Miami expands mural zones, gives preliminary OK to big development on river

Miami city commissioners on Thursday gave preliminary approval to one of the biggest developments on the Miami River in decades.

Commissioners voted unanimously on first reading to approve a zoning change that will allow developer River Landing Development to spend $200 million-plus building a massive mixed-use project. It will fill more than two million square feet of commercial, retail, restaurant, parking and residential space on eight acres where the Mahi Shrine Auditorium now stands.

When complete, the site, at 1480 NW North River Dr. just west of Miami-Dade’s criminal courthouse, will have stacked big-box retailers on the east end, two towering buildings over parking spaces on the west side, and a large 90-foot promenade down the center leading to a 50-foot-wide landscaped river walk.

The plan calls for 444 residential units, 1.6 million square feet of commercial space and 2,418 parking spaces.

The River Landing project would be the third mega-development in central Miami after Brickell CityCenter and the Miami Design District redevelopment, both multi-block projects now under construction. These mega-projects are known as Special Area Plans under the city’s Miami 21 zoning code, which is designed to foster mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly urban development.

Alana Lopez, architect and project manager for River Landing, said the design goal is to “really respect the river as a muse for the project.”

The zoning change was adopted without any opposition.

Commissioners also gave preliminary approval to expanding the zones where murals can be hung. The city moved forward despite protests from federal regulators that advertising murals in Miami are often too large and close to each other.

In June 2011 the Federal Highway Administration wrote the state saying Miami’s 2007 mural ordinance violates rules restricting commercial advertising along designated U.S. roadways.

In March, Miami-Dade County commissioners voted to extend the urban core zone where murals could be placed, and to allow 10 murals to be added the 35 that are already approved by the city. Thursday’s vote was a move toward cementing the county’s action to expand the boundary to the south and west, and one that could pump up city coffers.

Now, if the item passes on second reading, murals would be permitted throughout downtown from Interstate 95 to Biscayne Bay, and south to just below the Miami River. The area tightens as it heads north, bounded east and west roughly by Northeast and Northwest Second avenues, up to 36th Street.

The ordinance would also allow murals in a rectangular-shaped region that would run from I-95 on the east, Northwest 14th Avenue on the west, Northwest 20th Street to the north and curve along State Road 836 down south. Also added would be a small triangular-shaped area that runs roughly from Northwest Fifth Street on the north, along Northwest South River Drive to the south and west, and along Northwest Third Avenue to the east.

The FHA letter to the county does not mean existing murals must come down soon, though it does appear the city will have to redraft its ordinance and draw stricter limits on banner size and placement.

The FHA said Miami is not conforming with the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, also known as the Lady Bird Johnson law, which was created to preserve urban and rural views from the highway. The city has been in talks with the FHA and its enforcement arm, the Florida Department of Transportation, since the letter was written. Assistant City Manager Alice Bravo said she is hopeful an agreement will be reached by the end of the year.

The vote passed 3-1, with Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff voting against the item, and Commissioner Frank Carollo absent from the dais.

Sarnoff was concerned over a demand from Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones that the ordinance be rewritten before second reading to allow commissioners to decide where the murals would go in their districts.

Spence-Jones was adamant, saying “there will be no second reading for me unless we address that issue.”

Sarnoff, worried about the perception of commissioners picking favorites to get a mural, said, “I’m not sure I want to be in a position to decide where the murals go.”

In other business, commissioners once again deferred voting on a controversial redistricting plan that threatens to split the city’s Upper Eastside.

The discussion has centered on transferring about 13,000 residents to Spence-Jones’s District 5 — which has lost thousands of residents in the past decade — to Sarnoff’s District 2, where there has been growth. The majority of Upper Eastsiders who live north of 36th Street have said they don’t mind which district they end up in as long as they’re all together.

The city has been mulling a plan to move the Shorecrest neighborhood from District 2 to District 5.

Commissioners were warned Thursday a decision must be made by June 14 because County Elections Supervisor Penelope Townsley needs the information to create updated voting precincts for the November election.

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