After months of bickering between politicians over the future of the Shops at Sunset Place, the fate of the beleaguered mall may now lie in the hands of voters.
On Aug. 28, South Miami residents will decide whether one commissioner should be allowed to prevent the zoning changes needed for a $300 million revamp of the mall to go forward.
The ballot question proposes changing the city’s charter so that a four-fifths vote of the commission, rather than a unanimous vote, would be sufficient to relax the land use code in a downtown district that includes the mall.
The issue pits Mayor Philip Stoddard against Vice Mayor Walter Harris. Stoddard says the future of South Miami depends on the project, which would demolish a portion of the mall along U.S. 1 and add an 18-story hotel, apartment building and pedestrian plaza.
Harris says the future depends on blocking it. In March, he single-handedly vetoed the zoning changes in a 4-1 vote.
“He thinks it’s the end of the city,” Stoddard told the Miami Herald. “I think not doing it is the end of the city.”
The referendum does not explicitly mention the Shops at Sunset Place, instead referring to the rezoning of a newly formed district called the Commercial Core. But Harris says this district exists solely to appease the mall developers, and believes it’s a slippery slope if the city accommodates their demands.
“If they can get away with it, other developers are watching,” Harris told the Herald.
Harris has been fighting development for over a decade. In 2008, he helped write a ballot question that changed South Miami’s voting requirements from four out of five to a unanimous vote needed to make the city’s land regulations less restrictive.
He told the Herald at the time: “There’s no question on the intent of the voters. It was meant to make it harder for developers to get sweetheart deals and to control density and height.”
Stoddard believes the city has paid a steep price for the 2008 referendum, losing out on commercial revenue as its downtown languishes.
“We’ve had very good proposals get stuck,” Stoddard said. “Someone is going to veto everything you try to do.”
Stoddard said some developers have refused to even engage with the city because of its unanimous voting requirement. He cited the $430 million Miami Cancer Institute that opened last year in Kendall, saying the owners had expressed a desire to come to South Miami but thought better of trying to win over the commission.
South Miami’s commission consists of Stoddard, Harris and three commissioners.
The site of the Shops at Sunset Place — at the intersection of South Dixie Highway and West 57th Avenue — has seen more than three decades of stagnation. A retail and office complex with a movie theater called The Bakery Centre first opened there in 1986. It was demolished 10 years later, and Sunset Place was built in 1999 by Simon Properties.
In 2015, Federal Realty Investment Trust, the same company that bought CocoWalk in Coconut Grove, purchased Sunset Place with co-owners Grass River Property and the Comras Co. for $110 million.
The mall is directly across the street from the South Miami Metrorail station and features a movie theater, bowling alley, arcade, and shops. But it has not seen the foot traffic it needs to thrive. That’s why Federal Realty is pining to add residential units to the site in the form of a hotel and apartment complex.
Current regulations restrict building heights to four stories in downtown South Miami.
“We don’t have enough people on the ground going to the shops, the restaurants, the grocery stores, to keep the cash flowing into our coffers,” said Commissioner Bob Welsh, who campaigned in favor of the unanimous voting requirement in 2008 but believes a change is needed. “If we’re able to put eight-story residential towers up, we may get more people walking around the downtown.”
Harris, the vice mayor, says that by resisting the Sunset Place project, he is sticking up for residents who don’t want to see South Miami go the way of its neighbors. Harris said he is not unwilling to negotiate with the Sunset Place developers, but believes the 18-story hotel proposal is untenable.
“Residents don’t want to see anything that big,” Harris said. “We’re not Dadeland, we’re not Brickell, we’re not downtown. We’re South Miami.”
Stoddard contends that no one is looking to make South Miami as dense as Dadeland or Brickell. The Sunset Place renovation, he said, would “hide” the 18-story hotel building so it isn’t visible from Sunset Drive, and would create space for trees, walkways and pedestrian gathering places.
Opponents of the Sunset Place renovation, he said, “have not really studied the proposal.”
“I adore Walter,” Stoddard said, “and we disagree profoundly on this.”
The voters will get the final say.
“We all have slightly different perspectives,” Welsh said of the commission. “But now it’s up to the voters. Now it’s out of our hands.”