It's an opportunity most modern cities rarely get: the chance to transform a massive stretch of public land.
Eight lots along Collins Avenue in North Beach, most of which are parking lots or vacant areas, could someday become parks, art studios, a tropical garden and a city market, along with a host of other possibilities.
Miami Beach is in the process of shaping the future of the city-owned land, known as West Lots, which stretches over more than 370,000 square feet between 79th Street and 87th Street across from North Beach Oceanside Park. In April, the city asked residents to propose ideas for the lots, and officials are now working with the planning firm Dover, Kohl & Partners to design possible configurations.
Among the ideas under consideration: a water-retention park to hold excess stormwater, a botanical garden, a teen center, an artists' village, a playground, an outdoor gym and a city market with local food stalls.
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With so much available space, Miami Beach could find a place for most of the ideas residents and city officials proposed somewhere on the eight lots, said Jason King, the project director for West Lots at Dover, Kohl & Partners. The planning firm shared one possible configuration at a City Commission meeting Wednesday night. The proposal includes building a public parking garage on one of the lots — which would contain more than three times the parking currently available on West Lots — freeing up the remaining blocks for new uses.
"Generally it is all very small-scale. It's a mix of buildings and open space and it's really the active uses for the North Beach Oceanside Park," King told the Miami Herald, describing the firm's proposal. "It'll feel like part of North Beach Oceanside Park and it will feel like the exciting part."
He added that the lots will be designed primarily with neighborhood residents, rather than tourists, in mind. "These are largely locally serving, active experiences," he said.
The challenge, however, will be to find a way to pay for the public amenities, particularly at a time when Miami Beach faces budget cuts due to a lackluster increase in property values, which impacts the amount of money collected from property taxes.
The preliminary plan proposed by Dover, Kohl & Partners would require roughly $26 million in public investment. The firm recommends the city mix public amenities and private businesses — such as an eco-hotel, a cafe, and a research center — on the site to generate revenue. With a mix of public and private uses on West Lots, the firm says the city could recover its investment and earn an extra $13 million in leases and fees over the life of the project. The firm's proposal also calls for $71 million in private investment for projects that planners predict would pay for themselves over the long term and generate an additional $33 million for the businesses.
Commissioner Ricky Arriola has proposed earmarking some money for West Lots in the $300 to $500 million general obligation bond the city is considering, which voters would be asked to approve in a November referendum. On Wednesday night, the City Commission agreed to ask a bond advisory panel to add West Lots to the list of potential projects.
Funding isn't the only issue in play. The transformation of West Lots is part of a broader plan to revamp North Beach, an area city leaders and some residents have long said they want to see attract more development, although there's debate about what that should look like and how it should be carried out.
With plans to redevelop the Town Center section of North Beach moving forward, and an outdoor gathering space with food trucks and small retail businesses, known as North Beach Yard, already planned for one of the West Lots, Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez said she's concerned about the possible impacts on traffic.
"What's interesting as we plan North Beach is how all of these projects are going to affect transit," she said at Wednesday's meeting. "We live on an island. All of this traffic is going to affect all of us." Her criteria for West Lots projects, she said, is "amenities for residents and green spaces, yes. Anything that’s going to attract a large amount of cars, no."
Paula King, a longtime North Beach resident, says the city should "proceed very cautiously" as it evaluates the future of West Lots. She would like to see the city use as many of the lots as possible for stormwater retention, rather than building new structures or possibly selling some of land.
"There are eight continuous lots, and if we're going to have sea level rise we have to plan for that," she said. "We have enough development. Developers are lining up in North Beach to buy any postage stamp of land."
No matter what residents and officials decide to do with West Lots, urban planners say the size of the public land presents a unique opportunity for the city.
"It's very rare and it's usually once in the history of a city do you have so much contiguous land which is so optimally situated," said Jason King. "For that reason the city has to be cautious and deliberative and that's why we make plans in order to think of it all holistically."