Miami Beach

After heated debate, plans for a park, high-rise at South Beach gateway move forward

The latest proposal for a park and condo tower on the South Beach site between Alton Road and West Avenue. The rendering shows the proposed park as well as a green roof on the retail building.
The latest proposal for a park and condo tower on the South Beach site between Alton Road and West Avenue. The rendering shows the proposed park as well as a green roof on the retail building.

After nearly 100 meetings and a public battle between neighborhood groups over the gateway to South Beach, a resolution is finally in sight.

City officials are negotiating an agreement to allow a developer to build a 44-story luxury condo tower between Alton Road and West Avenue near the entrance to the MacArthur Causeway. In exchange, the city would get a public park of about three acres.

The height of the tower and size of the park have sparked bitter disagreement among South Beach residents for months, in part because the site — currently empty lots holding the concrete skeleton of the old South Shore Hospital — is the first thing visitors entering the island see as they turn up Alton Road. It also sits along a busy thoroughfare where any new development could exacerbate traffic congestion.

The developer would demolish what remains of the South Shore Hospital within a year of getting a building permit for the project, according to the terms of a draft agreement.

Developer Crescent Heights owns the three lots and secured approval several years ago to build a dense cluster of low-rise apartment buildings with space for shops on the ground floor.

The company hopes to build a condo tower instead, but a development restriction — known as floor area ratio — limits the size of the building allowed on a given parcel of land. In order to build a high-rise, the city would have to vacate the portion of Sixth Street that divides the plots, allowing the developer to treat the land as one lot. The city occasionally allows developers to merge lots in this manner in exchange for public benefits, such as a park. In this case, Sixth Street would remain in place; the city would vacate it only on paper.

Crescent Heights initially proposed building up to a 50-story tower in exchange for a public park. Residents in nearby condominium buildings largely supported the plan, eager to see the remains of the South Shore Hospital removed and a park put in its place. But the proposal worried some South Beach residents, who argued that the special permission needed to build a high-rise on the site could open the door for more tall buildings. A group of residents from some nearby neighborhood associations formed the Gateway Community Alliance to push for a shorter tower and a larger park.

An unusually lengthy string of meetings led to the draft agreement, which probably will go to the City Commission in September. Both the alliance and the developer met with condo associations and neighborhood groups in an effort to build support for their competing visions and the city also held public meetings to discuss the project.

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A rendering of the proposed park on Alton Road in South Beach shows the view looking south. Arquitectonica

After weeks of heated public disagreements, city officials negotiated a compromise that includes a number of public benefits, including a strip of land the city could use to build an additional lane on Fifth Street leading into the causeway, and a commitment from the developer to build a nearby section of the baywalk. The developer has also agreed to build an elevated platform for the eventual creation of a pedestrian bridge connecting the park to the baywalk, although the bridge itself would be contingent on government approval and public funding.

The developer plans to build the condo tower on the northeast corner of the 500 block and up to 15,000 square feet of retail space on the 600 block. The remaining space would be used for a public park designed as a sponge to soak up floodwater — a type of green space Miami Beach is promoting as part of its plan to deal with the impacts of climate change.

“We are going to build something that will set a new standard for the city of Miami Beach,” said developer Russell Galbut.

Residents in the condominium buildings next to the proposed project support the compromise, said Bernardo Sandoval, one of the founders of the North of Fifth Neighborhood Association.

“The reality is that we cannot do nothing. We cannot just keep sitting on this and having meeting after meeting after meeting,” he said Tuesday at a land use and development committee meeting where the proposal was discussed. “We’re ready to go. We have something in place. Let’s move forward.”

Allan Kleer, a real estate broker who represents the board of directors of the Bentley Bay, a condo building across the street from the proposed development, said the tower and park would boost property values along West Avenue, which he said are currently at least 30 percent below comparable properties south of Fifth Street.

“We want to see the neighborhood transformed and be gentrified just as the South of Fifth neighborhood was,” he told the Miami Herald. “We believe that with Crescent Heights moving forward with their development that aura or mystique of luxury development will spread to West Avenue as well.”

The currently approved development plans for the South Beach site between Alton Road and West Avenue. City of Miami Beach

While members of the Gateway Community Alliance say they’re encouraged by the commitment to build a park of about three acres, they want to make sure the city gets as much as possible in return for allowing the developer to build a high-rise.

The developer is “using as ransom his failure for 13 years to demolish the abandoned eyesore hulk of his South Shore hospital building,” said Frank Del Vecchio, a longtime Miami Beach activist and a member of the alliance. “We’re relying on the mayor and commissioners to negotiate a fair deal for the city.”

Ron Starkman, a member of the alliance and chairman of the city’s budget advisory committee, said he thinks the city should also push to have Crescent Heights pay for the pedestrian bridge connecting the park to the baywalk.

“I would like to see more put on the table for the benefit of residents,” he said.

Other residents have pushed for Miami Beach to purchase the lots with funds from $439 million in bonds the city is hoping to issue and turn them into a public park and transportation hub without a high-rise, an idea city officials say would be prohibitively expensive.

The former CEO of the South Shore Hospital, William Zubkoff, has cautioned that the city should be wary of Galbut’s promises. In an email to city officials, Zubkoff alleged that Galbut bought the struggling hospital in 2004 when he was chairman of the hospital’s board of trustees and promised to keep it open “when he really planned to close the hospital, lay-off all of the 500 employees, and develop the real estate.” The hospital closed in 2006. (Zubkoff sued Galbut in 2016 for wrongful termination from a nursing home agency where Galbut served as board chairman, alleging that he was fired from the agency for reporting illegal activities. Galbut has been dismissed as a party to the suit, which is still pending against other parties.)

Galbut denied that he had any ulterior motives when he bought the hospital and said he funded it “to a point where the hospital was saved.” He told the Herald it closed because Zubkoff’s administration lost the license to the hospital.

“I purchased the hospital to save the hospital,” he said. “It was charitable and charitable from the beginning.”

The proposal for the site still has to clear several hurdles, including securing approval from six of the city’s seven commissioners. After city officials finish ironing out the details with the developer, the agreement will likely go before the commission in September. The city plans to require the developer to build the park before the city issues a certificate of occupancy for the condo tower.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct information about the lawsuit William Zubkoff filed alleging wrongful termination. A previous version of this article stated that the suit was still pending. While the suit is still pending against other parties, Russell Galbut has been dismissed as a party to the suit.