Miami Beach

New vision for North Beach will be revealed Wednesday

This rendering shows a vision for a redeveloped “town center” along 71st Street in North Beach.
This rendering shows a vision for a redeveloped “town center” along 71st Street in North Beach.

Along a broad sweep of Miami Beach that’s so far been left out of the city’s breakneck redevelopment, a transformation is now imminent.

What’s now a tired main street could become a bustling town center, with first-floor cafes and apartments above. Groups of low-slung apartment buildings from the 1940s and ’50s could receive legal protection from the wrecking ball and money for renovation. Streets might be reconfigured to reserve lanes for buses and bikes — a nod to a future where more people do without a car. A stretch of prime city-owned real estate across from the beach could become home to a skate park, a hotel and a community garden.

All this and more is contained in a much-anticipated vision for the future of North Beach — the uppermost third of the resort city — that will be unveiled at a town hall meeting on Wednesday evening. The ambitious North Beach master plan seeks to map out an economically balanced redevelopment of this ethnically diverse community of 29,000 with a small-town feel that’s home to some of the poorest, working-class residents of the city, but is also under increasing pressure from developers looking to capitalize on the Beach’s luxury boom.

After months of meetings, planning and deliberations, Coral Gables-based town planners Dover Kohl & Partners delivered a detailed 189-page blueprint for an area that stretches from 63rd Street to 87th Terrace and from the Atlantic Ocean to Biscayne Bay. The plan seeks to preserve and enhance North Beach’s neighborhood scale and a trove of Mid-Century and late-era Art Deco buildings — and thus to salvage at least some of the area’s housing affordability — while channeling new development into taller, mixed-use buildings along 71st Street, its lackluster commercial Main Street, with the aim of making it far more pedestrian friendly and economically successful.

One linchpin: allowing owners of properties designated as historic in two proposed architectural districts to sell “air rights” to developers to build taller along 71st Street while using the proceeds for renovations. Alternatively, the plan calls for developers to pay into a new fund to finance historic preservation.

The approach, which seeks to settle a years-long battle over the fate of the Miami Modern and Deco buildings that characterize much of North Beach and its look and feel, represents a compromise hammered out between developers, property owners, residents and preservationists.

Planner Victor Dover said developers who had been trying to get projects through previously have retooled their plans to meet the master plan’s goals and he expects some significant announcements soon.

Some preservationists, meanwhile, hope the plan will finally help persuade city commissioners to create two new historic districts, one on Normandy Isle and another on the “mainland,” as outlined in the blueprint, years after the commission reversed approvals of larger proposed districts by its own historic preservation board. The smaller districts in the new plan, however, could leave some architecturally valuable buildings at risk of demolition.

“I think they were very sensible,” Kirk Pascal, preservationist and longtime North Beach resident, said of the new plan. “It’s for sure a compromise. But it’s a step forward. It would be nice to move forward and take the next step to making these historic neighborhoods thrive.”

The plan doesn’t stop there. It seeks to re-invigorate the heart of North Beach, and the faded, vacancy-prone commercial district around the Normandy Isle fountain by revamping zoning rules that planners say have made redevelopment unfeasible, contributing to an economic decline.

Read more about North Beach’s collection of MiMo and Deco buildings

The plan would also make the district more pedestrian friendly, connecting it more firmly with bike lanes and exclusive transit lanes to the more affluent neighborhoods on that big isle and a series of smaller islands on the bay side. Travel lanes would be taken from cars and given to buses and bikes, bounded by wider sidewalks and a canopy of shade trees. To ease a parking crunch, the city and private developers would build public garages in strategic locations.

The plan also calls for gradually converting a series of empty city-owned lots across the North Shore Open Space Park into a mix of public and private developments, though it deliberately leaves the details vague so residents and city leaders can hash out that vision as it becomes feasible.

At the much-discussed Ocean Terrace, a two-block-long mini-Ocean Drive in a proposed redevelopment plan that voters turned down last fall, the new blueprint leaves room for a developer to come up with a proposal that would be a better fit for North Beach — and to serve as frontispiece it contemplates a broad curbless sidewalk and a street that would be shared by pedestrians and slow-moving cars.

The document is explicitly underscored by the acknowledgment that City Hall, residents and developers will have to contend with a future made uncertain by sea-level rise. It attempts to clear the way for more intensive development in areas like 71st Street that are naturally higher ground, while keeping it out of the historic districts that happen to be low-lying. That would put fewer people and less valuable property in the way of hurricane storm surges and gradual sea rise, the planners say.

The idea, Dover said, is to preserve the modest scale and feel that define North Beach, one of the most walkable neighborhoods in Miami-Dade County, while fostering new development that’s compatible and doesn’t lead to greater auto dependency or congestion.

“The neighborhood should be allowed to grow, but in keeping with the real North Beach, so that people who love it get something better,” Dover said in an interview.

The City Commission is expected to consider final approval of the plan in October. But its specific features and recommendations would require subsequent plans, legislation and commission approval before they would be implemented, said Jeffrey Oris, the city’s economic development director.

“The important thing to remember is that none of this is happening tomorrow,” he said. “There will be public hearings on a lot of the items.”

Jason King, the project director for North Beach’s master plan, told the Miami Herald that the mixture of encouraging redevelopment while preserving history is based on balancing the community’s desires while being smart in the face of rising tides.

“It’s a momentous time for North Beach. I can think of only a few places in the country that are planning this boldly right now,” he said. “A new downtown at 71st Street is possible. At the same time, the plan seeks to create two local historic districts for the preservation of architecturally significant structures.”

Making Main Street

The main east-west thoroughfare in North Beach, 71st Street, is a nondescript set of buildings with some local businesses and what developers consider a lot of potential.

Picture instead a “town center” with a tree-lined roadway with lanes dedicated to buses and bicyclists surrounded by taller buildings, from seven to 12 stories high, with ground-level shops and apartments above. Starting at the fifth story, the taller parts of the buildings would be set back 25 feet from the sidewalk to avoid overpowering the pedestrian experience. Up in these towers, some units could be used to house working-class people at rents below the market rate.

Similarly on Normandy Isle, one-story storefronts would give way to four- and five-story commercial/residential buildings. In front of the Normandy Fountain, Rue Vendome would be closed and converted to a public plaza — a change already in the works.

Roadways with fewer travel lanes will raise some eyebrows in an area where traffic can pile up. Resident Carolina Jones, who sits on the city’s steering committee for the plan, said she’s had a tough time accepting the forward-thinking approach to transit: design a street for a future where fewer people drive and more take transit or bike.

“The concept of removing lanes while you’re increasing traffic to an area doesn’t make logical sense to me, but I also understand that you shouldn’t jump the gun and build too many parking lots at the same time,” she said.

Dover said the design is ambitious but acknowledged that it would take time to implement. One trait North Beach already has going for it: decent walkability.

“North Beach, unlike a lot of its peer neighborhoods, has a real wealth of walkability and alternatives to driving everywhere,” he told the Miami Herald. “That is pretty special and unusual, and people value it and cherish it. One of the things we want to keep is a high percentage of households that don’t keep a car at home.”

The fuel for this redevelopment would lie in the nearby historic neighborhoods filled with small-scale apartment buildings.

Property owners in these districts would be able to sell their “air rights” — basically additional square footage — to developers who want to build higher in town center. The city would have to set up a mechanism to ensure proceeds from these sales would go toward maintaining historic buildings.

King noted that the planning process has led to more conversations between preservationists and developers, leading to what he calls a public consensus plan.

“At the same time there is never 100 percent consensus,” he said. “There are some very vocal local developers, for instance, that are not satisfied. What is important is that everyone got something they wanted and no one got everything.”

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech

Andres Viglucci: 305-376-3465, @AndresViglucci

If you go

What: Public unveiling of the North Beach Master Plan

When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Byron Carlyle Theater (O Cinema), 500 71st St.