North Miami voters will decide on height exemption tied to 176-acre residential project
By Frank Norton
Plans for a high-rise development estimated to be worth $1 billion to North Miami gained ground Tuesday when council members decided to let voters decide whether to sidestep a two-decades-old height restriction.
The project's latest plans for the 176-acre Munisport site, purchased by the city and once planned as a sports complex, call for 24-story towers with as many as 5,000 low- and high-rise condo units.
The Nov. 5 ballot question to enable height variances only for the Munisport site is seen as the opening salvo in a battle over whether to allow high-rise development. The site stretches east to the bay from Biscayne Boulevard between Northeast 135th and 151st streets.
North Miami Mayor Joe Celestin, who is pushing the change, says lifting the height restriction will let condo towers rise over Biscayne Bay and start paying the city back for the lost 30 years and $30 million it spent financing the still un-commercialized area. City taxpayers bought the land for the sports complex that never materialized.
But a citizen's coalition supporting the height limit pledges to fight the change, saying such a development would jam traffic and disrupt the city's quiet ambience.
"Twenty-five story buildings are too much in terms of traffic, congestion and new school students," said coalition member Judy Feldman. "The city council is operating in haste to do something there just because it's there to do," she said.
Coalition leader and attorney Joe Weil agreed, saying North Miami's City Council is "putting the cart before the horse," in counting the development's dollars before its consequences.
"The next step is to organize a political campaign and whup 'em," he said referring to plans to mobilize voters against the change. "The council can do what it wants now, but the people have the last word."
Mr. Weil and other opponents say the mayor and council are moving rashly.
In April, the city picked the Hollywood-based Swerdlow Group to build a 2,200-unit, low-rise rental complex at Munisport, but the mayor and some council members want to double the project's scope to allow up to 5,000 condo units in a high-rise design.
Mayor Celestin said the bigger project would pump about $13 million a year into the city's tax base that could then be used to lower property taxes and finance downtown renewal.
"This was originally a $500 million project. If we go to high-rise development it becomes a billion-dollar project and that will maximize returns, Mayor Celestin said.
"We will earn about $13 million a year in taxes alone. That's a good 5% to 10% of our budget and that's relief for the entire city," he added.
North Miami's annual budget is about $80 million.
Under the plan, the city would also lock in long-term leasing revenues plus a percentage of gross sales.
"We could be in a position in future to even lower taxes because well have such a strong capital base," Mayor Celestin said.
According to developer Michael Swerdlow, the high-rise project would greatly enrich the city.
"It's 200 years of real estate taxes," he said, referring to terms still being negotiated. "This is enormous and would change the fate of the city. We'd like to make the city a fortune and succeed financially as well."
Mayor Celestin said planners are also looking to attract two hotels to boost commercial tax revenue at the site.
"We're looking at two nationals," he said, "something like a Sheraton or Embassy Suites."
The Swerdlow Group's proposal to North Miami also includes a 90,000-square-foot Olympic training facility separate from the Munisport site that could cost $9 million-$15 million, city officials said.
The center for Olympics combative sports such as boxing, wrestling and judo would occupy the site now used by the county library system, according to documents from Swerdlow. The developer would assist with construction of a new library.
It's unclear whether Swerdlow's plan for an Olympics training complex would be contingent on the developer winning an exemption from the city's height restrictions for the residential proposal at the Munisport site.
"We've talked about building an Olympic sports center at recent meetings with Mr. Swerdlow," said North Miami Councilman Scott Galvin, who has been working with the developer on the project. "He's dangling the carrot in front of us to bring Olympic training to North Miami. That's a tremendous offer, although he didn't have to win me over."
Company Principal Michael Swerdlow said he already has an agreement with national Olympic governing bodies to relocate training operations to the city. He said his company is still working out the terms of an agreement for the site.
The facility would require land-use, zoning and other approvals as well as a viable lease between the city and Swerdlow. According to documents from the developer, the lease would have to be for 99 years.
The Swerdlow Group is also in a partnership with Ripley Entertainment Inc. for an aquarium tourist attraction on an undetermined site in Miami. The partnership expects to submit that proposal in September.