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 News Article:  City Aims to Put Lid on Zoning Anarchy
 

City leaders will overhaul Miami's zoning code because they say it encourages insensitive development.  But the planned reforms may be too late to catch the condo boom.

 

THE MIAMI HERALD

By ANDRES VIGLUCCI aviglucci@herald.com AND MATTHEW HAGGMAN

 

Why do city leaders plan to scrap Miami's zoning code and start from scratch? What makes it so bad?

For one answer, look no further than the almost finished Baylofts condominium on Northeast 25th Street in Edgewater, an old, low-scale Miami neighborhood on Biscayne Bay north of downtown that has been eviscerated by a troop of impertinent high-rise invaders. The nine-story building greets its neighbors not with a welcoming entrance, but with an inhospitable garage front. The curling concrete garage ramp is virtually jammed up against the graceful old one-story house next door, which sits in the building's shadow.

Baylofts is but one of many examples of the urban atrocities that city leaders say Miami's antiquated, patchwork code not only permits but encourages. And as a torrid condo-building boom spreads across the city, from Little Havana to Coral Way and upper Biscayne Boulevard, the results are threatened neighborhoods, disjointed streetscapes, unsightly new buildings and a widespread belief that developers can get away with anything.

''There is nothing like a development boom to expose the flaws in the current system,'' Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton said last week at the launch of Miami 21, as the effort to develop a new growth plan for the city is called. The code, he said, deserves "a starring role in the theater of the absurd.''

The response by Miami Mayor Manny Diaz's administration is a sweeping plan that over the next two years would replace the old zoning rules with a new ''form-based'' code designed to weave new development into a cohesive and lively urban fabric -- protected neighborhoods, appropriately scaled and sidewalk-friendly buildings, walk-able streets, open plazas and green spaces, all with an attractive and consistent look.

That's the vision.

Then there is reality.

Development at unprecedented levels continues, remaking old neighborhoods and streets faster than planners can write new rules. With the bulk of planned new development yet to come out of the ground -- 69 approved major projects totaling 22,000 residential units have not even begun construction -- some fear that new and unpleasant surprises await city residents.

While some have called for a moratorium or a slowdown on new approvals while Miami 21 is instituted, Diaz, Winton and other city leaders show little desire to slow things down. ''There is hope, but also a lot of skepticism,'' said Joe Wilkins, secretary of Miami Neighborhoods United, a coalition of about 20 city homeowner groups. "The mistakes of the past that they say they now want to correct have already impacted our neighborhoods. We can't tell yet, but this process may be too little, too late.'' Wilkins said city leaders didn't help their case when they declined to answer questions submitted by residents at last week's four-hour Miami 21 launch, saying the program ran long and that they would respond later online. ''We were disappointed,'' Wilkins said. "It was strictly a one-sided monologue. We would like to have a dialogue.''

The dialogue will happen, city officials promise. They say Miami 21 will be shaped in a series of public forums.


FOUR QUADRANTS SECTIONS OF CITY VIEWED IN SEQUENCE
To speed up enactment of the new code, the city has been divided into four quadrants. Each quadrant's code will be completed and voted on by the commission in successive six-month blocks, starting with the city's northeast neighborhoods.

The new rules, however, would not apply to already approved projects, and could not force developers to make changes to buildings under construction or completed.

Take Baylofts. It's likely to be there for many years to come, a dead spot on the street. The lovely house next door? For sale. For condo development.

How did it happen?

The explanation begins with the fact that parts of the current code date to the early 1900s, city officials say. Since then, new regulations have been layered atop the old, so that the code has become dauntingly complex, filling several volumes and requiring developers and homeowners to hire lawyers for any significant work.

Coconut Grove, for instance, has 22 different zoning designations, according to the planning department. Sometimes, zoning has been rewritten for individual projects. Variances introduce even more unpredictability. Canny land-use lawyers make a living exploiting loopholes, and developers' political pull has often determined the outcome. The result is inconsistent decisions that lead to urban incoherence and embittered residents.

''We have a city that's the result of people being able to build whatever they want,'' said Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the prominent planner and University of Miami architecture dean hired by the city to oversee Miami 21. "It was never planned, just platted and developed.''

"The current code regulates building uses and density," Plater-Zyberk said, "but says little to nothing about urbanism -- the art of ensuring that individual buildings blend into a cohesive landscape that respects the human scale. There is nothing in it about how buildings should meet the sidewalk, where parking garages should go, where entrances should be, or requirements for street-front shops and cafes to spur pedestrian activity."

Her firm has written similar codes for Baton Rouge, La., and other smaller cities, but Miami would be the first major U.S. city to attempt it, she said. ''If we're building a denser city and you don't make it pedestrian-friendly, no one will walk,'' Plater-Zyberk said.


NEW RULES IN PLACE GOAL: MAKE BUILDINGS MORE STREET-FRIENDLY
City planners have already instituted some new rules for large-scale developments or for those requiring variances. Those guidelines ask developers to make their towers street-friendly -- hiding parking garages, for instance, lining them with shops or town houses, and keeping auto entrances off main streets like Biscayne Boulevard.

Because nothing in the code requires those changes, however, they are subject to negotiation with developers. That leads to piecemeal, block-by-block planning -- and often leaves developers and residents alike guessing at what is allowed.

''Right now, it is up to the developer and whatever comments they get from the planning people,'' said developer Jorge Perez, who has two large condo projects along Biscayne Boulevard. "The result is that it is sporadic. It is like a mouth with twenty beautiful teeth and three rotten ones -- it still looks rotten.''

Smaller buildings without variances -- for instance, most condo projects of fewer than 200 units -- escape planning scrutiny altogether because they fall below the large-scale threshold.

"Left to their own devices, developers often produce incompatible construction like suburban-style strip malls set behind unappealing asphalt parking lots on Calle Ocho, killing street life," said Miami Planning Director Ana Gelabert-Sánchez.

Edgewater is a perfect example. One of the city's earliest neighborhoods, it fell into disrepair by the 1970s, when many residents decamped for the suburbs.

Instead of coming up with a careful redevelopment plan, the city simply upped the zoning sharply, effectively allowing high-rises next to single-family homes. Because no one wanted to build there until now, however, the problem did not arise sooner.

Projects like Baylofts, which fell beneath the large-scale radar, are one result. The city had no authority to tell the developer how to design it.

Another problem is the way allowable floor space and height are calculated. In its Miami 21 slide-show presentation, available online at miamigov.com/planningpages/miami21, the city's poster child for inappropriate development is an Edgewater project, Onyx 2 -- although the project is not named.


CREATIVE COUNTING TOWER CAN CONTINUE TO GROW -- AND GROW
The presentation details how generous calculations allow the tower, on the bayfront site of the demolished historic Bliss House, to grow as though it were fed steroids. The code permits the developer to count a strip of right-of-way at the end of the street, plus 90 feet of bay water, as open space, adding several floors to the already generous basic zoning. The street also counts as open space, adding several more floors. So does the plot across the street, which the developer -- BAP Development -- owns and will turn into a park, adding more floors. Finally, the developer will make a payment into an affordable-housing fund, adding even more floors.

The result: a 50-story tower on a massive parking pedestal looming at the end of a narrow street of low-rise homes, apartments and picturesque bungalows, some dating to the 1910s. BAP principal Willy Bermello was traveling in Mexico and could not be reached.

Whether such calculations and bonuses should be eliminated or scaled back will be an important part of the Miami 21 process, city leaders and their consultants said -- a move that some developers are likely to oppose.

Extra floor space can add millions of dollars in profits to developers' pockets.

To ameliorate the effects of the code on stable, long-standing communities, the city commission has also passed a series of local measures, including limits on development in Coconut Grove as well as guidelines that limit heights of commercial buildings on upper Biscayne Boulevard abutting a strip of historic neighborhoods of single-family homes.

The new code would incorporate those measures and expand similar requirements to the rest of the city.

''For some time, the city planning department has been trying to implement the very principles and legislate some modifications that are consistent with Miami 21,'' said Santiago Echemendia, a Miami land-use attorney. "The problem is that before, it has been done in a piecemeal fashion. Now it will be comprehensive.''

But planners concede that they must be careful: Any reform that appears to curtail development rights might leave the city vulnerable to ''takings'' lawsuits. Planners may have a couple of options for addressing the issue of over-scaled towers.

The new code could require tall buildings to step back sharply from abutting homes and have, in place of the now commonplace blank walls, ''liners'' consisting of smaller-scale dwellings like town houses. The code could require buffer zones of low-rise buildings like small apartment houses between high-rises and single-family residential districts, Plater-Zyberk said.

Some developers say that detailed guidelines on everything from street lamps and benches to landscaping and storefronts -- which Miami 21 promises to deliver -- can still come on time.

Winton said the Downtown Development Authority will prepare, in conjunction with Miami 21, specific downtown streetscape guidelines within six to 12 months. Of the new buildings in the downtown core, only developer Perez's two-tower One Miami condo at the mouth of the Miami River should be completed before that.

   
   
 
   
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