In a 90-minute hearing filled with tense legal showdowns and twists, the city of Miami’s Planning, Zoning and Appeals board delayed a request by the developer of Eastside Ridge, a proposed special area plan that would spread over 22 acres in Little Haiti and displace existing renters from the neighborhood.
After filing — and then withdrawing — several motions to defer and deny the request, the board finally voted 8-0 on Wednesday night to postpone approval of a requested zoning change the project needs to maximize its density.
It was the fifth time the board declined to make a decision, instructing the developer to do more work before bringing it back — even though one member argued they were wasting their time because the developer had no intention of following those instructions.
This time, the board instructed developer SPV Realty LLC to update the traffic study that was used as part of the original proposal filed; conduct more outreach meetings with the community (with sign-in sheets to show as evidence of the meetings); revise the special area plan and provide greater detail on the requested zoning change.
The next hearing is scheduled for February 20, 2020.
Before the final vote, Vicky Leiva, a partner at Bilzin Sumberg representing the developer, tried to strong-arm the board into making a decision, arguing that a deferral of the requested change would be “a violation of due process and delay” because the project had been deferred four previous times.
“We meet the requirement of the law,” Leiva said. “An applicant has a constitutional right to apply for what they apply for, and you have the right to approve, deny or approve with conditions.”
At the most recent hearing held in May, the board tied 5-5 on a decision to deny the special area plan, which would have allowed the developer to proceed to the city commission via an appeal.
But the special area plan hinges on the zoning request, and the board deferred on that decision in May, asking the developer to provide more workforce housing than the 317 units offered in their proposal.
“We have reviewed your comments and we did not meet the requirements or suggestions you made at the time,” Leiva said. “We don’t have a legal requirement to do so, but we did try and we realized we cannot meet your demands.
“We have met more than reasonably with this community,” Leiva added, briefly holding up a sheet of paper as proof of 37 outreach efforts, which was met by groans from the 25 residents in attendance at the hearing.
The zoning board only plays an advisory role, either approving or denying projects via votes. But it can also defer voting and instruct a developer to make specific modifications on its proposal before it can move forward to the city commission for final approval.
To deny or defer?
Board members debated which decision would be most fruitful: To deny or defer.
“A deferral would allow us time to address special area plans in general,” argued board member Adam J. Gersten. “The same considerations that we hear over and over again — it’s a bigger discussion to have and this would give us the time to have it.”
“She’s saying we cannot defer,” board member Aaron Zeigler countered. “All these deferrals are illegal.”
But although a city legal staffer concluded the deferrals are not technically illegal, she recommended the board proceed with the vote anyway, citing the three years the special area plan has been working toward approval.
Board chair Charles Garavaglia agreed.
“We already deferred our vote and asked them to do something and they didn’t do it,” he said. “If we defer it again, they’re not going to magically change their minds, so we’ll be back in the same room with the same angry mob.”
That “angry mob” was made up of 15 residents of Little Haiti and neighboring communities who spoke at the hearing in calm and orderly fashion, unlike the more fiery activists who had attended previous hearings with signs and placards.
The speakers — including several members of the UNITE HERE Local 355 hospitality union — repeated concerns that the sheer size of the Eastside Ridge project would be out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood and that the development would bring a disastrous increase in traffic.
A massive proposal
Eastside Ridge, which is headed by New York-based developer Justin Podolsky, is an ambitious mixed-use sprawl that would contain a total of 5.4 million square feet in residential, hotel, office and retail spaces throughout 14 buildings, some as tall as 28 stories.
As part of the proposed plan, the developer would put $10 million into a community fund that would be used to build affordable housing for some of the current residents at the Design Place apartment complex on Northeast 50th Street and Second Avenue.
But critics argue that $10 million would translate into only 50 units — far less than the 500 existing units that would be demolished if the project is built.
“I’m a Miami native and I’ve had to take on roommates in my 30s in order to afford to pay rent,” one of the speakers said. “This project is detrimental to Little Haiti. Miami should not be a city that is only affordable to people in higher income brackets.”
Finally, zoning board member Anthony Parrish concluded that Leiva freely admitted that her client does not have a legal requirement to meet the board’s suggestions and had no intention to do so.
“Special area plans are supposed to take the neighborhood into account, but the developer has not made any effort to make an outreach,” Parrish said. “The last vote was contentious and I think deferral is entirely appropriate. If they want to sue us, that is their right. And it is our right to do what’s best for the city of Miami.”
Parrish also said the board needs to have a workshop to reconsider its approach to special area plans, a provision of the Miami 21 zoning code that allows owners of at least nine contiguous acres to build taller structures with higher densities.
Although the plans were conceived to stimulate growth in urban corridors, an increasing number of projects in vulnerable neighborhoods have received city approval, such as the mixed-use Magic City Innovation District and the 20-acre hospital campus expansion by Miami Jewish Health Systems, both of them located in or near Little Haiti.
“If they want to do them in Brickell, that’s fine,” Parrish said. “But there are problems when they come to neighborhoods such as Allapattah and Little Haiti. The city commission ultimately makes the decision, but [Eastside Ridge] is not ready to proceed.