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 News Article:  Development: Mayor calls commission to discuss                    contentious Miami 21

Daily Business Review
By Paola Iuspa-Abbott


In a last ditch effort to leave his mark on the city, term-limited Miami Mayor Manny Diaz is pushing the commission to act on his proposed sweeping overhaul of Miami’s zoning code, which continues to be a magnet for controversy.

Diaz spent years on the Miami 21 rewrite of the city’s decades-old zoning code, only to watch it sputter. Both critics and supporters were surprised when, with just months left in office, he called a commission meeting for Thursday to discuss Miami 21.

Opponents of the plan are fuming the mayor would call a meeting to discuss Miami 21 in August — a time when many vacationing residents are out of town.

Commissioners, by city charter, don’t typically meet in August. But with city elections set for November, Diaz has little time left for any initiatives.

“This is an underhanded move by the administration,” said neighborhood activist Grace Solares. “They don’t want to have public input into anything they do with respect to Miami 21. They know full well that there are a lot of people who left town on vacation.”

She said many opponents won’t have an opportunity to air their concerns Thursday.

Miami 21 would change density, setback, and height rules; give the city’s planning director much more control over the permitting process, and potentially increase developers’ impact fees.

The code, which has been in the works for four years, has been on hold since January, when the city’s Planning Advisory Board endorsed it. The proposal must be reviewed by the City Commission a second time before a final vote for approval is scheduled.

“I am stunned, absolutely stunned that they would schedule this in August,” land-use attorney Carter McDowell said. The Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod partner represents developers who oppose Miami 21.

Diaz did not return several messages seeking comment. “Government keeps working through August. We don’t see it as inappropriate to hold a meeting that has been properly advertised,” said Helena Poleo, a spokeswoman for the mayor.

The scheduling of the first reading during August could call into question issues of transparency and public engagement, said Jonathan West, professor of Public Administration at the University of Miami.
It “has a negative impact on public trust and on public acceptance of governmental actions” he said. “The legitimacy of a decision, sometimes, can be questioned.”

Diaz’s move even surprised his allies, including City Commission chairman Joe Sanchez, who had scheduled an emergency budget workshop for Thursday to explore how to reduce a projected $118 million shortfall in next year’s budget.

Sanchez urged the mayor to cancel the Miami 21 meeting, saying city leaders had bigger issues to deal with.

“Hundreds of people have contacted my office about the dire financial situation our city is in,” Sanchez said in a July 27 memo to Diaz. “Not one person has contacted me pushing to get Miami 21 adopted before the mayor’s term expires.”

Sanchez, who is running for mayor, postponed the workshop.

“The vote regarding Miami 21 will not distract staff away from working on the city budget,” Diaz said in a July 27 statement.

Opponents' concerns

Aside from the hearing schedule, neighborhood activists, as well as developers, worry the new code will give the city’s planning director unprecedented power.

Currently, the commission and various city departments and officials all have a hand in overseeing the design, character, specific uses, occupancy and compatibility of projects.

The planning director should have to work under strict guidelines, McDowell said.

“The planning director is being given a much wider discretion to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ because [the director] likes something or doesn’t like it,” McDowell said.

McDowell said Miami 21 lacks sufficient guidelines, making the city vulnerable to lawsuits from developers and residents.

“Imagine the chaos created if Miami 21 is adopted and two years later is found to be invalid,” said McDowell, adding that permits granted under Miami 21 would become void.

Those concerns are unfounded, said Planning Director Ana Gelabert-Sanchez.

Under Miami 21, “The City Commission continues to have ultimate decision-making powers,” she said, adding that “the criteria in which the planning director bases his/her recommendation is clearly spelled out.”

A neighbor's fight

For almost four years, Hadley Williams and other members of the group Miami Neighborhoods United unsuccessfully pushed city planners to lower Miami 21’s proposed height limits for buildings near residential neighborhoods.

“Our comments have fallen on deaf ears,” said Williams, who saw a high-rise condo go up near his home and along Southwest 27th Avenue between Coral Way and U.S. 1 during a recent housing boom.

Gelabert said Miami 21 provides a transitional height between residential and high-rise areas.

“Miami 21 reflects many of the wishes of the public, such as neighborhood conservation, transitions to avoid out of scale buildings, and height restrictions — particularly when next to a single family neighborhood.”

Critics say the code favors developers by limiting public input during the permitting process.

“Miami 21 has stripped away a lot of those public hearings and allows the planning director a great deal of authority,” Williams said.

Gelabert said “each process [will] require significant public notice and opportunity for participation.”

Buying development rights

Architects also have concerns. They say Miami 21 will limit their creativity and hamper their ability to design innovative buildings. The Miami chapter of the American Institute of Architects opposes the code.

Miami architect Dean Lewis discussed his concerns with city planners. He said they told him height, setback and other waivers would still be available.

But that would be an uncertain process, he said, and waivers would be “granted at the discretion of the planning director.”

Lewis also said Miami 21 will bolster the city’s income more than help developers. The code would reduce density for dozens of vacant parcels citywide. Yet, owners could get permitted density increased by paying into a public benefit fund, according to Miami 21.

McDowell says a client that owns a Brickell Avenue parcel would be limited by Miami 21 in the amount of space he could build.

Under the current code, McDowell’s client would have to pay the city close to $9 million in fees to be able to develop the site, according to McDowell. Under Miami 21, he would pay nearly $27 million in fees plus the cost of buying back development rights, or buildable space, McDowell said.

A Breath of Fresh Air?

Miami’s current zoning code is outdated and flawed, said Miami historian Arva Parks, past chair of the city’s Planning Advisory Board.

Developers can now obtain spot land-use changes, often resulting in projects incompatible with the neighborhood, said Parks, whose term on the board expired earlier this year.

Miami 21 would give the Planning Advisory Board more power and she welcomes that. The board would be merged with the Zoning Hearing Board and its recommendations would have to be appealed to the City Commission to be changed. The planning board now only advises the commission, and commissioners often ignore its advice.

“It became very apparent to me that this advisory business was a sham,” she said. “Now, [developers] don’t have to file an appeal, they just have to lobby. Under Miami 21, it will become a much more transparent process.”

Paola Iuspa-Abbott can be reached at (305) 347-6657.