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Cash-strapped city of Miami tries swapping underused land for new public parks

Northeast 28th Street in Miami’s Edgewater neighborhood dead-ends at a scruffy “T” intersection at the edge of a big, rectangular inlet on Biscayne Bay.

Officially the cul-de-sac, which is surrounded by vacant lots, is a city street, North Bayshore Drive. But it’s just a few yards long, barely paved, and connects to nothing. The bay view, however, is splendid.

So when developer Jorge Perez sought the city’s OK to build the ultra-luxury Icon Bay condo tower on the vacant land and extend it over the “T” in exchange for providing a small, public waterfront park next to it, officials jumped on the idea.

City planners, Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, Perez’s Related Group and the developers of another proposed project directly to the south, Crimson Tower, outlined a plan that would, for the first time, connect the cul-de-sac and the neighborhood park to streets to the north and south. It also would ensure public access, and hand over responsibility for park maintenance to the Icon Bay condo in perpetuity.

The deal could signal a new approach for a cash-strapped city woefully short of park space and facing a gathering new wave of intensive development in and around downtown: Get developers to provide the parks by leveraging city development permits and underused public assets like alleys.

The Icon Bay park is not the only one of its kind in the works, though it may be the first to come to fruition. The City Commission has already approved vacating the cul-de-sac, and on Wednesday, after a one-month postponement at the request of Edgewater residents, the city’s planning and zoning board will consider a request from the Crimson developer for the city to close a short length of alley adjoining its property, another step in advancing the plan.

In an unrelated deal, in west Brickell, the city and a developer who wants to build a residential tower called Brickell Flatiron on a triangular property bisected at Southeast 11th Street by the Metromover tracks have been working on a proposal that would put a small new public park at the parcel’s pointy tip.

That would involve swapping a tiny, city-owned parklet at the back of the property on 10th Street for a chunk of the same size at the very tip of the triangle.

But some city officials and activists are now pushing for a bigger public park that would take up the entire portion of the triangle south of 11th Street, and developer Mallory Kauderer says he’s willing to consider that larger deal. One possibility under discussion, he said, is for the city to essentially rebate him a portion of impact fees from the planned tower in exchange for his turning over the whole parcel.

In any case, Kauderer is already fulfilling part of the deal. He is spending around half a million dollars to build a lush park on the south half of the triangle site. Designed pro-bono by noted South Florida landscape architect Raymond Jungles, the park is almost complete. Kauderer says it would remain in place, and open to the public, after he builds his tower to the north of it. The only question is whether the city ends up owning the whole park parcel.

“A beautiful park is a great thing,” Kauderer said. “If we can work with the city and it’s economically viable for me, I’m willing to do it.”

Some skeptics, including the Curbed Miami blog, have questioned whether developers like Related will keep their promises, and whether the city is getting a sufficient return on its assets, given that the deals eke out just a few acres of park land.

Last month, the city’s planning board delayed a decision on zoning and land-use changes for the Brickell Flatiron swap, in part because some members thought the city should extract more land from developers than it is giving up. The majority also felt uncertain about what Kauderer was offering because he has not yet submitted plans for his new building.

Sarnoff, who has been a key player in both park deals along with city planners, said he has pushed to expand the size of the developers’ initial land trades. For instance, he said, the park initially proposed by Related was much smaller. Now the city will get about an acre of tree-shaded park, including a sculpture garden, an exercise course and a dog run.

“I joke that it started as a postage stamp and it became an acre,” said Sarnoff, whose district includes Edgewater and Brickell. “It was a good quid pro quo.”

Sarnoff estimates both deals will produce a bit over three acres of park which would have cost the city a few million dollars. He hopes to do the same as other projects come up, and says the template might prove useful in other city districts.

Related’s “high-end luxury” tower, at 43 stories, a long, thin tower designed by Arquitectonica with a façade of rippling balconies, would parallel the shoreline. Its south end would be raised 25 feet off the ground on columns, affording an expansive view of the bay from 28th Street.

The landscaped park would wind under and around that southern end and extend onto an adjacent lot owned by Related.

The Crimson developer would provide a public pedestrian path along that condo property’s western edge so that residents of 27th Street to the south can walk directly into the park. Crimson’s developer, meanwhile, is asking the city to vacate an “alley” that, on paper at least, runs along the northwest corner seawall of the property. The alley doesn’t actually exist, and a chunk of it lies under water in the inlet.

Related would add a new street between the buildings to 29th Street, connecting the two streets for the first time.

The Brickell Flatiron has been through two designs that followed the lot’s triangle shape, including a city-approved 80-story tower by famed architect Enrique Norten that Kauderer said was scrapped after the real-estate collapse.

Kauderer’s revised plan would require taking over the portion of the city’s Allen Morris park that abuts his property. The park, donated to the city by the real-estate developer, is split in two pieces straddling Tenth Street.

With that additional sliver, Kauderer said, he would have a squared-off, more-efficient lot to build on, allowing him to drastically reduce the size of what would be a 16-story parking garage at the tower’s base. He would put an open plaza on some of the park site and would save its big oaks, Kauderer said.

“It provides us with a nicer project,” he said.