Developer Dilemma



The would-be developer of the former South Shore Hospital site at Alton Road and Fifth Street is adamantly supporting his vision of a project there – a vision that was excoriated by Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who said last week that the entire prospect is illegal and unlikely to happen any time soon.

In an email exchange with SunPost (both he and this writer were traveling), Crescent Heights managing principal Russell Galbut disagreed that the project was outside the realm of possibilities.

264081112_640“While the Mayor points to the legalities of the zoning, the reality is that the zoning can be accomplished through current statutory frameworks including a public referendum,” Galbut wrote SunPost. “There is nothing illegal or grey about the matter. Crescent Heights, coupled with Related, have simply improved upon the approved plan for the benefit of the community and the owner. If the city’s elected officials, do not appreciate the value of these benefits, then Crescent Heights could simply build the approved plan, which while being great, does not afford the community unprecedented public benefits.”

Crescent Heights and the Related Group want to build a 50-story tower on the southwest corner of the property, where all development rights would have to be consolidated. The city previously approved a longer, lower development for the long-blighted site.

Unfortunately the proposal isn’t legal and would furthermore require a public referendum according to City officials.

“The item will not be on the agenda to hear in April, it’s been taken off the agenda, it’s dead,” Mayor Philip Levine told SunPost last week. “We can’t waste staff time on things that aren’t legal. It’s somewhat important to follow the City Charter. And [the proposed development] is about as permitted by the Charter as if we wanted to drain Biscayne Bay to build a new Dolphins Stadium.”

In an e-blast sent following an article in the Miami Herald detailing the proposed project, Levine wrote: “Our zoning regulations only allow for buildings of 7 stories or less at that location. With only a three-dimensional model, no proposed zoning ordinance, or building schematics presented to the City, this proposal is very premature and I do not believe that the City Commission would act on this radical zoning change hastily without considerable and extensive input from Miami Beach residents. Moreover, I am not optimistic that Beach residents would be in favor of such a zoning change as presented. Lastly, we must take a holistic view of Alton Road by promoting responsible development and avoid unnecessary spot zoning.”

Additionally, in an official opinion issued by City Attorney Jose Smith, the project would require voter input.

Backed by the language in the City Charter and legal precedent, Smith wrote “…it is my opinion that the Charter will subject said application to voter approval if it seeks to increase existing floor area ratio.”

Galbut did not respond to the specific question about a referendum, but he did point out what he sees as the benefits of the proposed project.

“Without any exaggeration, the tower and park project proposed at Alton Road and 5th Street is an opportunity to alter the course of the recent history of Miami Beach,” Justine Velez of Urban Robot Architectural firm told SunPost. “It would erase the visual blight in the form of big box retail from the front door of the City; it would partially reduce the flooding problem along Alton Road; and it would forever establish Miami Beach as an innovator in green infrastructure.

“Last week’s article [in SunPost, Tower Terror] failed to include the most important aspects of the Alton Road, Park and Tower project, the historic and unprecedented public benefits,” Galbut wrote. He cited those as:

   “1. A 3.2 acre park dedicated for public use at the gateway to Miami Beach, beautifying what is now an unattractive flyover and entry way to Miami Beach.  A land grant of this type has not happened on Miami Beach since the days of Carl Fisher.

            2. The project would reduce density by over 250 units (445 to 180) from the approved entitled plans, reducing traffic and school impacts substantially.

            4. The project would eliminate half of the commercial uses, which would reduce impact to the neighborhood.

            5. The project, as a tower, would be for sale housing providing substantial property taxes for the community and raising the values of the entire area around it.

            6. The project would provide signature world-class architecture and take the focus off the current gateway view to Miami Beach which is currently the blank wall of box retail.

            7. The project would provide the only green solution to the water mitigation issues of South Beach.”

Proponents also cited the environmental and public benefits of the project.

“Whether you’re for or against the project, a few facts are clear: The sense of arrival as you enter Miami Beach along MacArthur Causeway is dismal,” according to Velez. “The flooding in South Beach is serious and frequent, and is at its most severe at the intersection of Alton Road and Fifth Street. Recently the City of Miami Beach’s engineering team developed a plan for enormous cisterns and pump stations that will keep the streets passable during high tides and rainstorms. The developers were asked and eagerly supported [by providing] land for these cisterns and or stations..

“The conversation spurred the developers’ design team – Perkins + Will and Urban Robot Associates – to propose a design that goes above and beyond the ‘pump it into the Bay’ approach. Our proposal encompasses a multifaceted green infrastructure system that will not only reduce local flooding, but will also clean the water beyond what would be normally accomplished with pumps, provide a public park, and set the precedent for an approach that could be implemented citywide for a greater benefit,” Velez continued. “The basis for this approach are findings by the EPA as well as other government agencies and NGOs, that municipal water management is more successful and more economical when ‘land development…works with nature to manage storm water as close to its source as possible’. [, cited by Velez] This has been termed Low Impact Development or Green Infrastructure. Examples include green roofs, constructed wetlands, pervious pavement, and cisterns. The EPA contrasts these approaches with ‘grey infrastructure,’ defined as ‘traditional stormwater management systems that quickly dispose of stormwater, such as pipes, pumps and lined ditches.’”

Galbut and Velez cited additional government website sources for his assertions.

According to Galbut and his team, open space is a key component in this new green approach. “Parks are moving beyond their traditional role of leisure and recreation, to become pieces of infrastructure that are helping with larger societal problems, such as flooding,” Velez told SunPost. “From the Brooklyn Botanical Garden to Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, private entities and municipalities are capturing and treating rainwater on site before allowing it to cause flooding or contamination. What’s more, green infrastructure works on small, medium and large scales — from a backyard or a street median to a park or, indeed, the Everglades. The larger the catchment area, the greater the benefit, but small systems can make a huge impact on a local level.”

So how does all this work specifically at 500-600 Alton Road, Galbut and team concluded?

“By consolidating all of their allowable floor area ratio (FAR) into a 50-story tower on the 500 block, Crescent Heights and the Related Group free up their remaining land (about 3.2 acres) for use as a park,” Velez asserted. “As currently designed, the park has four water-holding components: underground cisterns, an aboveground reservoir, a stream, and a shallow lake. Combined, these water bodies can accommodate a minimum of 2 million of gallons of water – or up to 4 million, depending on the final design.  The benefits are three-fold:  By capturing water in the park, some water would be taken off the adjacent streets; peak flows of flooding events would be softened, reducing pressure on City pumps; and water would be cleansed through natural biological processes as it gets filtered through the system. The park would not completely resolve the flooding problem on Alton Road, much less for all of Miami Beach, but it would be a key component of a greener system that keeps our roads passable, our buildings undamaged, and our residents safe. It could also serve as a model to be replicated and provide greater community-wide benefit.  In addition to capturing storm water, the park would provide traditional recreational amenities. The current design includes huge stretches of paths, boardwalks, and overlooks; wetland education facilities, sports fields, a flowering lakeside promenade inspired by the Washington DC Tidal Basin, a dog park, and picnic areas. The exact park program will designed based on community and City input; Crescent Heights and the Related Group are currently seeking public feedback.”

Galbut’s willingness to discuss project specifics was evident in previous community meetings – meetings in which at least a few city commissioners expressed their openness to the project concept and additional discussions.

While city officials say the project as proposed is nowhere in the official approval process, it might be important that while sides differ of opinion, there has been no finger-pointing. Levine has not criticized the project per se, beyond his assertion that it is “illegal” and would require a referendum. Galbut did not criticize Levine in his exchange with SunPost.

“Upon taking office last year, Mayor Levine and his team began to actively address the flooding problem in Miami Beach, through initiatives such as the Blue Ribbon Panel on Flood Mitigation and the Flooding Task Force Ad Hoc Committee,” Galbut wrote. “The park will contribute to these efforts, providing quantifiable economic benefits to the City in the form of storm water infrastructure, as well as the intangible benefits of open space for our families and friends, improved air-quality, and all the other benefits that green space in a downtown setting provide. Crescent and Related are eager to work with these panels. “This project is an opportunity for all of us in Miami Beach, but it can only succeed through a unified effort from the professionals working hand in hand with City staff, ideas and input from the community and support from the Administration. Everything is on the table to make Miami Beach the best place to live for all of us” Galbut added.

Levine did not reply by press time to Galbut’s assertions, including that the zoning can be accomplished through current statutory frameworks.

But if the plans are active, they remain in the conceptual stage, and they would face a referendum if they went anywhere. As of last, week according to Acting Planning Director Tom Mooney, “Technically, it’s nowhere. As of now, there have been no instructions from the city commission for an ordinance to accommodate that type of project.”

About Michael W Sasser

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