmony now.” He acknowledged he has been “one of the biggest opponents of height increase” but given the positive impact it will have on the neighborhood in eliminating the empty lots and adding a resilient park, “I’m all in favor of it. I think it’s terrific.”
After Wedier’s comments, Mark Meland looked at Galbut and said, “It’s amazing that you turned this guy!”
Meland said, "I’ve lived here for most of my life in Miami Beach and that entrance to Miami Beach is really disgusting, an embarrassment to this great city.” With this project he said, the area “is going to be transformed. We’re all, the community’s going to be very proud of that. It’s going to be something that’s going to be beautiful… The park is going to be amazing over there.”
“I’ve always been a huge proponent – I know it’s probably controversial – of trading height for slender buildings,” Meland added. Taller buildings allow more open spaces, versus a “wall of buildings,” he said. Regarding the difference between 484 and 519 feet, “Once you get to a certain height you don’t feel it anymore.”
He noted he thought there were lessons to be learned from the process between Galbut, the City, and community.  “You can do horse trading and make deals like this for the betterment of the City.”
Nick Gelpi said, “It’s a very admirable project.” He, too, is an admirer of the park. “I moved here from New York six years ago [and] the lack of park space is noticeable.”
Kareem Brantley agreed. “I think it’s a great project.” Brantley said he used to live at the Floridian across the street from the proposed project but moved to Belle Isle for the neighborhood park when he had a child. Noting the challenges of accomplishing the project, he said, “I do think if you’re able to bring this to fruition… I think it will be something that the residents from around the neighborhood will thoroughly enjoy because I thoroughly enjoy my park.”
With that, the Board voted unanimously to favorably recommend all four ordinances to the City Commission with a height of 519 feet and hotel use with 60 units or 20% of total units, whichever is less.
Moving the FAR from the other blocks into the tower opens up the area for the park and is the basis for the zoning ordinances that the Commission will consider. The project does not require additional FAR, which would need to be approved by voters, but rather accumulates the FAR in the 44-story tower.
In order to do that, the City would need to “vacate” 6th Street, turning it over to the developer to create one parcel. However, the City would receive a vehicle and utility easement for the street. The vacation of 6th Street requires a 6/7ths vote of the Commission. In total, there are four ordinances along with a development agreement spelling out specific terms, all of which will move together to the City Commission for approval.
The ordinances under consideration are related to zoning and land development regulations only. The final design and operations of the project will go through the Design Review Board and Planning Board processes which also involve public comment
First reading at the Commission will be November 14th.  
Before the item gets there, community activist Frank Del Vecchio who said he was “caught unawares” by the hotel request has asked for a traffic impact study on the hotel use as well as a new appraisal of the tower with hotel usage to ensure the public benefit calculations are correct. He wants the item to be discussed at next week’s Commission Land Use and Development Committee meeting prior to it going to the full Commission in November.
John Stimmel, president of the Board of the Icon which sits across 5th Street from the proposed tower, said while he doesn’t agree with many things in the plan, the final orientation and slenderness of the tower preserves the maximum views for his building. That said, he is still hoping there is flexibility in the size of the parking pedestal. He noted the parking spaces proposed are those required in the City code, two spaces per unit, but he wonders why, when the City Commission is considering four zoning ordinances to allow the project to happen, it can’t consider a fifth to reduce the required number of spaces in order to reduce the size of the five-story pedestal. After surveying the South of Fifth neighborhood, he said, only the Continuum has two parking spaces per unit but it sits on eleven acres. The rest have 1.5 spaces or less per unit. The building, which has been billed as having luxury units most likely to be used for second homes, “isn’t going to have working families with two cars,” Stimmel said.
He’s also pushing for more landscaping and greater setbacks on the 5th Street side of the building though at the Planning Board meeting architect Fort said the area at the corner of 5th and West boasts the greatest setbacks on the entire site at 50 feet. The smallest setbacks are 20 feet on West Avenue, Fort said.
After 118 public meetings by Galbut’s count – barring any further discussion at Land Use next week – there may be only two more before the City Commission but they are, ultimately, the most important. 
Additional renderings below.
All renderings courtesy Arquitectonica




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