HOME » Press Room » Friday, April 15, 2005
 News Article:  Miami to Scrap Old Code, Design New City

BY ANDRES VIGLUCCI aviglucci@herald.com 

The city of Miami, long criticized for helter-skelter development, plans to replace its antiquated zoning code with a neighborhood- and pedestrian-friendly set of building rules in an effort to map the future.

Miami, where complaints about hodgepodge development are as old as the city itself, is poised to try something completely different: planning.

On Saturday, Miami officials will formally launch an ambitious two-year effort to produce a series of comprehensive plans to guide the city's future development.

The most dramatic, and potentially contentious, element: The city intends to junk its antiquated and confounding zoning code -- which critics say encourages urban horrors like high-rise towers next to single-story homes -- and start over.

''We are really designing a new city,'' said Mayor Manny Diaz, who is heading the effort, dubbed Miami 21, and has made it a top priority of his administration. "It's long overdue. As far as I can tell, no one has looked at this since, well, ever.''

The effort will also include plans to improve transportation, parks and public spaces, and to spur economic development in the city until well into the new century.

But the code overhaul is the linchpin of Miami 21.

The goal is a simple ''form-based'' zoning code that clearly and concisely delineates where intensive development is appropriate and where it isn't, and outlines how buildings should be shaped to ensure attractive, people-friendly streets.

Miami would be the first major U.S. city to adopt such a code.

It will be written by the Miami firm of Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, co-founders of the New Urbanist movement, which seeks to revive the principles of traditional town planning -- denser, compact development and walkable streets -- as an alternative to auto-dependent urban sprawl.

Though perhaps best known for planning the Florida Panhandle resort town of Seaside, Duany and Plater-Zyberk's firm has more recently created urban plans for cities from Berlin to Baton Rouge, La.

The rewrite would take place even as a high-rise condo-construction boom of unprecedented scope is already recasting downtown Miami and surrounding areas -- gobbling up vacant land, flattening some of the city's oldest buildings and, in some cases, invading long-established neighborhoods where the quirks of the zoning code permit out-scaled development.

The city and its consultants say it's not too late to ensure that the new condo towers are woven into a coherent urban fabric.

''I think it's all good,'' said Plater-Zyberk, who also is architecture dean at the University of Miami. ``The question is how to make it all work together.

"Walking out of a single-family house and going two or three blocks to a Starbucks is pretty great. But having a 50-story building looming over your backyard is not.''

Some activists who have battled the city over development say the well-publicized launch of Miami 21 is meant to pacify critics while construction continues largely unchecked.

The city selected Duany and Plater-Zyberk for the task in May 2004, but it took the ensuing months to assemble a team of national economic, transportation and legal experts.

In the meantime, city planning statistics show, 51 large-scale projects have been approved across Miami, encompassing 17,776 residential units and more than three million square feet of floor space. Applications for new buildings continue to flow in.

The city's largest residents' group nonetheless intends to participate intensively in the public sessions that will help shape the plan.

''I'm basically optimistic,'' said Joe Wilkins, secretary of Miami Neighborhoods United, a 1-year-old coalition of 20 city homeowners' associations. "We've been victimized by the antiquated zoning code. The feeling is that the city has had a bias toward development at the expense of the neighborhoods.

"The city always says they want to preserve neighborhoods. This is a chance for them to put their money where their mouth is.''


The city fully intends to use advice from residents, Diaz vowed, noting that he also expects input, and potentially opposition, from developers fearful of regulation.

''We want that debate,'' Diaz said in an interview.

The city will be divided into four quadrants, with the new zoning for each to be completed and enacted in successive six-month blocks, starting with the city's northeast neighborhoods. When it's done, the rewrite will cover every significant commercial corridor in Miami and a quarter-mile to each side of it, encompassing virtually the entire city.

Parts of the current code date to the early 1900s, and have not been rewritten since, residents and city officials say.

Since then, new regulations -- called overlays -- have been added on top of the old, so that the code has become dauntingly complex.

It fills several volumes, forcing developers and homeowners to hire lawyers versed in exploiting loopholes, and leading to inconsistent decisions, city officials say.

Firmer and clearer definitions will lead to more consistent and quicker decisions, city officials hope, reducing the need for protracted negotiations or battles over projects.

''With Miami 21, the developer will know what he can do, and neighbors will know what can go in next to their property,'' said city Planning Director Ana Gelabert-Sánchez.

Also important, Diaz said, is an economic development plan to go along with the zoning rewrite to identify possible new economic uses and ensure that jobs or businesses aren't unintentionally hurt by the new code, as well as a transportation study to propose solutions to traffic congestion.

Also planned is a survey of the city's long-neglected system of 110 parks to determine how to put them to optimal use, and also look for ways to create new parks and public open spaces like plazas and greenways.

The new code would incorporate local plans already passed to protect neighborhoods like Coconut Grove from intrusive development. It would also formalize and extend planning guidelines already in use for large-scale projects that ensure condo and office towers are street-friendly -- hiding parking garages, for instance.

Such measures are now subject to negotiation because the current code doesn't require them.

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