Residents of Sunny Isles Beach are protective of the character of their city. They’ve seen its architectural makeup change at a rapid pace, the transformation most evident along Collins Avenue, where there’s a clear east vs. west divide.
On the west side of Collins Avenue are mid- to high-rise condominiums, apartments and low-slung shopping centers complete with chain stores and eateries. They are in stark contrast to the towering, shiny behemoths that sit to the east.
The wall of hotels and condos shield much of the city’s beach from the view of pedestrians looking east from Collins, except for the occasional glimpse in the little pockets between buildings. Walk along the west side and look up: It’s almost impossible to find a spot where there aren’t gleaming high rises that stretch to about 600 feet or higher.
But a recent plan would’ve allowed more intense development on the west side, leaving residents in an uproar. City officials said they proposed amending the comprehensive plan — the document that guides growth — in response to an inconsistency between that and the zoning code. The inconsistency was written into the zoning code 15 years ago, then was seemingly unaddressed — except for a brief moment in 2007 — until last fall when a new development proposal brought it to the city’s attention.
The proposal, named Infinity, would be a 15-story mixed use development of condo units, hotel rooms and ground-level retail and restaurant space in the Town Center district — the west side of Collins between 172nd Street and Sunny Isles Beach Boulevard. Representatives of the Infinity project would not comment on the record about the matter.
“You’re going to take what’s left of our views away from us on the west side of the street,” Ella Kallish, who lives on the west side of Collins, told city officials at a hearing this month. “You’re turning your back to the city and the residents that voted you in on your promise to protect us and our investments.”
The controversy grew to the point that Mayor George “Bud” Scholl announced Wednesday he was going to request a building moratorium on all new development on the west side of Collins Avenue within the Town Center at a special commission meeting next month.
“People [are] angry,” resident Fabiola Stuyvesant said. “I’m more than angry, I’m scared. I’m scared about the school. I’m scared about safety, and I’m scared about the traffic.”
Sunny Isles Beach is a town of about 22,000 people, a stretch of barrier island that is less than two square miles, north of Bal Harbour and south of Golden Beach. With its many high-rise buildings, it has the highest population density in South Florida, according to several real estate websites.
Although the city has transformed into a major beach destination, residents have been adamant about not wanting the west side of Collins Avenue to look like the east side.
The city’s main thoroughfare wasn’t always marked by high rises. In the 1950s, motels — considerably shorter ones — were a staple of the Collins Avenue stretch. They popped up continually, one after another, leading to that stretch of road becoming known as “Motel Row.” It was notable even outside South Florida for having one of the first two-story motels in the country, Ocean Palm.
However, with time Sunny Isles Beach’s heyday of motels came to an end, and today only a couple of originals still stand. When the city was incorporated in 1997, with it came attention from major developers, with the goal of turning the city’s main strip into what it is today: a destination filled with luxury options.
The city wrote its first comprehensive plan, which maps out in a general way what kind of development can go where, in 2000. In 2004, it instituted the zoning code for the Town Center district and began approving site plans under the code in 2005, said Claudia Hasbun, who has been planning and zoning director since May 2015.
In 2005 the inconsistency between the city’s comprehensive plan and its zoning code, which is more specific about density, height and other details, first surfaced. It turned out the zoning code allowed more intense development than the comprehensive plan did for what’s known as mixed use business. The Town Center’s mixed use business area consists of retail and business services, restaurants, condominiums and offices.
An amendment to the comprehensive plan back in 2007 that would have matched up with the zoning code was shot down by the state because the city did not provide enough data and analysis for the amendment. After that, little attention was paid to the discrepancy due to low investment in development during the Great Recession, said Norman Edelcup, who was mayor of Sunny Isles Beach from 2003 to 2014.
“With hindsight you say, ‘Yeah I wish I would’ve made a note and followed up six months, eight months, a year later to make sure staff had corrected the problem,’ ” Edelcup said. “Unfortunately none of us did.”
In December, the zoning inconsistency popped up again. The development company Global Property Investors Real Estate Group proposed a project on the west side of Collins Avenue, a 15-story mixed use development with 120 condominium units, 220 hotel rooms and retail and restaurant space, according to city documents. However, the project didn’t comply with the city’s comprehensive plan. The commission deferred action.
Meanwhile, instead of acting on the Infinity project proposal last December, the city turned its attention to bringing the comprehensive plan and the zoning code in line with each other. On July 18, the commission scheduled a vote on an ordinance that would increase the allowable intensity of development within the Town Center district.
“It turns out for the last 15 years we’ve been interpreting things improperly,” Scholl said about the city’s zoning inconsistency. “I’m not blaming anybody because I think it could’ve happened to any commission. ... The fact is it got missed for one reason or another.”
Raanan Katz, founder and president of RK Centers, a real estate development company that owns three shopping malls in Town Center, has been a vocal opponent of increased development in Town Center, keeping residents updated through regular email notices of what he sees as any attempt by the city to threaten the current nature of the area.
In a recent letter, in response to Scholl’s announcement for a request for a building moratorium in the Town Center, Katz announced his legal team will review a proposal to amend the city charter to require a voter referendum in the event of any density and intensity change within the Town Center.
“It’s been said that we’re fighting this plan to protect our shopping centers,” his son and the company’s vice president, Dan Katz, said at a commission meeting. “Yes, we are, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. If the mayor is fighting to protect the property right of developers, I’ll fight to protect our property rights and the rights of residents to enjoy a greater quality of life.”
Many Sunny Isles Beach residents and business owners say they are vying to protect the Town Center from future developers and a potential change in character. Residents have expressed concern that greater development on the west side of Collins Avenue would lead to out-of-control traffic, overflow in the city’s school and an influx of residents they believe the city cannot sustain.
However, some community members are not opposed to the city amending its comprehensive plan allowing for greater building intensity.
“As a business owner, it does affect me, not necessarily in a bad way,” said Carmin Tillit, vice president of the expediting and real estate company East of Collins, which is located within the city’s Town Center. “As a business, I actually do welcome new residents to our area and guests to our community.”
The proposed amendment could have made way for a population increase of over 2,000 people, according to consultants for both RK Centers and the city.
After the city called the July 18 meeting, RK Centers sued the city, saying it had violated open-government laws by not properly notifying residents about the ordinance. On Friday, the company’s lawyers filed an amended complaint that includes counts of violating the state’s sunshine law and the city code.
“This case is about government transparency,” Benjamin Brodsky, an attorney representing RK Centers, told the Herald. “We want our elected officials in front of the curtain in full public view, not in the shadows behind the stage. This is especially true when they are making decisions that so gravely affect the safety and quality of life of our city residents.”
Hasbun said proper, required notices were disseminated properly to local media and property owners ahead of the ordinance’s first reading.
Residents turned out in droves at the July 18 meeting, most of them in opposition to the proposed amendment. The line to get into city chambers went out the door. Police had to direct latecomers to an on-site overflow area.
Although city officials say the ordinance was a simple clarification to its comprehensive plan, residents expressed worry about how the amendment would alter Collins Avenue’s west side.
Ultimately, the commission deferred action on the comprehensive plan too, but said it was open to working with Raanan Katz’s experts and city administrators to find a solution.
The mayor denied the meeting had anything to do with the Infinity project, only the inconsistency between the two plans.
“None of us want to see overdevelopment,” Scholl said.
Despite Scholl’s repeated assurances, many residents were not persuaded.
“I have a problem when people [mislead],” said resident Maggie Gordo, president of the Sands Pointe Condominium Association. “Call a spade a spade.”
Although city leaders voted unanimously to defer action, the consensus came with diverging opinions on the ordinance.
Commissioners Alex Lama and Vice Mayor Larisa Svechin said they wanted more insight from experts before passing the ordinance. Scholl and Commissioner Jeniffer Viscarra wanted to start the amendment process as soon as possible, but their opinions were overshadowed by their counterparts’ push for deferral and shouts of objection from residents.
Commissioner Dana Goldman made the motion to defer the amendment, voicing her displeasure with the proposal to allow more intense development.
“I do not see this as a solution to this problem,” Goldman said. “I am completely opposed. I think we need to find a better way to do this other than inherit the increase.”
The issue is complicated by the fact that six buildings have been built or are under construction under the provisions of the Town Center zoning code, according to the city’s planning and zoning department. It’s not clear how they would be affected by the proposed amendment to the comprehensive plan, especially if they were heavily damaged — by a hurricane, for example — and had to be rebuilt.
In his letter Wednesday to residents, Scholl said in addition to the building moratorium he will propose in the Town Center next month, he will also request city experts fix “the problem with all prior approvals to the Town Center zone.”
“This is your government and I urge you now to attend future commission meetings and the workshops on this subject,” Scholl said. “This is your chance to make a difference and provide us with your input.”
City manager Christopher Russo said there is not a specific timeline for the city and Katz and his experts to get together.
“It’s wide open, nobody’s rushing,” he said. “There isn’t a particular deadline to get anything done.”