Amid questions, confusion and pleas for delay, Miami city commissioners postponed a vote Thursday on a massive citywide rezoning effort, taking Mayor Manny Diaz's oft-delayed pet project off the table once again.
The postponement -- which came after nine hours of public comment and debate -- gives city leaders 90 days to hold additional public meetings. They'll attempt to address citizens' complaints and confusion about the sweeping new rules.
Dozens of speakers lined up Thursday to discuss the proposed new zoning rules, named Miami21. The rules are designed in general to convert a car-dependent city into a more pedestrian-friendly place by adding wider sidewalks and more mixed-use development along the city's major corridors.
The idea is that by mixing residential, retail and commercial space together, Miamians will choose to walk more when they go shopping. Eventually, such development might allow more people to walk to work.
Controversy is embedded in the plan's details, however.
Some citizens' groups complain that the plan would put new limits on public input into land-use decisions. Meanwhile, developers fear that Miami21 would infringe on their property rights and make it significantly more expensive to build.
On Thursday, speakers' calls for postponing any vote further slowed an initiative that has experienced significant delays already. City leaders had predicted it would take just six months to complete the first phase of Miami21, a plan launched by Diaz to much fanfare in April 2005.
It has taken about two years.
Diaz argued that the lukewarm reception Miami21 has received thus far demonstrates that it benefits no one interest group more than another.
On Thursday evening, Diaz said he was not disappointed by the new delay. Rather, he said the daylong debate had identified parts of the plan that need to be tweaked. He emphasized that numerous speakers who criticized portions of the plan said they supported Miami21 in concept.
"It's tremendous progress," Diaz said. "The issues have been narrowed down."
Opposition remains, however. Developer attorney Carter McDowell warned Thursday that the new zoning, in its current version, would be challenged in court.
Well-known Miami architect Bernard Zyscovich told commissioners that one of his developer clients would have to pay millions more to develop his property should Miami21 become law. And that property, along with countless others across the city, would have blocky, uninspiring towers because of other design
constraints Miami21 brings, Zyscovich said.
In downtown West Palm Beach -- where the consultant who is coordinating Miami21's rules previously authored a master development plan -- Zyscovich said the result "was a sameness and repetitiveness to the buildings that were being built in the city."
The city's Miami21 consultant -- the world-renowned, Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk and Co. -- defended the company's work in West Palm, saying a voter-approved building-height limit approved after the master plan was created had hindered the plan's success. Even with that height limit, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, one of the company's principals, told commissioners the work there was successful at luring redevelopment.
"We understand that the results in West Palm Beach have not been perfect," she said. "But there was a public component to that."
Members of the public at Miami City Hall Thursday generally criticized Miami21 as incomplete and lacking adequate citizen imput.
Although more than 100 public meetings and workshops have been held regarding Miami21, the vast majority have been concentrated in the city's mostly affluent, heavily white non-Hispanic eastern neighborhoods.
The city's reason: That area would be the first section of Miami slated to switch to the new zoning code. If that first phase is approved, the rest of the city would be added later in three phases.
Nevertheless, Hadley Williams of Miami Neighborhoods United -- a coalition of homeowners' groups from across the city -- said the city should not make any part of Miami21 law before the entire city has been informed properly.
"It is a great project and we're all for it, but it is not ready yet," Williams told commissioners. "There are lot of issues that people don't understand."
Commissioners themselves at moments seemed confused over one detail: whether many existing homes in the city would be deemed in violation of the new code.
Whatever the number, those homes would be allowed to remain, "grandfathered" in, and couldn't be cited for violations. What's unclear, though, is whether they'd face tough new rules or other hurdles if they had to be rebuilt after a hurricane or other natural disaster.
Some Miami21 opponents say that could mean potential trouble for thousands of homeowners.
The city's consultant minimized the potential impact, however. At one point Commissioner Angel Gonzalez became frustrated with the difficulty of figuring out which scenario was accurate.
City staffers pledged to simplify that issue before the plan is adopted.