Naked Politics

Brickell residents support Miami mayor’s veto of upzoning at Babylon property

Brickell residents crowded Miami Mayor Francis Suarez’s City Hall office when he signed the second veto of his term last week, a rejection of an unpopular upzoning of a thin piece of property where the ziggurat-shaped Babylon Apartments used to stand.

Many neighbors expressed their support for the mayor in the days following the veto. Several criticized the Miami Herald’s coverage of the signing, which reported on an ethics complaint filed by attorneys for the property owner on the eve of the veto. Several reached out to the Herald to offer their praise for Suarez. They dismissed the ethics issue, an accusation that an attorney in Suarez’s office, Eddy Leal, is doubling as an unregistered lobbyist for neighborhood associations against the upzoning. Leal maintains he was not required to register, and Suarez said he kept Leal out of conversations about the veto.

The neighbors said the Herald focused too much on the ethics questions and did not pay enough attention to other circumstances of the vote, including that a majority of the City Commission voted against the wishes of the commissioner who represents Brickell, Ken Russell.

On July 25, Commissioners Manolo Reyes, Joe Carollo, Wifredo “Willy” Gort and Keon Hardemon voted to approve the zoning change that allows for a 24-story tower at 240 SE 14th St. Brickell Bay Drive residents said they were disappointed the commissioners did not listen to their concerns over higher density, pollution, lack of privacy and noise associated with a larger development.

“Last Friday Mayor Francis Suarez did the right thing,” said Rosa Gonzalez. “Our mayor showed the city of Miami that he is here to represent the residents and their well-being, as he explained when he vetoed the construction of a 24-story building on Brickell Bay Drive.”

“The Brickell area is already dense and crowded,” said Claudia Gutierrez, a resident of the Brickell Shores condo. “Traffic is not getting any better and that disturbs our quality of life and could also have a negative impact on our safety.”

Another neighbor, Jabier Arbeloa, noted that the vote went against the recommendation of the city’s planning department and “more important — against the overwhelming opposition of the neighbors of Brickell Bay Drive, who delivered almost 800 signatures opposing the rezoning.”

The Babylon property is owned by Francisco Martinez-Celeiro, a former spaghetti western star. After city commissioners overruled its own historic preservation board in early 2018 and denied the Babylon protection from demolition, Martinez-Celeiro sought to increase the zoning on the property. His attorneys maintain the change is a correction to a mistake that occurred when the Miami 21 zoning code took effect in 2010.

Neighbors strongly rebuffed a previous attempt to get zoning for a 48-story building. During the July 25 discussion, planning director Francisco Garcia said a more limited zoning designation that would allow 12 stories would have been sufficient to correct the Miami 21 mistake, a point reiterated by several Brickell residents supporting the mayor’s veto.

Chelín Durán, president of a homeowners association opposing the development, said the four commissioners who voted in favor “had no right to come here to our district” and vote against the will of the residents.

“This is our home,” she said.

Much has been made of commissioners going against Russell’s vote on this matter, but it certainly is not the first time commissioners have pushed back on district commissioners’ wishes for the area that elected them. While all had different scenarios with different mixtures of support and opposition from the public, Miami commissioners have gone against the will of district commissioners before.

One of the most high-profile projects under Suarez’s tenure, the proposal to turn Melreese Golf Course into a stadium and mall complex to host home games for David Beckham’s upcoming Inter Miami Major League Soccer team, took a pivotal step forward in summer of 2018 when commissioners sent a broad outline of an agreement to the voters. Last summer, commissioners agreed to ask voters if the city should negotiate a no-bid deal with Beckham’s partner, Jorge Mas, to lease the city-owned golf course for the deal.

In the debate among commissioners, Gort — who represents the district that includes it — expressed his displeasure for the proposal and voted against it. It still passed 3-2, with Carollo, Hardemon and Russell in favor. Reyes opposed. Suarez lobbied the commission to approve the referendum.

Twice before Russell’s desires for his own district have been overridden on the same topic — Ultra Music Festival.

In November, he opposed allowing the event to be held in Virginia Key, which is in Russell’s district. He was the lone no vote in that approval. On the vote to decide whether Ultra could come back to downtown, Russell was again overruled on a matter concerning his district. At the same commission meeting where the Brickell upzoning was approved, a majority of commissioners approved Ultra’s return to Bayfront Park. Russell and Carollo were the two no votes while Hardemon, Reyes and Gort voted yes.

In the wake of Suarez’s veto of the Brickell decision, downtown residents who oppose Ultra’s return hoped the mayor might veto Ultra, too. Citing potential damages to residents’ quality of life and hearing, the resident association’s lawyer sent Suarez a letter a day after the Brickell veto urging him to veto the Ultra vote as well.

The deadline passed with no veto of Ultra.

In late February, when Hardemon wanted an initial first-reading approval of an 18-acre development plan in Little Haiti, Russell invoked the little-used “five-day rule” that allows a single commissioner to delay consideration for an item if amendments are filed less than five days before a scheduled vote. Hardemon had negotiated a new $31 million public benefits package for the Magic City Innovation District plan and introduced it publicly on the same day as the vote. Russell raised questions about the amended deal and single-handedly delayed the vote. The project, subject to much debate among neighborhood activists, eventually won approval. Some of those activists are suing over the vote.

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Joey Flechas covers government and public affairs in the city of Miami for the Herald, from votes at City Hall to neighborhood news. He won a Sunshine State award for revealing a Miami Beach political candidate’s ties to an illegal campaign donation. He graduated from the University of Florida.
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