Miami Beach

Miami Beach

50-story condo tower may require referendum in Miami Beach

A short stretch of road could ground developers’ plans for a 50-story condo tower in South Beach.

An opinion recently released by City Attorney Jose Smith could mean the proposal has to get voter approval before shovels hit the ground — a potentially costly process with an outcome that’s far from guaranteed.

Russell Galbut, managing principal of Crescent Heights, suggested in an email that it’s too early to tell how the opinion would affect his plans for what could the tallest building in Miami Beach. In part, that’s because the project is still in the very early development stages.

“We are working through many issues to insure we do what is right for our community,” he wrote. “We have no idea how any single attorney opinion letter might impact the project till we know definitively what the project is. We have the ability to accomplish many wonderful goals here by working together and that is what we plan to do.”

At the heart of the issue are complicated development rules: height restrictions and whether the proposed tower’s site, which spans three city blocks, can be considered a single parcel for development purposes.

The city attorney recently opined that the land, at the northwest corner of Fifth Street and Alton Road, can’t be considered a single site because at least one public street cuts off one of the parcels from the other two. The opinion runs contrary to a recent suggestion by city planning staff that streets and alleys could actually be considered a connection point between parcels of land.

The distinction is important. If the three sites could be considered one, getting the tower approved could be much easier. Developers could take the development rights from all three parcels, and combine them anywhere on site to build one tall building.

The developers want to build the entire building on the southwest corner of the property, leaving the rest of the land for a park, most of which would be open to the public.

Going up 50 stories would still require a change in city rules, though, because currently the height restriction in the area is only 75 feet. Getting the height restriction changed would require a super-majority vote of approval from five of Miami Beach’s seven city commissioners. The mayor, who is the commission’s chairman, already has suggested he would not vote to approve a 50-story tower at the city’s doorstep.

However, if the three parcels are not combined in terms of development rights, developers Crescent Heights and Related Group would have to transfer development rights to a site across a public street. Miami Beach’s charter, the city’s governing document, says that such transfers require a public referendum.

The requirement for a referendum was borne out of Save Miami Beach, a movement in the late 1990s “to protect the residents from over-development,” Smith said. The city attorney’s opinion was his interpretation of this charter section, which he called “the most important piece of land-use legislation that came about from that era.”

Even public approval doesn’t guarantee developers could get to go up 50 stories, though. After the referendum, the commission would still have to vote to change the height restrictions in the area.

There is another way developers could try to get their project approved without triggering a citywide vote: they could convince the city to give up ownership of the street that divides the lots. Such hand-offs are not uncommon. In fact, the city gave up an alley that separated the development site of the commercial development at Alton Road and Fifth Street, just across the street from the proposed residential tower.

But Smith said the circumstances then were different.

“Yes, the city did give up that alley, but that alley wasn’t being used, as opposed to Sixth Street,” he said.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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