Back in August, Sweetwater leaders proudly celebrated the opening of a new 15-story apartment building across the street from Florida International University.
The privately owned building is leased only to FIU students and city leaders saw it as the first piece of what they hope will be an entire “University City” district that will bring money into the blue-collar West Miami-Dade city.
What officials didn’t predict: The students living in the tower would park illegally on swales and neighboring homeowners’ driveways because the city waived its normal parking requirements.
The 109 Tower includes more than 500 bedrooms but has just 25 parking spaces, which are mostly used by the building staff. Instead of making the developer provide parking, the usual practice, the city just placed a covenant on the land, requiring the developer to provide tenants with FIU parking decals. The decals allow them to park at campus garages across busy Southwest Eighth Street. FIU also is providing a shuttle bus to the tower on weekdays.
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The result has been a mess. Neighbors have called police and reported that the tower’s tenants leave their cars all over Sixth and Seventh streets near the building, sometimes even blocking driveways.
“I know it’s the students because all the cars have the FIU sticker on them,” said longtime resident, David Borges. “I see them parked illegally all over the residents’ streets when I go for my morning walk.”
Borges took his complaints to Sweetwater’s mayor and vice mayor, sending them pictures of the cars parked on the swale of the roadways near the tower.
So far, the city has dealt with the problem by handing out parking tickets. In some cases, cars have been towed.
Marina Carmona, a sophomore at the university and resident of the tower, had her car towed because she left it by the A&G Burger Joint, across the street from the tower on 109th Avenue. She said that when a parking space is available at the tower, students can’t park for more than 30 minutes, as dictated by the building’s rules. She said that the parking situation is a hassle, and she plans to move if the issues persist.
“With as much as I pay, I would expect to have a garage,” she said. “I would rather go somewhere with parking.”
The apartments, depending on the number of bedrooms, lease for about $800 to $1,000 a month.
While the building is rented only to FIU students, it does not fall under the university’s student housing department. Instead, the arrangement between the developer and the university is a partnership.
The next apartment development in the city, 4th Street Commons, will include off-street parking for residents as well as some guest parking. It is scheduled to open by next fall.
Sweetwater’s zoning regulations require student housing to have at least one and a half off-street parking spaces for each apartment. However, city commissioners waived the parking requirements in the 109 Tower in exchange for the assurance that students would have FIU decals. The decals allow them to park on campus across Eighth Street.
Vice Mayor Orlando Lopez said that the city didn’t foresee this parking problem.
“We thought we had covered all our bases,” Lopez said. “We assumed they would be doing what they’re supposed to do — park across the street.”
Still, lack of parking on the Sweetwater side has prompted students to risk getting a parking ticket if it means they don’t have to cross Eighth Street, especially at night. A plan for a pedestrian bridge is in the works, but it won’t be completed for a couple of years.
Lopez wants to educate the tower residents and avoid further conflict and financial burden to the students.
“Citing and towing may seem like the solution, but how do we fix it without hurting their pocket? ” said Lopez. “It’s a problem today, but it can be solved in the next few months.”