Downtown Miami's development blueprint could be broadened to pave way for massive Watson Island projects
By Susan Stabley
The northwest chunk of Watson Island, primed for growth with a proposal for two hotels, shops, restaurants and a mega-marina pending, could become part of an already established development plan for downtown Miami.
The city's Downtown Development Authority wants the land to become part of the existing master plan for growth, called a Development of Regional Impact, first approved in 1987 for Miami's business core. A Development of Regional Impact, or DRI, is a review process in which local, state and federal agencies vet major projects in terms of effects projected on infrastructure such as transportation, environment and public services.
Today (12/12), the Miami City Commission is to vote on a lease to let Flagstone - the company behind the Watson Island project - use the city-owned island. The lease calls for Flagstone to submit a DRI and major-use permit requests within six months.
Flagstone attorney Judy Burke and development authority officials say they plan to request an expansion of the downtown area's DRI instead of having the project seek a separate application that could take up to 18 months.
"It hasn't been (made) official but it is realistic," said David Dahlstrom of South Florida Regional Planning Council, which facilitates DRI applications. "They have the ability to apply" for the expansion.
When Miami set its course for growth in 1987 by establishing a 20-year master plan for its business district, the Downtown Development Authority scored approval to create its DRI. Simply put, the process allows developers of major projects the ability to go directly to the city for permission to build instead of applying for a separate DRI - considered a lengthy and expensive review facilitated by the South Florida Regional Planning Council.
Adam Lukin, the authority's senior planner who was with the agency when the downtown Miami DRI was first created, said the plan was to encourage development in the downtown by making the process easier for major projects. Developments of Regional Impact require an analysis of how the project will affect communities surrounding it, from the perspective of transportation to environment to public services like schools and police.
The process of application and review can take 12 to 18 months and initial costs for $500,000 to $1 million, said attorney Jeff Bercow, who is vice chairman of the Downtown Development Authority and the head of its DRI committee.
"If a big project comes in, then we have already done the DRI for them," explained Mr. Bercow.
This gives Miami an advantage over competing cities like Fort Lauderdale or Coral Gables that don't have DRIs in place, he said.
On Thursday, the Miami City Commission will be asked to approve the second stage of the development plan called "Increment 2." The first stage, or "Increment 1," expired in 1994 but extensions were made several times as allowed under state law because Miami had a great deal of unused capacity, Mr. Bercow said.
Included in "Increment 2" are preservation of the Miami Circle archeological site, added emergency shelter sites for future residents and the allotment of $2.5 million to Miami-Dade County for traffic impacts, according to a South Florida Regional Planning Council memo.
While preparing for the approval of "Increment 2," the development authority reviewed the changes Miami actually experienced compared to what has been envisioned during the late 1980s.
Planners had allowed in the first increment for 7.4 million square feet of office space, a million square feet of retail, a million square feet industrial wholesale, 250,000 square feet of convention space, 1,000 hotel rooms and 3,500 residential units, according to an Oct. 22, 1987, story published in Miami Today.
But the projected boom of business moving into the urban core never came to be. Instead, came more demand for residences than expected.
Since 1995, about 17,000 residential units have either been built, are under construction or are in the pipeline, Mr. Lukin said. That's about 30,000 new residents.
"The numbers are now accelerating with projects coming out of the ground," Mr. Lukin said.
"We severely under-forecasted residential-unit development in the downtown," Mr. Bercow said. As that happened, planners swapped office space credits for residential, he said.
And congestion came to the area in a way that was different than was predicted. Mr. Lukin said concerned were about traffic tie-up inside city limits, but the biggest challenges for commuters is getting to and from the city. Most affected was State Road 836, also called the Dolphin Expressway, which has reached its capacity.
"The biggest impact (of a project) always tends to be on transportation," Mr. Lukin said.
The next stage should account for the city's projected growth needs for the next seven years, he said.
The boundaries of the downtown Miami Development of Regional Impact fall within the boundaries of the Downtown Development Authority, including Brickell, Omni and the Central Business District, but with the exception of the Southeast Overtown/Park West area.
Soon, the development authority will ask to add part of the Watson Island project, Island Gardens, to the DRI. Island Gardens is already on its way to become part of the authority.
The Miami City Commission is expect to give final approval today (12/12) to extending its Downtown Development Authority boundaries to include the northwest quadrant of Watson Island, where the project's mega-marina, two hotels, shops and restart will be built. The development authority has taxing powers and collects half a mill in taxes from all businesses with its jurisdiction.
A request will come soon from the downtown authority on behalf of the developer Island Gardens, Flagstone Properties, to amend the downtown DRI to include the project.