Miami-Dade County

Townhouse apartments to rise in Little Havana, but where’s the parking?

Developer Andrew Frey
Developer Andrew Frey

First he persuaded Miami commissioners to approve his radical-sounding idea — a rule allowing small buildings in some city neighborhoods to be built with no parking. Then developer Andrew Frey put his money where his mouth is.

Frey, a longtime advocate for small-scale development as a way to recharge Miami’s urban neighborhoods, bought a vacant lot in East Little Havana and will erect the first apartment building to take advantage of the new rule.

The compact townhouse-style building is a clean, contemporary take on the traditional rowhouses that define prized neighborhoods from London to Boston and New York. It comprises two adjoining townhomes, each split into four rental apartments. Big windows and deep balconies overlook the street. There’s even a front stoop.

This modest project aims to do no less than to recast the face of development in Miami.

Frey and his building designer, Florida International University architecture chair Jason Chandler, plan to replicate it across Little Havana, on the vacant lots that pepper and blight the neighborhood — a consequence of the city’s parking requirements, which critics say make building on a typical 50-foot-wide city lot both unnecessarily costly and physically impractical, if not downright impossible.

Their prototype offers a neighborhood-friendly, affordable middle-scale alternative between single-family homes and the big towers that are now the dominant form of development in the city, Frey and Chandler say. They note that almost no one builds such small apartment and commercial buildings in Miami anymore, though they were once basic building blocks in what’s now Little Havana, as well as Coral Gables and Miami Beach.

Thus the impetus for the new zoning amendment, championed by Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez and approved by the commission last October. It lifts the parking requirement entirely for buildings under 10,000 square feet that are located near corridors with frequent public transit service (though not next to single-family or duplex neighborhoods).

That ends up meaning long stretches of Little Havana along Flagler Street and Calle Ocho as well as the Biscayne Boulevard corridor where the townhomes — or something else Frey hopes would be inspired by them — can be built. Frey will partner with others through his Tecela firm, and he’s even thinking of making the basic townhouse plans available to anyone.

“This is the start of something great,” Frey said. “Like New York or Boston, you can repeat it down the block, with variations in the facade. Over time it will result in that urban fabric everyone loves.”

Frey and Chandler call their 25-foot-wide townhouse model “surgical infill.” They say it has the advantage of being easily inserted into existing neighborhoods, helping to revitalize them without displacing residents or necessitating demolition. That’s what has occurred to the east in West Brickell, where modest apartment buildings have given way to highrises on big podiums for parking.

That small-grain development is especially important in Little Havana, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, where the introduction of some large-scale projects has raised cries for the preservation of its rich stock of historic buildings.

“It slips in discreetly,” Chandler said. “The old and the new coexist. The history and culture of a place is maintained, instead of saying we’re just going to knock all this down.”

The idea is that townhouse residents would depend mostly on walking, cycling and transit — or car-sharing services like Uber and Lyft — to get around. Just like they do in other big cities, if tenants do have a car, they can park it on the street. Two Metrorail stations sit within a half-mile of the building, and buses run frequently along the Flagler Street corridor a block away.

Frey’s target renters: Young people who have been priced out of Brickell or who want car-less apartment living in a lively, walkable and human-scale neighborhood — even though stretches of East Little Havana remain gritty — within easy reach of downtown. A handful of residential towers without parking, built in downtown Miami and Brickell under a longstanding exemption for buildings close to mass transit, have already proven successful.

Frey, who until recently worked on multi-family projects for his father-in-law, prominent developer Armando Codina, believes there is more than enough pent-up demand for this kind of urban living in Miami that he’ll have no trouble renting as many apartments as he can build.

And Frey and Chandler say other small landowners who have been sitting on vacant lots in the neighborhood can now do the same, drawing investment into a neighborhood badly in need of it and helping residents build wealth in time-honored fashion: Some could build a townhouse for themselves, living in one apartment while renting out the rest to finance construction.

“The idea is to create a fiscal model that is a path to ownership without major investment,” Chandler said.

For the first of his two townhouses, Frey raised money from family and friends and got a construction loan from Continental Bank, and no one expressed doubts about feasibility, he said. Project cost is $1.9 million, including design and land purchase of $200,000.

The site is a standard 5,000-square-foot lot at 769 Northwest First St., squeezed between a typical Little Havana apartment building from 1925 — built without parking — and a bungalow. The lot has been vacant for a decade.

Because Frey doesn’t have to build parking — the high cost of which is usually built into the rent or the price of condos — his tenants will save around $330 in rent every month over a comparable apartment with parking, he estimates. (Rents have not yet been set.)

It also results in a much more street- and pedestrian-friendly building. Forgoing parking on the narrow lot allows the building to be pushed forward to meet the sidewalk. That also leaves enough space behind the building so the ground-floor apartments will enjoy a private back yard, which will be planted with a live oak and a bridalveil tree.

The townhouses were designed for maximum flexibility. They contain a mix of studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments, but floor plans can easily be altered because all electrical and plumbing conduits are on the side wall. Ground-floor units, which have 14-foot ceilings, could for instance be converted in the future into shops to serve the neighborhood.

That flexibility, Chandler said, is meant to make sure the building finds new uses as the neighborhood changes — mirroring the history of 19th-century townhomes, which were usually built for one family but proved easy to subdivide into apartments and shops and offices, ensuring they endure.

The buildings are also energy efficient and designed to encourage outdoor living, with deep porches in front and back. In a nod to Miami’s subtropical climate, the front porches will be shaded by screens covered by air plants, a design inspired by the hanging greenery at the Perez Art Museum Miami, Chandler said.

Ultimately, Chandler and Frey said, such small-scale construction will be the key to reducing auto dependency and gridlock, creating true neighborhoods where people walk, meet and mingle.

“It’s ultimately a social thing, not something hidden 50 stories in the air,” Chandler said. “You go to downtown Miami and it’s all parking garages and high-rises. As long as you keep building parking garages, people will keep filling them up with cars. But traffic is what pisses off people more than anything else.

“We think people will say, this is another way to live.”