The dying Shops at Sunset Place, the half-empty themed mall blamed for downtown South Miami’s sliding fortunes, will get its long-postponed radical makeover after all.
A year and a half after spiking a proposed redevelopment of the pink-elephant mall, the South Miami commission did a complete 180 and unanimously approved a tweaked version of the plan late Tuesday night.
The vote means national developer Federal Realty Investment Trust and its local partners can move forward with a plan to tear down roughly half the obsolete open-air mall, encompassing about 80,000 square feet of mostly vacant retail space. That portion would be replaced with three apartment and hotel towers of up to 17 stories along South Dixie Highway. The rest of the 1990s mall, which includes the AMC movie theaters and an LA Fitness gym, is to receive a major face-lift for a cleaner, more contemporary look.
The plan, city officials and backers say, will turn the inward-facing, fortress-like mall outward, opening it up to the surrounding streets to create lively urban gathering spaces for South Miami residents and visitors — and help revitalize its struggling downtown. Merchants, property owners and city officials say the mall’s closed-off design contributed to its failure and blame the resulting lack of foot traffic for a spate of store and restaurant closings on Sunset Drive.
The proposed redevelopment is “critical to the future of our downtown,” South Miami City Manager Steven Alexander told commissioners at the start of the two-and-a-half-hour public hearing.
The plan presented to the city on Tuesday evening included several improvements over the original version, including an expanded public plaza on Red Road that will also now boast a band shell and grassy amphitheater seating for live performances, as well as a previously planned cafe. Along the main entrance on Sunset, the city will remove street parking so the developer can significantly widen the sidewalk. The refined plan boosts the number of shade trees lining the property along Sunset and Red Road to provide a thick natural canopy for pedestrians.
The developers agreed to a request by Mayor Philip Stoddard, a devotee of green energy, to add four solar panel arrays atop the mall’s main structure as well as green roofs and reflective, energy-saving roof coverings. The project’s designers, Zyscovich Architects, also redesigned the exterior and the new towers with less glass and more masonry to give them less of a “Brickell” look that many residents found off-putting. The project team also agreed to use special glass that minimizes the possibility that birds will crash into it.
In addition, Federal and its local partners, Grass River Property and Comras Company, agreed to contribute $1.5 million in cash towards a proposed pedestrian bridge over busy South Dixie Highway to the South Miami Metrorail station, and $250,000 for an improved plan for signage and street furniture in the downtown district.
The changes are the result of public workshops held by the developers at the city’s request after the commission effectively tabled the redevelopment proposal in November 2017. Though the vote was 3-2 in favor of the plan, the required rezoning needed all five votes in favor under the city’s charter. The developers then said they would kill the plan and stopped communicating with the city. The commission revisited the issue and essentially voted to reconsider.
South Miami voters subsequently approved a charter change that eliminated the need for unanimous approval, paving the way for the developers to return to the table. The two commissioners who voted against the plan the first time, Josh Liebman and vice mayor Walter Harris, voted in favor this time. Several plan backers credited Harris, the principal objector to the plan, for pressing for plan improvements.
Although some residents objected to the proposed height of the planned towers, which range from 155 feet to 192 feet, the developers did not reduce those. South Miami planning director Jane Tompkins noted Monday that the towers will be at least 1,000 feet from any residential block and will have scant impact on neighborhoods.
Architect Bernard Zyscovich, meanwhile, contrasted the planned towers favorably with mixed-use projects now under construction along South Dixie in Coral Gables and planned developments at the Douglas Road and Coconut Grove Metrorail stations. The Sunset Place towers would be set back from the sidewalks and have far more greenery, he said.
“I believe this project is going to be by far the best of those because it respects open space,” Zyscovich told commissioners.
The developers did, however, eliminate a plan for underground parking amid concerns over a rising water table due to climate change and additional traffic on Red Road. Instead, they will add two stories to the mall’s garage.
Stoddard praised the developers for sticking around after the initial rejection and working with residents and city planners to better the project.
“We’ve never seen this degree of cooperation before,” Stoddard said, mentioning his nine years in elected office. “It’s remarkable.”
All but a couple of members of the public who spoke at Monday’s hearing expressed strong support for the project.
“The Commission’s unanimous vote reflects the community’s outpouring of support for revamped retail and dining, market rate housing, a hotel, and new public spaces that will help revitalize downtown South Miami and enhance connectivity with the surrounding neighborhood and nearby transit options,” the developers said in a statement issued on Wednesday. “We look forward to working with the City to move the development plans forward.”
Federal and its partners bought the troubled mall from Simon Property Group in 2015 for $110 million and unveiled their plan the following year. The same team has also undertaken a similar approach at CocoWalk after buying that struggling Coconut Grove mall, also in 2015, for $87.5 million. In contrast to Sunset Place, though, the developers are well into construction at CocoWalk, where an office building will replace a portion of the former structure.
A spokesman for Federal said there is no date yet for the start of work at Sunset Place. Both the movie theaters and the gym will remain in the mall, but it’s not been determined whether the Barnes & Noble bookstore will stay.
When it opened in 1999, Sunset Place’s big-name shops included a sleek Nike superstore, Virgin records mega-store, Ralph Lauren boutique, IMAX theater and Rainforest Cafe with a massive, artificial banyan tree at the entrance.
Initially the mall, which replaced the unsuccessful Bakery Center, drew big crowds and helped revive South Miami’s once-desolate downtown. But its popularity waned markedly, especially in recent years, as revitalized districts like Miami’s Wynwood and Midtown Miami and South Beach’s Lincoln Road capitalized on consumers’ newfound taste for urban places. Earlier this year, two of the last chain retailers at the mall, The Gap and Banana Republic, left.
At the same time, the Sunset commercial strip has been plagued by dropping business and rising vacancies as numerous shops and dining spots shut their doors, merchants and city officials say.
The new blueprint for Sunset Place offers a significantly more urban layout, with broad open walkways throughout that connect directly to downtown South Miami streets. The hope is that footprint, along with a fresh mix of restaurants and shops, will draw visitors and South Miami residents who had ditched the town’s tidy downtown for the competition.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Jordan Blum, owner of the Tupelo Honey clothing store on Red Road, called the downtown commercial picture “bleak” and pleaded with commissioners to approve the Sunset Place redevelopment.
“We need it so badly,” Blum said. “We have this beautiful design. It can’t get any better than this. It’s been very tough in South Miami. This is a project we need you guys to approve.”