Everyone seems to agree that the gateway to South Beach could use a makeover.
Visitors entering the island on the MacArthur Causeway are greeted by an empty lot and the concrete skeleton of the old South Shore Hospital as they turn up Alton Road.
It is, as Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber put it at a recent commission meeting, "a spectacular eyesore."
But the question of what to do about the deserted area between Alton Road and West Avenue has stirred controversy.
Developer Crescent Heights has already secured approval to build a dense cluster of low-rise apartment buildings with space for shops on the ground floor. The buildings would house roughly 500 units, which critics worry could exacerbate traffic congestion on a busy thoroughfare.
In exchange for permission to build a high rise, however, the developer has agreed to scrap that plan and turn much of the land into a public park — one area residents say is sorely needed in a neighborhood with little green space.
Crescent Heights and architecture and planning firm Arquitectonica have come up with three alternative proposals, all of which include a park, a luxury condo tower on the 500 block and varying amounts of residential and commercial property on the 600 block.
The proposed tower would range from 36 to 50 stories, with the tallest option leaving the most public green space — more than 3 acres, according to the developer. The plans also include a walkway over West Avenue connecting the park to the bay walk that runs along the water, although that would be contingent on government approval and public funding.
"It's a very dramatic entry into the beach," said Raymond Fort, a senior associate at Arquitectonica, referring to the project as a whole.
Some area residents are concerned about the height of the proposed building, however, which at 50 stories would be one of the highest on the island. They say the special permission needed to build a high rise on this site could set a "dangerous" precedent and open the door for more tall buildings on Miami Beach. Condo owners at nearby Icon South Beach are also worried that the tower would block their view.
Instead, the Miami Beach Gateway Community Alliance, a group of residents from some nearby neighborhood and condo associations, has developed its own proposal. Their vision calls for a 28-story condo tower and a low-rise building for apartments and shops, which they say would leave enough space for a 3.4-acre park.
The issue in question is a development restriction — known as floor area ratio — that limits the size of the building allowed on a given parcel of land. The property Crescent Heights owns between Alton Road and West Avenue is on three different lots, each with its own building restrictions. For the developer to build a high rise, the city would have to vacate the portion of Sixth Street that divides the plots, allowing Crescent Heights to treat the land as one lot and add the allowed floor area ratio from each plot together.
Although Sixth Street would remain in place, according to the developer, some neighbors say they don't approve of this type of work-around.
"The idea behind zoning in general is that neighborhoods can feel some level of comfort that there are limits on what you can do there," said Ron Starkman, a member of the South of Fifth Neighborhood Association. "A basic principle we all believe in is that people should be able to rely on the zoning that's in place and that it can only be changed when there's support from the neighborhood."
Although it's not a common practice, this wouldn't be the first time Miami Beach has allowed a developer to merge lots in this manner, said Thomas Mooney, the city's director of planning. "In very limited circumstances, the city has vacated alleys, portions of alleys and street ends, in order to allow for a unified development site," he said in an e-mail, citing a residential project on 87th and Collins as one example.
Gateway Community Alliance members said they also aren't convinced that Crescent Heights' proposal would leave room for a more than 3-acre park.
"Ours is a bonafide park, and his is a sham park, " said Frank Del Vecchio, the director of the South of Fifth Neighborhood Association, which is part of the alliance.
In order to accommodate parking for The Floridian condo building, which sits across the street and has a parking lot on one of the lots, the developer plans to build an underground parking garage below one section of the park. That means the park would have areas of varying height, Fort said, a design he compared to South Pointe Park.
Despite the areas of disagreement, developer Russell Galbut said he believes the competing visions for the entrance to South Beach have more in common than not. "I do believe everyone in the community is together on this one concept," he said. "They just have different ideas of it."
Galbut and Fort added that they have made every effort to come up with a plan that addresses neighborhood concerns and provides abundant green space.
As the city examines the options, Miami Beach commissioners are asking for public input. At Wednesday's meeting, commissioners said they are considering all of the proposals.
Gelber said he hopes to move quickly. In its current form, the gateway area is "not appropriate for a city like ours to have something like that when people come in," he said.
"The one thing all the residents surrounding that area have in common is that none of them have a backyard and the idea that we could put a park space into an area where there is no park I think is a real opportunity," Gelber added.