North Miami mayor wants to double scope of condo for Munisport site
By Frank North
North Miami's mayor is leading a drive to lift height restrictions for a condominium planned for 176 city-owned acres.
In April, the city picked Hollywood-based Swerdlow Group to build a 2,200-unit, low-rise rental complex on the city's so-called Munisport property, stretching east to the bay from Biscayne Boulevard between Northeast 135th and 151st streets. The group's plans are designed to meet a two-decades-old, four-story height restriction.
North Miami Mayor Joe Celestin and some city council members want to double the scope of the project to allow up to 5,000 condo units in a high-rise design. Mayor Celestin said a bigger project would pump more real estate tax revenues into the city, which could be used to finance downtown renewal and put North Miami on the map.
"With this project North Miami could become a different city," said the mayor, a real estate developer, land engineer and architect by trade. "It's the first major development in decades, and I want everything in place by the end of the year.
"The buildings could be taller than 24 stories. We are working on getting unlimited height."
The mayor and Councilman Scott Galvin, who also supports high-rise development at the Munisport site, said they are not seeking to lift the restriction citywide. They say the specific location of this site makes the height restrictions unnecessary.
The city's charter review board is to vote July 9 on the matter.
"I am very much opposed to it," said resident and attorney Joe Weil, who sits on the review board. "I think it's absolute insanity."
Mr. Weil contends the site, a former landfill, is a potentially "unstable" foundation and that neither the city nor the developer have made any attempt to ascertain the safety and viability of a high-rise community on the site.
"I don't know what's under that landfill and those five people sitting on the council have no idea either. They're putting the cart before the horse," Mr. Weil said. "Can you imagine the liability to the city if those things came down?"
Mayor Celestin said the partial high-rise residential complex he envisions could generate between 5% and 10% of the city's total annual expenditures, now about $80 million. He said he is convinced the Swerdlow project could break ground in 2003 and future taxes and land-lease revenues could boost the budget enough to enable major infrastructure upgrades downtown and elsewhere.
According to a report from Swerdlow, the city would make $3.6 million from lease revenues five years after the development's opening and that could increase to $6.2 million after 10 years. Tax revenues to the city would depend on the project's size and were not projected in the proposal made by Swerdlow.
Swerdlow Group officers could not be reached last week for comment.
Tax and land-lease revenues generated by the development would likely be phased in during the course of several years, said Angus Laney, assistant to the city manager.
Councilman Scott Galvin said the residential project could recoup old losses from a 1970 purchase of a large portion of the Munisport land. The city paid $11.8 million for the land to build a municipal sports complex that never materialized.
"It's been 30 years since the residents purchased that property," he said. "It will be 30-plus years before they see a return on their investment. That ROI time would actually be 40-plus years given the approximate decade it will take to complete."
A referendum on exempting the Munisport site project from height limits would likely land on the September ballot, officials said. They said a ballot question could prove a significant obstacle since most North Miami residents do not even know what Munisport is.
"I have know idea what you're talking about," said Emily Pendas who lives in a rented apartment on Northeast 81st Street. "But I would oppose" high-rise development.
"Too much traffic," Ms. Pendas said. "Without major transportation alternatives I would oppose it."