City to consider residents' appeal to limit building heights
By Marilyn Bowden
A bid by residents to limit the height of new buildings on Biscayne Boulevard between 36th and 87th streets is to go before the Miami City Commission on Feb. 26.
The Miami Planning Advisory Board passed a recommendation earlier this month that would set height restrictions of 85 feet for commercial buildings and 95 feet for residential. Developers who bought land planning to build under existing regulations, which allow for up to 22 stories, oppose the plan.
The issue has come to a head over several planned high-rise developments, most prominently Cubic, a 15-story, 293-unit tower proposed at 5600 Biscayne Blvd
"What we would really like to see," said Bill Hopper, president of the Morningside Civic Association, "is implementation in a new zoning plan of the design guidelines and recommendations proposed in two charrettes held in the past 10 years."
The most recent public workshop, a year ago by the city and local residents, recommended a height restriction of 40-45 feet.
"We are supporting the recommendation of the Planning Advisory Board," Mr. Hopper said, "because we feel that 85 feet and 95 feet are better than what would be permitted now. But it's obviously not our best choice."
Morningside is one of several Upper East Side neighborhoods seeking restrictions on new development. Also participating are residents in Bay Point, Bayside, Palm Grove, Belle Meade and Shorecrest.
Jesse Diner, a partner at law firm Atkinson Diner Stone who has lived in Morningside since 1978, said he welcomes development and supports the planning board's recommendation.
"The neighborhood certainly needs to improve," he said, "and will require developers who are willing to invest in the boulevard. But there has to be a meshing that will allow them to get a reasonable return and still preserve the character of my neighborhood."
Many residents support the compromise out of fear that a lower ceiling would result in bulkier buildings, effectively doing away with setbacks, as developers seek a maximum floor-area ratio by spreading horizontally rather than vertically.
"The attention on height limits is overblown," said attorney Jim Wing, who lives in Morningside. "The real issue is the bulk of the buildings. It's no good to lose height if we lose setbacks in the process."
Longtime Morningside resident Elvis Cruz in a letter to his neighbors asked for support for a height limit of 30-40 feet while keeping existing setbacks. He cited the charrette recommendations and the historic character of buildings in the neighborhood, 95% of which, he said, are two stories or less.
"The city's Planning Advisory Board passed a proposal for a moratorium on any construction on Biscayne Boulevard greater than 40 feet. Whether or not to officially enact this moratorium will also be decided by the City Commission at the Feb. 26 meeting," Mr. Cruz wrote. "The immediate passing of this moratorium is actually more important than the passing of the other zoning restrictions."
Lucia Dougherty, an attorney with Greenberg Traurig who represents several developers with projects under way in the area, said the issue is a policy matter between the city and residents. But developers who are in the development process should be allowed to proceed, she said.
"When someone buys a piece of property," she said, "it's only fair that they know what the rules are, and both the city and the client should abide by them. If the city wants to change the rules, they should apply to the next person, not those already there."
Ms. Dougherty said the city is employing a tactic that would circumvent a state law that requires that property owners be compensated if a governmental agency lowers the allowable density in an area through rezoning.
"The city has said that changing the height limitation is not a downzoning and doesn't change the (floor-area-ratio)," she said. "If they downzone, they have to give notice. To this day, the people whose properties are directly affected have not been given notice."
Area residents said they are concerned about increased traffic along a thoroughfare that is already overtaxed.
"The problem is Biscayne Boulevard already has an 'F' rating," Mr. Diner said, "which means it's a major traffic problem. Residents and others are being dumped onto the boulevard at high traffic times. Development will only make it worse."
Property values are also at stake. "We're not against controlled, site-appropriate development," said Doralisa Pilarte, who said she has lived in Morningside since 1992. "What we oppose is the kind of out-of-control, greed-based development that has turned so many areas of Miami from livable to unbearable."
Citing a recent CNN Money report that listed Morningside among the top 10 ZIP codes nationwide for home appreciation, she said, "For years, we've anchored this area's tax base for the city. Now that the Upper East Side has some of the hottest real estate in the nation, we have a choice: help the boulevard become a welcoming Main Street or let it turn into just another overbuilt, traffic-clogged, cookie-cutter condo canyon."