Miami-Dade County

Big Miami projects strike a nerve as the mayor vows to veto one

Rendering of Legions West
Rendering of Legions West

Miami’s mayor said he will block a controversial seven-acre development on the city’s Upper East Side, punctuating a day of angst about over-development and gentrification in Miami’s northeast neighborhoods.

Mayor Tomás Regalado confirmed late Wednesday that he is opposed to ACRE GCDM Bay Investments’ proposed Legions West project, which would replace a collection of low-rise apartment buildings and a former American Legion hall next to a historic park with a 1.2 million-square-foot complex of shops, apartments, condos and restaurants.

The first phase of the project, a 237-unit apartment complex and new American Legion hall overlooking Biscayne Bay, needs no special approvals. But in order for the second phase to go forward as designed — with 476 condo units and three towers as tall as 176 feet — the developer needs city commissioners to approve a zoning carve-out called a Special Area Plan, which Regalado says he would veto.

“In the long run, it will hurt the historic neighborhood,” Regalado wrote on Twitter, confirming that he’d said as much during a meeting with concerned residents.

The mayor’s comments came just as city officials were winding down a packed and highly contentious town hall meeting at Legion Memorial Park that — following an hours-long City Hall hearing on a proposed 22-acre complex in Little Haiti — laid bare neighbors’ distrust of developers and Miami’s planning department. The meeting, called by area Commissioner Keon Hardemon to solicit feedback and inform families about the project, frequently broke down as the crowd jeered Planning Director Francisco Garcia and guffawed at his explanations.

“You have got to be one of the rudest groups of people I have ever seen,” the normally unflappable Garcia said at one point, before the meeting cooled.

Many of the families who live in homes and condos surrounding the project and attended Wednesday’s meeting believe the complex as proposed would dwarf its surroundings and likely push an existing traffic problem over the edge. They also remain dubious about the developer’s request to have the city administration co-sign the project by including two acres of Legion Park, 6447 NE Seventh Ave., in a ministerial tradeoff that requires upgrades to the park by the developer but on paper gives the project the nine acres needed to qualify for a Special Area Plan.

With the SAP, the developer wants to rearrange streets to redesign the layout of the complex, include about 200 additional condo units beyond what is allowed, and build taller towers on a western portion of its property zoned for shorter structures. Garcia, who stressed that nothing will be built on the park and pushed back against what he said was spreading misinformation about the project, said the proposal deserved “intelligent” consideration from the city.

You can be in denial all you want. I’d like to have a meaningful discourse with individuals who are simply bent out of shape

Francisco Garcia, Miami’s planning director

Several people in the audience disagreed.

“This is a behemoth,” said Lauren Reskin, who lives nearby and owns Sweat Records in Little Haiti.

Legion
Residents and city officials look over two models of the proposed Legions West project following Wednesday’s town hall meeting. The model on the left is what’s proposed, and the one on the right what the developer says it could build without a Special Area Plan. David Smiley dsmiley@miamiherald.com

Reskin was among a group of people at Legion Park Wednesday who had already spent hours that afternoon at City Hall pleading with a city advisory board to delay a different, far more massive complex proposed at the 22-acre Design Place on Northeast 54th Street and Second Avenue. That project, which is also being proposed as a Special Area Plan, would replace 500 existing town home rentals with 2,800 apartments, a hotel, commercial space, parks, a new train station and towers rising as high as 28 stories.

The 7.2-million-square-foot complex, dubbed Eastside Ridge by landlord SPV Realty, has become a flashpoint for concerns that Little Haiti is rapidly being redeveloped to the detriment of the largest Haitian-American community in the nation. A crowd drummed up by activists and progressive social change group The New Florida Majority asked members of Miami’s Urban Development Review Board to force the developer to go through another month of community meetings before allowing the project to move forward in the city’s lengthy review and approval process. But members sent it onward with a favorable recommendation, albeit with a series of conditions.

Among them: that the developer follow through on its promise to host a community charrette in the next 45 days. That meeting is part of a commitment to include neighborhood input and tailor the project to better fit the neighborhood, according to spokesman Ric Katz.

“The owner is committed to the style, the flavor, the feel of little Haiti,” he said, and “doesn’t want to develop in a vanilla environment.”

Back at Legion Park, developer Brian Pearl made a similar commitment after the acrimonious town hall meeting, saying he, too, will tailor his project to better fit the community. He and Garcia stressed that the project as currently proposed is only the first iteration, and will be changed as city planners and residents give their feedback.

“We’re more than happy to modify the plans,” Pearl said.

Whether that changes the mayor’s mind remains to be seen. As for Eastside Ridge, when a Twitter user asked Regalado if he’d also oppose that project, he didn’t respond.

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