DOWNTOWN MIAMI

No parking? No problem for planned downtown Miami loft condo

 

aviglucci@MiamiHerald.com

The planned Centro Lofts tower may well set a new template for residential development in Miami’s downtown core: compact units, 10-foot ceilings, interiors by top-drawer celebrity designer Yves Behar, a signature restaurant and rooftop pool, and a two-story private lounge.

But no parking garage.

In its stead: a valet, a five-spot Car2Go auto-share hub, covered bicycle parking and, possibly, also a station for Miami’s upcoming bike-share program. Residents who need parking can get a spot at a nearby city garage.

If you think this sort of thing won’t fly in auto-centric Miami, guess again. Half of Centro’s 352 units are sold even though the building hasn’t broken ground. Prices start at $220,000 and top out in the mid-$400,000s.

“These types of projects are really the wave of the future,’’ said Oscar Rodriguez, senior vice president for the developer of Centro Lofts, Newgard Development Group.

That Centro Lofts is news and — to judge from comments posted on some local real-estate blogs — even slightly controversial may be no more than a symptom of Miami’s slavish dependency on cars and parking. Other cities have long been putting up residential buildings without parking with little fuss, as did Miami before the advent of the auto age.

But planners and developers say there is something new and different going on here.

In Miami as elsewhere across the country, walkable urbanism is undergoing a renaissance as young people flock downtown to live and work. Driving and car ownership, in particular among those aforementioned young, are markedly down. The New York Times provoked a national buzz last month with an article suggesting that the appeal of America’s car culture has dimmed for many.

That’s hardly to suggest that automobiles are going the way of the Brontosaurus, these planners and developers say. But it turns out there are enough new urbanites who don’t need — or want — a car for everyday use to create a growing market for buildings like Centro Lofts.

Eschewing garages conveys some significant advantages, including significantly reduced construction costs, and thus lower prices and maintenance fees for buyers. It also means livelier streets and increased foot traffic to benefit local shops, they say.

“It’s a sea change,’’ said Cesar Garcia-Pons, planning director at the Downtown Development Authority. “The current generation is much less interested in owning and paying for a car than living in a great place. The kicker is going to be the impact of not having parking.’’

Centro isn’t the first new tower downtown to forgo a garage, something made possible by zoning rules that exempt residential buildings that sit within 1,000 feet of transit stations in high-density zoning districts from minimum parking requirements, said Iris Escarra, an attorney at Greenberg Traurig who handled the project’s permitting. That covers virtually all of downtown given its proliferation of Metrorail and MetroMover stations.

“The building’s really trying to get you to use other transportation,’’ Escarra said. “I can only call it the New York feel.’’

The successful if basic, garage-less Loft 1 and Loft 2 buildings — the latter is the tower that straddles the elevated MetroMover tracks near Miami Dade College’s downtown campus — were developed by the Related Group during the previous condo boom. A handful of historic office buildings that never had parking in the first place were converted into affordable housing around the same time, including the Royalton, a 1920s boomtime hotel next to the Centro site that had long been vacant.

The Centro site, which backs up to the rear of the historic Gusman theater, was cleared during the boom for the third in the series of Related loft buildings, although the subsequent collapse put those plans on ice.

But Newgard upped the level of the downtown loft game after taking over the site. To design the 36-story building, Newgard hired the Sieger-Suarez Architectural Partnership, best known for deluxe oceanfront towers like South Beach’s Portofino and Murano and the new St. Regis Bal Harbour. It brought in Behar’s firm, named fuseproject, to do the lobby and common areas — including a dramatic stairway in the two-level residents’ lounge, Rodriguez said.

“We have spared no expense,’’ he said.

Newgard also integrated alternative transportation into the building plan. It struck a deal with Car2Go, the city-backed car-share program whose blue-and-white SmartCars are now a common sight around Miami, to install a hub in the drop-off area at the front of the building. Buyers get a lifetime Car2Go membership.

The tower, at 151 SE First St., will also incorporate bicycle storage for residents and a bike-share facility of some type.

To foster street life and synergy with the neighboring Gusman, over which the slender building will tower, Centro will also have ground-level retail and an anchor restaurant at the corner with Southeast Second Avenue.

Residents won’t have far to go for groceries. A Whole Foods is under construction one block to the south.

Because of their location on Second Avenue, planners regard the completion of the Whole Foods and Centro Lofts, which is scheduled to break ground in September and open in the first quarter of 2015, as critical links in the resurgence of downtown Miami. The projects will fill in two long-vacant lots and help create a continuous urban connection from the Gusman on Flagler Street to the Brickell Avenue Bridge and beyond.

Centro’s street-friendly design has won plaudits from Miami’s Urban Design Review Board, which last month recommended that the city approve the project, and the Downtown Development Authority.

Buildings like it are just what downtown Miami needs, planners say. If it’s successful, they say, Centro Lofts should help encourage new downtown development — up to now concentrated near the waterfront along Biscayne Boulevard, the Miami River and Brickell Avenue — into the interior blocks of the city’s faded historic core.

That’s because their smaller footprints can fit the tight lots available for redevelopment in the core, most of which cannot easily accommodate the big parking-garage podiums characteristic of the city’s new high-rise residential and mixed-use buildings. Many historic, architecturally distinguished downtown buildings that could be converted to housing lack parking entirely.

And forgoing garages makes for better buildings and streets, said the DDA’s Garcia-Pons. Towers without looming, massive garage podiums are more amenable to sleek designs and an appealing, pedestrian-welcoming sidewalk presence, he said.

“It’s never easy building on small infill lots,’’ he said. This will really improve the way buildings meet the street.’’

Escarra, the project’s lawyer, notes another advantage for the city: Parking garages are not subject to property tax. With a garage-less building, all of the floor space is.

The revived interest in residential buildings sans garages coincides with rising criticism of the city’s parking requirements, particularly downtown, which some planners say are excessive and a leading contributor toward growing traffic congestion, because they encourage people to drive everywhere.

The local chapter of the Urban Land Institute is sponsoring a July 23 panel at Florida International University to explore whether new development can be built with reduced parking. Newgard Chairman Harvey Hernandez is among the panelists.

Planners are also hoping more developers will embrace another rule that allows them to reduce the amount of parking in buildings that mix residential and commercial uses. Under the new Miami 21 zoning code, some parking spaces in those buildings can be shared by residential and commercial users, reducing the overall number of spots.

In downtown Miami, where MetroMover and a new city trolley service make getting around with a car relatively easy, providing a lot more parking makes little sense, some planners and developers say.

Contrary to popular belief, Newgard’s Rodriguez said, downtown has a surfeit of parking in garages and office towers, much of which goes unused, especially after office hours.

And for many of Centro’s buyers who hail from Argentina and Venezuela, the lack of parking is actually a selling point, said Alicia Cervera Lamadrid, who is handling the project’s sales.

“Many people from outside Miami pointed out to me that it’s insane what you all are doing with all those cars,’’ she said. “They don’t want to pay for something they don’t want or don’t need. Garages are not free.’’

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