HOME » Press Room » Friday, May 12, 2006
 News Article:  Public Has Eye on Miami 21 Zoning Overhaul


After months of delay, Miami officials on Saturday will unveil a partial draft of Miami 21, their grandly ambitious zoning overhaul, giving the general public its first look at a sweeping plan that could remake the look and feel of the city for decades to come.

But they must override deep public skepticism if they are to persuade residents that the city is looking after the interests of its neighborhoods, some of them long besieged by development generated, in part, by the current zoning code.

One thing is clear: Everyone will have to learn a new set of rules -- the results of which are, for the moment, still difficult to predict.

''City staff are going to have to suck their brains out and learn something completely new,'' said Allyson Warren, a neighborhood activist who got a preview of Saturday's presentation.

By the time it is finalized, about two years hence, Miami 21 would constitute a detailed development road map prescribing everything from building heights, shapes and uses to the width of sidewalks and the type of shade trees on specific city blocks, according to previews given to small, invited focus groups in the past two weeks.

It would junk an antiquated, Byzantine rule book blamed for helter-skelter development, enacting in its place a simple-to-read code that its designers say will better balance development with neighborhood conservation, leading to denser but better-planned, better-looking and pedestrian-friendly commercial corridors and residential districts.


"This cuts across everything the city does,'' Mayor Manny Diaz said in an interview after one presentation. 'Look at the level of detail, how specific streets and neighborhoods are being designed. It's going to take years before we see it all happen. But now we can point at a specific street or a development and say, `This is what we want here.' ''

Several focus group participants described the plan by consultants Duany Plater-Zyberk as meaty, thorough and complex -- and still incomplete. City planners say they hope to finish work and enact the new code for the city's eastern quadrant by fall. Work on codes for the rest of the city would follow.

''It's taken a whole lot longer than anyone anticipated, but if everything comes into play as they say it will, it could be very good,'' said Warren, president of the Shorecrest Homeowners Association. ``The devil, of course, is in the details. And we haven't seen a whole lot of details yet.''

Diaz has hailed Miami 21 as a model of public engagement. But its debut comes amid an atmosphere of mistrust generated partly by the long delay, and partly by what some activists say is the exclusion of residents from critical planning discussions meant to embrace public participation.


Among the examples: a prominent activist's ejection from a recent planning meeting for a new Museum Park downtown. Urban Environment League President Nancy Liebman, who was initially invited to attend the meeting, was asked to leave -- along with an invited colleague -- by City Manager Joe Arriola. Arriola insisted -- rudely, Liebman said -- that only one could attend the April 25 meeting.

Liebman and other parks activists had been eagerly awaiting a chance to examine completed but not yet released draft plans for the location of two museums and access roads in the proposed park. Some fear the buildings will occupy too much green space.

Arriola contends Liebman stormed into his conference room 45 minutes early, while a separate Museum Park meeting was taking place, and insisted on staying.

''She starts barking at me like a junkyard dog,'' Arriola said Thursday. ``I would have let them both in . . . but she got so nasty with me.''

Another instance: A measure intended to freeze some incompatible new development until Miami 21 takes effect was twice pulled from the Planning Board agenda last month after developers' lawyers sharply criticized it.

Subsequently, city officials met privately with the lawyers, and the measure was revised. Activists from The Roads neighborhood association and Miami Neighborhoods United complained that administrators never responded to their requests for their own meeting. A vote on the measure, which developers continue to object to, has been postponed until a public workshop can be set.

Another example: Even as the city was launching a new citywide parks planning effort and soliciting public input, Shenandoah residents found out only accidentally about plans to pave over much of the modest Bryan Park's green space for a tennis program.

Steve Wright, a policy advisor for City Commissioner Joe Sanchez who lives near the park, said a city advertisement soliciting plumbing help for the project tipped off the neighborhood.

Once the plan was discovered, Wright said he approached the city's Capital Improvements Department. 'A CIP person said, `We were told to keep it quiet, it could have resistance,' '' Wright said.

Indeed it did. Prompted by protests from Wright and others, the city is now taking another look at the project. (Wright stressed that he got involved -- and made his comments for this report -- only in his role as a private citizen.)

Some skeptics contend that Miami 21 and other plans, while welcome, come too late to salvage a city ravaged by the explosive high-rise condo boom of the past two years.

They note the city has approved tens of thousands of condos and scores of projects since Diaz officially launched Miami 21 last year. And several neighborhood groups are embroiled in lawsuits against the city over approvals of condos they contend are intrusive or over-scaled.

''We agree with most of the Miami 21 plan. The problem we have is, the plan is deliberately being implemented long after all the condominiums are approved,'' said Horacio Stuart Aguirre, a Diaz critic and president of the Miami River's Durham Park association, one of the groups suing the city.

''Never before have so many projects been rushed through the process,'' he said. ``Once you understand that, you see there is no good faith here at all.''


Diaz, city officials and their consultants vehemently disagree. They say the public meetings are an integral part of Miami 21 and other planning efforts, and that countless participants' suggestions have been incorporated into their reports and plans. Some neighborhood activists, like Shorecrest's Warren, agree.

The proof, Diaz said, is in the cross section of invitees to the Miami 21 preview focus groups, which included not just lawyers, developers and architects but also leaders of neighborhood groups and other activists, including some city critics. The groups' size was limited, he said, to promote meaningful discussion.

Diaz and city administrators concede they must clear another substantial hurdle: potential resistance from developers, land-use lawyers and even neighborhood activists who must learn a new zoning rule book and vocabulary.

''This, as you can see, is an extremely complex process. Our goal was to do it right,'' Diaz said. ``People should judge us for the end result, which is going to be great.''

One prominent developer's lawyer, Vicky Garcia-Toledo, said she found surprisingly broad agreement among participants in focus groups she attended -- in particular, about the proposed creation of town house zoning districts to buffer single-family neighborhoods from commercial and high-rise development.

''Conceptually, the mayor should be applauded,'' Garcia-Toledo said. ``Now, how everyone will receive it, we'll have to see.''

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