A bulked-up plan for redevelopment of the Douglas Road Metrorail station would pack five towers — including a previously undisclosed 40-story skyscraper — into the transit stop off South Dixie Highway.
The Link at Douglas blueprint, drawn up by developers who two years ago won a bid to build a mixed-use urban hub around the station’s elevated train platform, represents a substantial increase in height and density over the group’s original proposal, and a dramatic contrast to the low- and mid-rise development that surrounds it. The plan boosts the planned number of apartments at the hub from just under 1,000 to 1,500, a 50 percent jump, and adds a 22-story office building comprising 280,000 square feet of floor space.
The most salient new element of the expanded plan is a residential high-rise that, at about 450 feet in height, would be far taller and bulkier than anything for miles around. It would be twice as tall as new high-rise condos two miles away on the Coconut Grove waterfront, and tower over its surroundings at the border between the City of Miami and suburban Coral Gables, which caps buildings at under 20 stories. The closest comparable tower sits six miles away on Brickell Avenue in Miami’s downtown.
Because of a peculiar zoning wrinkle, though, the public won’t have a chance to weigh in on the new plan’s potential impact on the traffic-plagued South Dixie corridor or on adjacent neighborhoods, which include a mix of commercial and mixed-use buildings, most of modest height and scale, as well as duplexes and single-family homes. Nor will city of Miami or Coral Gables elected officials.
Though the 7.5-acre station sits inside Miami city limits and a block from the Gables city line, Miami-Dade County controls zoning on station property and neither municipality has a say in what happens there. In an effort to reduce auto dependency and spur transit use, the county has created special zoning districts at Metro stations that allow intense commercial and residential construction.
After the Douglas Road redevelopment bid was awarded, the county significantly upzoned the station property. But that amendment to the county’s comprehensive development plan, a technical re-classification that was approved by the county commission and planning board in public hearings last year, went largely unnoticed.
Since what the developers — 13th Floor Investments and Adler Group — subsequently proposed to build at Douglas Road fits within the new zoning and requires no variances, all reviews and approvals are being handled as administrative matters by county planners and building officials. That means there are no required notifications or outreach to neighboring property owners or residents about the project, and no public hearings or votes by elected officials, including the county commission.
The plan was submitted by the developers to the county Aug. 1 and underwent a preliminary review that was completed Aug. 21, records show. It must now go through a full review by county planners. The website thenextmiami.com first reported the proposal.
Since submission, there has been no notification of the expanded project or consultation with elected officials or administrators at Miami City Hall or abutting Coral Gables by the developers or county officials. Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district includes the station, has not been informed of the full scope of the plan, a spokeswoman said.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said he was unaware of the expanded plan’s size, height and density. Though he said he supports increased density at Metrorail stations, he questioned why the county and developers did not consult with neighbors and adjoining jurisdictions to see if a 40-story tower and increased intensity would be acceptable.
“Forty stories, there is nothing in the vicinity that is of that magnitude or height,” Suarez said, noting that residents of nearby neighborhoods like Silver Bluff fought much shorter towers on Southwest 27th Avenue. “I think people in those neighborhoods would be very surprised. People have objected to buildings that are half the height of this tower.
“For me, first you communicate with the surrounding community, then you let the community guide you as to what is appropriate. You try to convince the public there is a benefit that outweighs whatever issues there may be.”
Plans for other Metrorail stations along South Dixie for which the county has awarded redevelopment bids, though dense, don’t approach the intensity or height of the Douglas Road project. At the Coconut Grove station at 27th Avenue, developers Terra Group and Grass River Properties plan a solar-powered 23-story apartment tower, parking garage, retail space and a bus station.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, whose district includes the Douglas Road station, and his staff said they also did not know of the new plan’s increased density and height until called by a reporter. (Commissioner Suarez is Mayor Suarez’ father.)
Suarez, who voted for the upzoning, said he did not recall doing so, but in any case added he did not realize the new project blueprint calls for a 40-story tower, which he called “rather exaggerated” and “definitely surprising.” He did add that he fully supports the addition of substantial residential and commercial density at the station to feed Metrorail and provide residents an alternative to driving.
“If we voted for it, we voted for it,” he said. “I’m not necessarily agreeing the density is ideal, but the whole purpose was to concentrate development in these nodes next to the stations so that people don’t have to drive all over the place. Big is good, that’s the idea . The more we concentrate in these nodes of development, the better the urban planning.”
Coral Gables Commissioner Vince Lago, who favors controlled development in his city, said he, too, was unaware of the project’s new size and shape and added that the county has not notified the city. Like both Suarezes, Lago expressed support for the idea of increased density at transit stations, an approach known by planners as Transit Oriented Development, but said he wishes the county had consulted with the Gables first.
“I’m in favor of TODs. I think it’s a great opportunity if it’s done appropriately,” Lago said. “My only concern with this project is the sheer magnitude, which is in contrast with the city of Coral Gables zoning code. We pride ourselves on having a more small-town feel. I would liked to have seen the county work collaboratively with Coral Gables to ensure a project that’s in the best interest of everyone.”
Gables Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli did not respond to a message left with an assistant. A spokeswoman for the county department of regulatory and economic resources, which oversees planning and zoning, did not return a phone message seeking comment.
Aaron Stolear, a vice president at project co-developer 13th Floor Investments, said his team has done everything required by the county down to “the most minute details,” and noted they don’t need to do public outreach because they’re building “as of right” in compliance with existing zoning rules. The county negotiation and review process has been much more rigorous than is normal with run-of-the-mill developments, he said.
“I can see how coming in cold to this, that could be a perspective,” he said, referring to complaints of a lack of public notification or input. “But from where I sit, it feels like a very arduous process. Everyone is pushing for more than we are.”
He said county planners and transit officials pressed for an expanded project in order to “maximize value” — that is, he said, increasing its public benefits and revenue to the county as well as putting more people at Metrorail’s doorstep, helping increase transit use and viability while reducing the need for automobile use.
“When you put it in balance, the benefits will outweigh everything else,” he said. “This is how progress is made.”
In return for greater development capacity, the developers agreed to increase annual ground rent to the county from $1.2 million to $1.7 million, and to increase the amount they will pay for needed infrastructure upgrades, including roadway improvements and extensive renovations to the Metrorail station, from $12.75 to $20 million. That also includes $1 million toward construction of the portion of the Underline, the planned multi-use recreational trail under the elevated Metrorail tracks, that runs through the station property.
The developers also agreed to boost the number of “workforce” apartments with rents affordable to teachers and firefighters from 121 to 188. In addition, they plan to build a hub for the popular Miami and Coral Gables trolley-bus lines and bring in Envoy, an electric-vehicle car-share service.
The development team was able to push the height of the tallest tower to 40 stories, the maximum allowed, by promising to meet the ecologically friendly LEED Gold standard or higher, Stolear said.
“You will be able to notice it. It will stand out,” Stolear conceded. “We understand the concern.”
But, he argued, the skyscraper, designed by Miami-based Arquitectonica, will be surrounded by four shorter towers clustered around a central public plaza and seem less imposing once the entire project, to be built in phases, is completed around 2023. Stolear said the skyscraper will be built along with a freestanding, cube-shaped retail building and the office high-rise, which will occupy the corner of Douglas and South Dixie, in a first phase that could break ground as soon as the first quarter of next year.
“It’s going to look more like an urban village than a single building standing out,” he said.
To Sue Kawalerski, president of the Riviera Neighborhood Association, which encompasses nearby residential areas west of LeJeune Road in Coral Gables, the tower and the amped-up density in the plan are “an absurdity.” Kawalerski also was unaware of the project’s expanded scope, but said her neighbors, who strongly fought far smaller new developments inside the Gables on South Dixie largely out of concerns over increased traffic on the already clogged corridor, won’t be happy to learn about it.
Those projects, she noted in an email after reviewing tower plans on a county website, “will look like a pimple on a hippo compared to this project.”
“I’m shocked,” she said in an interview. “I can’t even comprehend a 40-story tower at that location. It’s going to loom over everything. It is absolutely insane.”
Kawalerski also criticized the notion that residents of the new towers will take transit and forgo car use, contending instead that 1,500 apartments and an office tower will spawn plenty of traffic in an area that can’t handle any more. The plans also call for a nine-story parking garage under the skyscraper, she noted. That will only add to burgeoning local traffic as private developers build thousands of new apartments and condos on surrounding Miami and Coral Gables blocks.
“It is a myth, untested and unproven, for them to insinuate everyone is going to take Metrorail or use the Underline or take car-share,” she said. “Even Uber and Lyft are cars on the road. They’re not going to just disappear.”
But Stolear said the $600 million project is carefully designed to coax people out of their cars. The 770-space garage includes 300 spots reserved for Miami-Dade transit users, typically commuters who drive from home to the station, and the Envoy fleet, as well as a second-story food market and ground-floor cafes, a gym and “cool, hip retail concepts,” he said.
That leaves 440 spaces meant to be shared by residents, office workers and shoppers, he noted. Because there will be 723 apartments in the first two residential towers, it means many apartment dwellers will do without cars. Those who choose not to have a parking space will get a monthly $100 credit good for Metrorail, car share and other transit modes, Stolear said.
The lower tower will have smaller units, averaging 625 square feet, appealing to young working people or University of Miami students who can take rail one stop to school, Stolear said. The skyscraper units will average 1,000 square feet, good for couples or young families.
“The typical population is someone who has roots in the area of South Miami and wants to be close to family and the place where they grew up, but professional opportunities are downtown. We think there is a huge market,” Stolear said.The last three towers at the station will likely also be residential, he said. Just how much parking they will require, if any, will depend on the experience with the first project phase, Stolear said.
The developers, he added, are not worried about an ongoing drop in transit riders or well-publicized problems with delays, service cancellations and dilapidated train cars on Metrorail, which has seen significant delayed maintenance as the system brings in new trains.
“As transportation optionality becomes the norm, people don’t have to take their car around every day. The value of mass transit and not being tied to the car will go up more than people imagine. Everyone wants more density to make Metrorail successful. That’s the world we’re going to.”