Going up:North Bay Village, pop.7,000, adding 712 housing units
By Jaime Levy
The bedroom community of North Bay Village is about to see a wave of development wash over its shores.
Tucked between downtown Miami and Miami Beach along the John F. Kennedy Causeway, this city of fewer than 7,000 residents is about to also become home to 711 new apartment and condominium units that are approved by the city commission and in varying stages of preparation for groundbreakings. At least 140 more units have been proposed. And a major grocery chain, government leaders say, is considering a site in the village.
Aided by an elected government that ran on a pro-development platform, developers say they expect a rapid awakening for the sleepy community.
"I think it's going to be very upscale, with very nice residential amenities in place. It's going to look a lot like Bal Harbour," said Michael Wohl, president of Southern Properties Fund, developer of a $70 million, 6.8-acre, 417-unit project at the now-vacant base of horseshoe-shaped Harbor Island - the biggest project on the city's table. "It'll have a radiation effect, because all the other apartments, in order to compete with us, will have to improve amenities, increase the quality of their look. Hopefully, it will jumpstart a resurgence of the area."
Coordinating the development charge is City Manager Rafael Casals, who expounds upon the joy he finds in listening to his constituents complain about small-town problems: a neighbor's noisy music or a dog that relieves itself on the sidewalk. Aside from the city government's pro-development policies - such as calling special commission meetings to hustle along new projects, having a privatized inspections department and offering five-story bonuses for developers who make certain community investments - Mr. Casals attributes the area's budding growth to low interest rates and a North Beach renaissance.
"The way the economy is going now, it's safer to invest in real estate because interest rates are the lowest possible," he said. "South Beach is built out. If you're a developer, you want to go to the next hot spot.
"We know we're a bedroom community," he continued. "We're not trying to be like downtown Miami, Coconut Grove, Lincoln Road. But we're minutes away from South Beach, the airport. We're centrally located. As North Beach grows, we're going to grow."
The city already has seen signs of a growth spurt. According to figures compiled by Jay Manne, a member of the village's planning and zoning board and a real estate agent with Unique Beach Properties, the average per-unit sale of a condominium, just more than $50,000 between 1995 and 1999, is now above $70,000. Similarly, the average sale price of the village's single-family homes jumped from more than $200,000 between 1995 and 1999 to the current $300,000.
The existing properties were "built to 1950s standards of construction and design - and worse, then people came down to live here only four months a year," said Mr. Manne, who owns a 10-unit apartment building on Harbor Island, the segment of the city most prone to development. "We want permanent people to move into the community, invest here. Our arms are open. We're saying, 'Guys, come here, we're ready for you.' We're a ripe fruit ready to be picked."
And developers seem to be harvesting property that the city has to offer. Although only a handful of vacant lots remain on the village's three islands - Harbor Island, Treasure Island and North Bay Island - many buildings are reflections of decades-old architectural themes, pink box-like structures squatting along the waterfront. Some of these older buildings will be razed for the new developments.
One project slated to contrast with the city's mid-20th-century motif is the 15-story Sky, headed by West Bay Village Ventures of WSG Development and designed by Chad Oppenheim Architecture + Design. The slim white building, recipient of an American Institute of Architects 'unbuilt award of merit' and home to 49 luxury loft condominiums and a rooftop pool, is not without controversy: Clear Channel Communications lodged a complaint against the city that the building will interfere with a nearby radio signal.
Still, with no sign on site, the building - whose units range from about $300,000 to $850,000 - is about 75% full, said Mr. Oppenheim.
"The building has been reduced down to its pure essentials - floors, walls. What's left is great windows that look over the water," Mr. Oppenheim said of the building, which recently gained final city approval. "Everything is very much about views and water."
The waterfront views have attracted firms with definite or potential projects in the village: developers from Miami to San Francisco have put projects on the table. Government officials, too - the mayor, at least two commissioners, and at least two members of the city's planning and zoning board - have invested in the city's land assets. Mayor Alan Dorne, Commissioner Eric Isicoff and planning and zoning board member Roy Martayan, in fact, bought property after the pro-development commission took office.
Questioned by Mr. Dorne, Mr. Isicoff and Commissioner George Kane, who has held an apartment building since 1985, about whether their investments would constitute conflicts of interest in a vote on a relevant ordinance, City Attorney Earl Gallop in June issued three legal opinions. "Based on the facts you disclosed to me, it is my opinion that you do not have a conflict of interest," he wrote in each, basing the advice on the fact that each property was too small to qualify for the height ordinance being considered.
Mr. Isicoff said no plans are on the table to redevelop the two properties in which he is involved. The development of North Bay Village, he said, would revitalize the neighborhood.
"This enables the city to move forward and not be stagnant, like the 15 to 17 years when there was no development," he said. "I envision a new, improved, face-lifted, upgraded city - not a different city."
Still, some critics of development, including North Bay Village resident Roger Busby, are concerned that growth will destroy its small-town charm.
"The bigger money comes in, and all the stuff we love that's quaint and wonderful is gone and all of a sudden, it's glitz and glamour," he said.
But former city commissioner William Stafford, describing himself as skeptical of "irresponsible development," said few residents vehemently oppose development in general.
"I oppose anything over 150 feet, and it can't be that that's what developers need in order to build there. It's the developer's responsibility to make a profit, and if he can't do it in a 150-foot building, then there's something wrong," said Mr. Stafford, a commissioner from 1999-2000 and now an engineer/designer for The Restaurant Warehouse. "You'd be hard-put to find anybody opposed to development. What they're opposed to is irresponsible development."
But government officials say that what Mr. Stafford calls "irresponsible" - buildings more than 15 stories, mostly - do not violate the village's zoning laws, which allow a maximum 70 units per acre and heights of 150 feet, unless bonuses are granted. The zoning districts, Mr. Casals said, have been the same since the city's 1945 incorporation. And, he said, "The new buildings will do nothing but raise the value of the smaller neighbors next to them."
Added Mayor Dorne, "With the buildings going up now, it's incredible. The designs have so much improved over the last decade. We're excited about what's going on. We think it's uniquely designed by Mother Nature - having water on both sides. Either way, it's a gorgeous view."