When the streets of Sweetwater were first overrun by illegally parked cars belonging to the tenants of the 15-story student apartment building, city officials said they didn’t foresee the problem.
But residents living in the area predicted the mess and even fought the city almost three years ago when officials reduced the required number of parking spaces the developer should build according to the city’s zoning regulations.
At a planning and zoning board meeting in 2012, three residents brought up concerns that reducing the number of parking spaces from 224 to zero would cause traffic and parking problems for the neighboring condominiums, according to the meeting minutes.
And that’s exactly what happened when 109 Tower, a privately owned building designated for Florida International University students, opened in August. Police started getting calls from neighbors that the tower’s tenants were leaving their cars all over Southwest Sixth and Seventh streets near the building, sometimes even blocking driveways.
Three condominium associations appealed a couple of months later to the city commission to revoke the parking variance that had been approved for the developer, but were dismissed for failing to specifically explain how this decision would become a problem and how these neighboring condo would be affected, according to meeting records.
Mayor Jose M. Diaz, who was the president of the commission in 2012, said that the appellants did not have a concrete argument to appeal the planning and zoning board’s decision.
Looking back now, Diaz said waiving the parking requirements probably wasn’t worth it.
“It was an idea the previous administration had sold us,” he said.
The city was able to issue the parking variance by putting a covenant on the land, forcing more than 500 tenants to park across the street at FIU. In the covenant, the university agreed to allow residents to park on campus with a decal and provided a shuttle bus to the tower on weekdays.
This left the building with about 25 parking spaces, which are mostly used by the building staff. The building management warned tenants through social media they are not allowed to park there for more than 30 minutes.
“There have been vehicles parked in the garage for an extended period time. We have made everyone aware that parking is prohibited here at 109TOWER,” read one of the Facebook posts in the 109Tower page, which is managed by Education Realty Trust.
This building was the first development to prompt what officials hope will become a “University City” district that will bring money into the small West Miami-Dade city that has been riddled with corruption in the past.
“If we hadn’t accepted the parking reduction, no developer would have built in the city,” Diaz said. “And now we have a development boom.”
Construction was underway for the next apartment development in the city, 4th Street Commons, as 109 Tower opened.
Donte Harris, leasing and marketing specialist for 4th Street Commons, said that this tower will comply with the city’s parking requirements.
The building, owned by Asset Campus Housing, will have 208 units and about 330 parking spaces, Harris said. This includes residential parking, as well as spaces for building guests and retail space. The building will not be exclusive to FIU students or faculty. It will open by fall 2015.
Officials also changed the maximum height for developments in the city to 15 stories in 2013 to further accommodate future developments in the city.
Students living in the tower aren’t discouraged by the warnings, tickets or even towing, because any of those alternatives don’t seem as bad as parking across the street and trying to cross a busy eight-lane state road.
Ashley Pinero, 22, said she used to follow the rules established by the covenant when she first moved in, but chooses to park illegally instead of crossing Eighth Street alone late at night or when carrying bags full of groceries.
“Now I try finding parking around here [in Sweetwater],” Pinero said. “I should be getting a ticket where I’m parked now, but I got home from work at midnight.”
Like many others, Pinero doesn’t think she’ll sign another lease at the tower.
Eventually, a pedestrian bridge will be built over Eighth Street, with the help of a grant from the Florida Department of Transportation. However, Diaz thinks the long-term solution for the building’s tenants is to bring a developer to build a garage adjacent to the building, which would displace the people living in the community next to the building.
“[Developers would] have to buy them out,” Diaz said.