Palmetto Bay

This city wants to change things up. What will it take for its downtown to be hot?

Road improvements are the main element of this phase of the Franjo Road project.
Road improvements are the main element of this phase of the Franjo Road project. Village of Palmetto Bay

With hope of attracting more restaurants and relieving its traffic woes, Palmetto Bay is considering tweaking its downtown zoning code to restrict density, limit development incentives and rearrange land uses.

In 2015, the city passed its Downtown Urban Village zoning code, a plan designed to encourage economic investment in the the village’s distressed commercial corridor along Franjo Road and U.S. 1. The goal? To make Palmetto Bay’s core — mostly vacant land, scruffy buildings and warehouses an urban center that’s more livable and walkable.

The pedestrian-friendly vision features interior, interconnected public walkways, widened and landscaped sidewalks, a civic plaza and twice the amount of required open spaces.

But whether the zoning code has accomplished those goals will be discussed by Dover, Kohl & Partners, a national architectural and land-planning firm that was hired by the village to review the code and provide suggestions, at a presentation July 19 at village hall.

“I’m open to all changes, anything that will improve our downtown and make it a place we can all be proud of,” said Palmetto Bay Mayor Eugene Flinn. “I’m disappointed that once we opened up Palmetto Bay Park, we haven’t had any book stores, ice cream shops or restaurants show any interest in planting their business in Palmetto Bay. I want to hear from the experts on why that is.”

The firm was hired to do research and gather community input. In late June, the company conducted a survey at a city hall forum that more than 55 people attended.

Among people who took the survey, 72 percent believe what’s lacking most in the downtown are quality restaurants and eateries. The majority also said that density or height bonuses should be given as incentives to those who open the desired businesses.

But at the same time, about 50 percent of the participants said they believe the city’s biggest issue is protecting Palmetto Bay’s suburban character; 23 percent of people said the biggest problem is managing traffic.

There hasn’t been good public transit where people want to develop — cities like Palmetto Bay, Cutler Bay, Homestead and all of South Dade would benefit tremendously.

Marilys R. Nepomechie, professor of architecture at FIU

Marilys R. Nepomechie, a professor of architecture and zoning expert at Florida International University, said “there isn’t one sure recipe” for the perfect downtown.

“What makes urban areas successful is a critical mass of people, and that is entirely dependent on good access. That access in Miami-Dade County is transportation, which we’ve been severely lacking,” Nepomechie said.

“There hasn’t been good public transit where people want to develop — cities like Palmetto Bay, Cutler Bay, Homestead and all of South Dade would benefit tremendously. Why would people want to bring their businesses to places where people can’t get to? That’s how businesses thrive. They have a predictable growing number of people.”

Palmetto Bay’s zoning code currently includes designs that capitalize on public transportation, such as wider sidewalks, bike racks, bike lanes, and a hub that would tie in to the South Dade Busway. The county is currently discussing whether the busway will soon have Metrorail, light rail or a rapid bus system.

When asked in the survey if they’d be willing to take public transportation, almost half of the residents said no. About 71 percent of the participants were in their 50s and 60s; 14 percent were in their 30s and 40s. The average age in Palmetto Bay is 41, according to the U.S. Census.

But Palmetto Bay hasn’t fallen short of attracting developers looking to build apartments and condos. Last month, the Village Council voted to enter contract negotiations with Acosta Tractors Inc., a Miami-Dade-based development company, to upgrade Franjo Road and turn it into the town’s new main street, similar to that of Miami Lakes.

Earlier in the year, Sandpiper, a five-story apartment building with 82 units, was approved, as well as Parkview, another five-story residential complex with 235 units. Also slated to be built in the area is Atlantico, a five-story, 271-apartment complex.

“What’s missing are the retail stores, restaurants. How do we make sure to bring those in without having traffic explode?” Flinn said.

It would be like opening a business up in the Everglades and nobody knowing who you were.

Eric Haas, Palmetto Bay resident and owner of Sports Grill

David L. Kelly, an economics professor at the University of Miami, says although it’s important to bring in development that creates walkable neighborhoods, “it’s oftentimes more important to ask yourself who you are attracting to live there.”

“In the Miami and Brickell area, the recent condo boom is directly linked to foreign buyers who sometimes don’t even live there full time. If you revolutionize Palmetto Bay, are you building affordable units, or only luxury homes that would attract wealthy buyers from overseas who won’t be there?”

Eric Haas, a resident of Palmetto Bay and owner of several Sports Grill restaurants in Miami-Dade and Broward, said it’s a long road before he opens up shop in his own community.

“It would be like opening a business up in the Everglades and nobody knowing who you were. Now, if you’re a destination near the Everglades, and can draw people in, it’s completely different,” Haas said, who has a store in South Miami near Sunset Place. He currently has vacant property in the village zoned for commercial, but hasn’t made any moves to bring in his restaurant.

“Residents in Palmetto Bay have a difficult time supporting businesses; they reject change. Public transit is almost non-existent. Look at Dadeland, Merrick Park, Sunset. The same people who live there, shop there and eat there.”

Monique O. Madan: 305-376-2108, @MoniqueOMadan

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