Foes cry foul over Miami's approval of high-rise at Mercy Hospital
By Eric Kalis
Opponents of a plan to build 300 high-rise condominiums on 6.7 acres of Mercy Hospital land say Miami city commissioners defied an existing zoning ordinance last week when they gave initial approval to the project.
The ordinance should limit the project's height and ignoring it could set a dangerous building precedent in Coconut Grove, they say.
After five hours of public remarks, city commissioners voted 3-2 to change the bayside parcel's zoning designation from government-institutional to high-density residential, a critical step for developer The Related Group, which is working with Ocean Land Investments on plans for Grove Bay Residences. The commission must approve the zoning change a second time and issue a major use special permit in February for construction to begin.
Though the zoning request has been denied by the city's planning advisory and zoning boards, city planners insist the zoning change would not violate zoning law.
Mercy Hospital officials hope to close the $96 million land sale, negotiated in 2004, to help fund a $300 million renovation of the 50-year-old hospital. The condos would vary in price from $3 million to $15 million.
Commissioners Marc Sarnoff and Tomas Regalado voted against the zoning change. In explaining his motion to deny the zoning change, Mr. Sarnoff cited a 2004 zoning ordinance requiring that any development on a government-institutional-zoned property must be consistent with the least-dense abutting zone, which project opponents say would be a lower-density residential designation than what the developers requested. Mr. Sarnoff said he based his vote on the zoning ordinance. As a member of the Cocoanut Grove Village Council, Mr. Sarnoff voted to support the project.
"We are not here to solve [Mercy Hospital's] financial crisis," Mr. Sarnoff said. "The [government-institutional] ordinance was passed by the commission, upon whose shoulders I now stand."
Opposition to the project was well-represented at the meeting, as residents cited the 2004 government-institutional ordinance and the danger of giving preferential zoning treatment to a single parcel as reasons not to allow the project.
"The zoning code is being interpreted in ways that defy common sense," said Andy Parrish, local builder and activist. "If you allow laws to be twisted and turned, you destroy the right for that law."
Numerous residents argued that a 410-foot-high building would threaten the quality of life and low-density character of the surrounding neighborhoods. This comes at a time city planners are working on Miami 21, a land-use master plan and zoning code overhaul that emphasizes smooth transitions from high to low-density areas.
"This application is not to be taken lightly," said attorney and resident Patrick Goggins. "This would be the tallest building in the Grove ever."
High-rise buildings at Mercy Hospital would not be compatible with the low-density residential neighborhoods, Mr. Regalado said.
"I believe [Related principal Jorge Perez] is one of the best developers in the nation, but downtown Miami is where the big buildings belong," Mr. Regalado said.
Commission Chairman Angel Gonzalez cited an agreement between the developers and two neighborhood associations, Bay Heights and Natoma, to revert to government-institution zoning once they obtain an occupancy permit as the reason for his swing vote in favor of the zoning change.
Planning officials said the agreement to revert to the original zoning would not make the condo towers non-conforming uses. Both government-institutional and high-density residential designations allow a maximum of 150 units per acre, said Deputy Planning Director Lourdes Slazyk.
In recommending approval, Ms. Slazyk said the R-4 high-density residential use and the government-institutional zoning are equal in density and intensity. "Changing to R-4 actually eliminates a host of uses that would be allowed in G-I," she said. "It should be rezoned."
Planning officials noted that the property does not front South Bayshore Avenue and would have a private drive from the avenue. This, planners say, would negate the need for condo residents to use the hospital's main artery.
Project supporters argued a condo complex would have much less of a traffic impact than medical-office buildings, which could be a critical issue when the commission is set to vote on the building permit. The developers have said they will build an assisted-living facility on the space if the city does not allow the condos.
Former commissioner Johnny Winton, who lives in Bay Heights, across the street from Mercy Hospital, said nothing built on the property would benefit nearby residents but the condo development would cause the least amount of congestion.
"Nothing that Mercy builds will be good for the neighborhood, but they need to upgrade their facilities," Mr. Winton said. "As a neighbor, I do not want them adding medical-office buildings. These [condo] units will not bring significant traffic."
Coconut Grove Chamber of Commerce President Dub Evans said the expensive condos could bring a new heavy-spending group of consumers to the area. Furthermore, if the commission votes down the project, Mercy Hospital could have difficulty recruiting employees because of outdated facilities, Mr. Evans said.
"We cannot let Mercy fall into the category of not being able to get employees because of their facilities," Mr. Evans said. "The chamber wants [the commission's] approval."