Leo Macias owns a vacant lot in East Little Havana. He’d like to build a small apartment building on it to draw young renters working in nearby Brickell or downtown Miami, maybe 12 units, nothing fancy. But he can’t figure out how to make it work.
Why? The city’s parking requirements — a minimum of 1.5 parking spaces for every residential unit — make it virtually impossible, both physically and financially, he says. So the lot sits empty, just like many others that dot Miami neighborhoods like Little Havana.
And that’s why Macias is backing an unusual push, conceived by small developers and urban activists: jettison the city parking requirement for small new buildings within walking distance of corridors like Calle Ocho that are served by extensive public transit, including Metrorail or high-frequency bus service.
That simple amendment to the city zoning code, they say, would free small-property owners to build the kind of affordable, small-scale housing and commercial space that could revitalize medium-density neighborhoods across the city — not to mention propel the city into a 21st Century in which fewer urban dwellers want to depend on a car for every outing.
On Thursday, a key backer of the measure, Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez, persuaded all four of his fellow commissioners, despite skepticism from two of them, to agree to send it to the city’s planning and zoning board for review next month.
Is car-crazy Miami ready for something like this?
Suarez thinks so. He emphasizes that the parking exemption, drawn up by lawyer and developer Andrew Frey, an advocate of small-scale urban development, would apply only in designated areas with multi-family zoning. Most of those are pre-auto-age neighborhoods already filled with buildings and homes with little to no parking. Residents with cars now park in the street, as people do in cities all over the world, supporters of the amendment note.
The amendment would not apply within 500 feet of any single-family neighborhood.
“When you start reducing parking requirements in a city that is car-dependent, it worries people,’’ Suarez said in an interview. “But, from a planning perspective, we do have to start to understand that our city needs to evolve.
“What this does is allow for a certain amount of density that may not be efficiently developed otherwise. And it does it in areas where you can transport yourself without the need for a car. It’s in line generally with where our society and our world are heading.’’
Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, noting he grew up in Brooklyn, where few buildings have parking, readily agreed on Thursday, calling it “an organic change in the city of Miami.”
Commissioner Frank Carollo said he had not fully vetted the idea and was “not there yet.’’ Commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort said he was skeptical. Commissioner Keon Hardemon missed the discussion but joined his colleagues in time to vote yes.
The proposal has drawn a broad coalition of supporters that include Little Havana merchants and property owners, people in commmercial real estate, building-industry groups, architects and planners, urban developers like Goldman Properties, which catalyzed the revitalization of Wynwood, and the Miami Coalition for the Homeless. Advocates say the measure would significantly drive down the cost of building badly needed neighborhood housing.
The amendment would exempt properties with less than 10,000 square feet of floor area, and located a quarter-mile or less from a designated transit corridor, from the city’s parking minimums for both residential and commercial buildings, leaving it up to owners to decide how much parking, if any, to provide. That exemption would also apply within a half-mile of designated Metrorail stations.
Miami Beach and Coral Gables also have similar exemptions. Miami already allows big buildings downtown to apply to reduce required parking. Several residential towers near Metrorail or Metromover stations have been built with zero on-site parking.
City planners are now working to identify transit corridors, though Frey said those would likely include Southwest Eighth Street and Biscayne Boulevard up to Interstate 195.
The problem with the code now, Frey said, is a matter of simple math. A small building with eight apartments, for instance, would require 12 parking spaces plus driveway access, occupying some 5,040 square feet. That would not fit on a typical city lot of 5,000 square feet, and eat up much of the ground at larger lots that run to 7,500 square feet.
Frey says that’s one reason that virtually the only new housing being built in the city is in towers, because big developers can assemble land parcels to accommodate parking garages, and pass on the cost to residents. Almost no one is building the small apartment houses that once served middle-income residents and created walkable, middle-density urban neighborhoods with a distinct character.
Yet there is substantial pent-up demand for precisely that kind of housing in areas like Little Havana, where the vacancy rate is under two percent, a miniscule rate, said Carlos Fausto Miranda, a commercial realty consultant and property owner in Little Havana.
“If you look at the history of Miami, that’s been done by the local entrepreneur, not by a big developer coming in,’’ Miranda said.
But Macias, the Little Havana owner, says the current code leaves him no good option for his small lot, at Southwest Fourth Street and 14th Avenue. He could build just five units with the structure elevated on stilts, but that’s so expensive, and the return so small, as to make it financially unfeasible — as well as “horrible’’ in appearance.
“Now you’ve made a space that costs you a lot of money just to put cars,” Macias said. “That’s why no one is building anything. If you drive by the Little Havana area, you are going to see a lot of vacant lots. The area, as I see it now, it’s stagnated.”