South Miami

Failing Sunset Place mall was going to be revamped. Why did politicians say no?

A rendering shows a proposed new hotel and apartments on the corner of Red Road and U.S. 1 at the Shops at Sunset Place in South Miami. But the plan ran into a buzz saw at the city commission.
A rendering shows a proposed new hotel and apartments on the corner of Red Road and U.S. 1 at the Shops at Sunset Place in South Miami. But the plan ran into a buzz saw at the city commission. Zyscovich Architects

South Miami won’t be getting its promised downtown face-lift any time soon.

The new owners of the failing Shops at Sunset Place planned to sink tens of millions into radically remaking the mall and helping revive the fortunes of South Miami’s troubled downtown by adding apartments, a hotel and a public plaza and promenade. But they didn’t count on running into a buzz saw at the city commission.

Now it looks like the ambitious pedestrian-friendly makeover, which enjoyed broad support from downtown property and business owners and South Miami residents, may not happen in the near future — if at all.

And the city appears to have further cemented its reputation for oddball politics and strong anti-development sentiment, raising questions about the future of a downtown suffering from vacant storefronts and a lack of shoppers and diners.

By a 3-2 vote after a nearly five-hour special hearing that stretched past midnight, the city commission early Tuesday spiked a package of special zoning rules that would have allowed the redevelopment of the portion of the mall that sits along U.S. 1. That two-acre redevelopment was the linchpin of a broader plan to revitalize the mall by opening it up to the downtown South Miami streets and turning it into the town’s central gathering space. Its owners say the open-air mall is “a sinking ship” because its design turns inward like a fortress.

On Tuesday, Sunset Place principal owner Federal Realty Investment Trust, a leading national retail operator, issued a curt statement through a spokesman and declined to comment further.

“We are disappointed that the City of South Miami voted to not proceed on the redevelopment and revitalization of Sunset Place,” read the full statement from Don Briggs, Federal’s vice president of development. “We would like to thank the residents, merchants, and business owners in South Miami that worked alongside us for the past two years, believing and sharing in our vision for the future.”

Federal’s plan, designed by Miami architect and urban designer Bernard Zyscovich, calls for demolishing most of the portion of the mall along U.S. 1 and replacing that with an 18-story hotel and a separate apartment building set amid a green promenade and a public town square. The plan would add an extensive tree canopy, significantly wider sidewalks and also would have given the rest of the mall a clean, contemporary look by stripping off its dated pastel color scheme and themed decorative detail.

Federal, which paid $110 million in 2015 for the mall in partnership with Miami developers Grass River Property and The Comras Company, needed a unanimous vote in favor of the zoning changes to move forward. Even a split vote in favor would have allowed the zoning package to go to a second reading with conditions from commissioners that could have won final approval.

The same development team has also now undertaken radical surgery on CocoWalk in Coconut Grove to modernize its look and add offices.

An overwhelming majority of speakers in the South Miami commission hearing favored the project, with some downtown business owners pleading with commissioners to approve the project as a way to draw people to revitalize the rest of downtown. The once-thriving district has lost substantial foot traffic amid increased competition from online retail and revitalized urban districts like Brickell, Coconut Grove and Miracle Mile in Coral Gables.

The project got yes votes from Mayor Philip Stoddard and Vice-Mayor Bob Welsh. But others on the commission blasted the proposal, saying it would open the door to runaway development and increased traffic congestion.

Commissioner Walter Harris told the developers, “I really like your project,” but then railed against the zoning plan that would make it possible, contending it would encourage other developers to seek similar changes and “open the door to extreme development the likes of which South Miami has never seen.”

Another commissioner, Josh Liebman, dismissed project supporters by saying he didn’t believe they represent most residents. He complained bitterly about a last-minute barrage of emails and derided people in the audience wearing what he termed “cute” buttons in support of the plan. And, in an unsual slide presentation, he said that a 7-0 vote by the city zoning board in favor of some elements of the Federal plan was bad for the developer. He suggested it looked like a set-up and contended a 6-1 result instead would have appeared more “democratic.”

He also claimed that the developers would put people in harm’s way by enticing them to cross U.S. 1 from the South Miami Metrorail station to the redeveloped Sunset Place. Federal Realty’s team has touted the project’s proximity to Metrorail as a rationale for adding residential density to the property and turning it into what’s known as transit-oriented development, as called for in the town’s comprehensive development plan.

Neighboring Coral Gables has adopted a similar template for two key properties along South Dixie, approving new denser, taller mixed-use projects for the site of the old Gables Ford dealership and the Holiday Inn across from the University of Miami. So has Miami-Dade County, which has approved ambitious redevelopment schemes for parking lots at three Metrorail stations along U.S. 1.

Federal’s consultant unsuccessfully sought to counter some commissioners’ and residents’ concerns about traffic and pedestrian safety.

Planning consultant Victor Dover, whose office is a block from the mall, noted that in other similar mixed-use projects around the country, thousands of people move safely across busy roads by using well-designed crossings that connect to inviting spaces within the development. At the vice mayor’s suggestion, the team offered to explore creating a pedestrian bridge over U.S. 1, though Dover and others warned those tend to be expensive, complicated to build and largely ignored by pedestrians.

The developers’ traffic planner, Tim Plummer, noted that fewer people would actually be driving in and out much of the time because the plan calls for demolishing 80,000 square feet of shops, which generate more car trips than apartments or hotel rooms.

Federal’s attorney, Jeff Bass, said commissioners’ concerns that others would emulate the new zoning were misplaced because the town’s comprehensive plan wouldn’t allow it.

“This is not going to result in springing urban nodes in the middle of single-family neighborhoods,” he said. “We are proposing dense urban development where your comprehensive plan says you want dense urban development.”