Miami-Dade County

How a Miami park would help a developer build bigger

A rendering of Legions West, looking west to east, with Legion Memorial Park shown on the left.
A rendering of Legions West, looking west to east, with Legion Memorial Park shown on the left. Courtesy

A developer with a large-but-limited collection of real estate in Miami’s Upper East Side wants to build bigger by including a treasured public park as part of massive residential project — triggering unfounded fears of privatization and presenting a potentially awkward partnership with the city.

One year after Miami commissioners agreed to include José Martí Park as part of a deal to allow the $1 billion Miami River compound in West Brickell, a new would-be partner holding seven acres of land wants to loop a slice of sprawling Legion Memorial Park into a 1.2 million-square-foot complex.

The inclusion of park space is mostly a ministerial issue, and doesn’t give developers the ability to actually build on public spaces. Rather, like the Chetrit Group before them in Brickell, ACRE GCDM Bay Investments needs to include Legion Park, 6447 NE Seventh Ave., in its project in order to technically amass the full nine acres required to seek specially tailored zoning and design regulations under a Special Area Plan. In return, the development group is offering to invest what would likely be millions in public benefits, including improvements to the city’s park.

But unlike its predecessor, ACRE is building in the middle of a politically active residential community. And so far, a number of neighbors have reacted viscerally to the project and the idea that the city would “get into bed” with the developer by offering up public land.

This looks to me like a greedy land grab

Mark Ingraham, Upper East Side resident

“This looks to me like a greedy land grab,” said Mark Ingraham, an area resident and board member of the non-profit MiMo Biscayne Association.

Miami’s planning department has spent weeks reviewing the Legions West proposal by ACRE, a collaboration between Global City Development’s Brian Pearl, the Midtown Group’s Jon Samuel and Asia Capital Real Estate’s Blake Olafson. The partners recently compiled seven acres to the south of Legion Park, beginning with a $4 million, 75-year lease of the four-acre Harvey Leeds American Legion Post 29 headquarters and campus.

Initially, Pearl says the development team was looking only to rebuild the American Legion post as part of a five-story, 237-unit apartment complex designed under existing zoning regulations. But over time, they began buying up the pastel-colored low-rise apartments and vacant parcels immediately to the west. Then they expanded their project to include a second phase of three residential towers rising to 10, 12 and 15 stories atop a 931-space parking garage with limited retail space to the north.

We're trying to invest in the park, which is a public space

developer Brian Pearl

In order to build its desired project project, however, Pearl’s team needs to up-zone a majority of its second phase. Their preferred plan involves partnering with the city and includes just under two acres of Legion Park, a sloping 48-acre lawn of oak trees, picnic tables and ball courts that runs from Biscayne Boulevard to Biscayne Bay and may soon be declared historic.

“I think that in terms of the park, you have to understand that it’s the opposite of a land grab,” Pearl told the Miami Herald. “We're trying to invest in the park, which is a public space.”

Pearl said including the city’s land also allows the developer to design the project in a way that opens it up and pulls it back from the park and Biscayne Boulevard, which has a 35-foot height limit in the surrounding MiMo district. The design, Pearl said, ends up being far better than what ACRE could build if it stuck to current regulations, while still 10 stories shorter than the posh Palm Bay Towers across the park.

But the city has been accused in the past of privatizing park space to favor developers. And a proposal to include the park — even if it’s simply on paper — has alienated a vocal segment of the community, which met Tuesday morning for two hours at the Legion Park Community Center.

Speaking to Miami’s acting chief of land development, Jacqueline Ellis, dozens of neighbors encouraged the city to reject ACRE’s partnership request and require that the developer stick to current zoning laws, saying the proposal would dwarf the surrounding homes and flood an already congested area with overwhelming traffic.

Critics included Vagabond Hotel developer Avra Jain, who said ACRE’s request to use Legion Park as a gimmick to expand its project is different from last year’s Miami River project due in part to the difference in surroundings. Where Legions West abuts a residential community, the Miami River project was planned in a blighted warehouse district and was bordered by the river and I-95.

We’re not saying no to development. We’re just saying no to special treatment

developer Avra Jain

“We’re not saying no to development. We’re just saying no to special treatment,” she said.

Some Upper East Side neighbors also say Pearl’s team stunned neighbors when it razed the American Legion building this fall, and poisoned the well when they swiftly evicted dozens of tenants from the apartment buildings, now all boarded up and vacant. Jain and nonprofit MiMo Biscayne Association president Shane Graber also say Pearl ignored their suggestions to seek public input from neighbors before submitting plans to the city.

“It’s dead on arrival, as far as I’m concerned,” Graber said of the Legions West proposal.

Pearl says that’s unfair. His team met with neighbors last month, he said, shortly after submitting a preliminary draft to city planners for feedback. Both he and city officials stressed that the application must still be officially submitted, and likely needs multiple revisions before even being considered on an up-or-down basis. Pearl, who was invited to Tuesday’s meeting, said he chose not to appear because his team is still trying to clarify issues raised by the community during an initial October meeting.

In an email, Luciana Gonzalez, Miami’s assistant planning director, declined to provide the city’s opinion so far on the Legions West proposal, saying, “we will need to review it thoroughly to be in a better position to further comment.” Ellis, the city’s head of land development, told residents Tuesday that she’d relay their feelings to her bosses.

“I can deliver the message to the people who are in charge,” she said, adding: “What we’re hearing is that it doesn’t matter what the applicant is proposing, you don’t want” the Special Area Plan.”