Mayor calls commission to discuss
contentious Miami 21
Daily Business Review
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
Commissioners, by city charter, don’t typically
meet in August. But with city elections set for
November, Diaz has little time left for any
“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
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
“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
Sanchez, who is running for mayor, postponed the
“The vote regarding Miami 21 will not distract
staff away from working on the city budget,”
Diaz said in a July 27 statement.
Aside from the hearing schedule, neighborhood
activists, as well as developers, worry the new
code will give the city’s planning director
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
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
“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
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
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
“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)