Builder Beware

Welcome to the new Miami Beach, where the citizens are angry, commissioners are cowed, and developers are Public Enemy #1

After reviewing the Jahn designs, planning director Dean Grandin and his staff found some deficiencies in the application, but none serious enough to kill the project outright. They recommended that the DRB delay a final decision on the project until a later meeting. Board members, however, proved far more decisive at the January 6 meeting, held in city hall's commission chambers.

At this meeting, the DRB listened to commentary from area residents, Continuum attorney Clifford Schulman, and Jeffrey Bass. (Shubin and Bass were present representing a resident of the Portofino Tower.) Bass put forward some fascinating legal arguments against Jahn's design. He insisted, for instance, that if Continuum wanted to build Jahn's glittering glass-and-steel towers on the parcel, the developer would need permission from the property owners already on the larger lot, in this case the condominium associations of Portofino and South Pointe towers, which stand on the west part of the same lot. "Common sense would dictate that all owners of a property would need to join in an application to build something on that lot," Bass would say later.

At the meeting he contended that the only way for Continuum to avoid this issue of owner permission would be to "split" the vacant part of the lot from the original, creating two discrete parcels. This move, though, would greatly reduce the size and density allowable on the new lot.

Shubin and Bass had sent Grandin a letter in November outlining these objections. The implications for both Continuum's Jahn-designed project and Portofino's proposed project galvanized Grandin. He fired off two letters to Clifford Schulman in November, asking the attorney to address both the lot-splitting and owner-permission issues. Schulman, on behalf of both Continuum and Portofino, replied with a twenty-page memorandum asserting that neither company's application would necessitate a splitting of the lot.

As to the necessity of obtaining the permission of the condo associations, Schulman wrote that Florida courts haven't made a determination one way or the other, but other jurisdictions have held that such permission is not necessary when multiple buildings with different owners occupy the same lot.

While Grandin's staff report regarding the Continuum project did not mention either of these sticky legal questions, board members found plenty of other problems. "It is difficult for any architect to react to Helmut Jahn," said Peter Blitstein, an architect who sits on the board. "He has designed some of the most important buildings in the world; I've always loved his work. But from the first time I've seen these buildings, I've always felt they don't belong on Miami Beach."

Board members were careful not to say things like "too big" or "too tall"; the DRB is not supposed to accept or reject projects on the basis of their size. But several did echo Blitstein's assessment that, aesthetically, Jahn's buildings just don't fit in with their South Pointe neighbors.

Schulman chided the board for this view. "When you fail to look forward, you have committed yourself to death or atrophy," he warned. "Whether Miami Beach likes it or not, we are going to enter the 21st Century." Schulman then asked that the board accept the planning staff's recommendation of a postponement until March 10. The board refused, and unanimously rejected Continuum's application outright.

How much did the arguments of Jeff Bass (the dapper, affable "good cop" to Shubin's acerbic "bad cop") have to do with the rejection? Technically, nothing. But the attorneys' novel arguments have taken on lives of their own. As of last week neither the planning staff nor the city attorney's office nor the city commission had determined whether Shubin and Bass's points are valid. At least one of them, however, makes sense to the mayor. "It seems to me that the permission of the unit owners would be required for an application to be valid," Kasdin says, adding that's he is still waiting for City Attorney Murray Dubbin to clarify the issue.

These arguments will have another chance to be tested at the March 25 meeting of the DRB (a special second meeting this month, given the number of pending projects), when it will be Portofino's turn to present its designs for the Ocean Parcel, prepared by the legendary architectural firm Skidmore Owings Merrill, the visionaries behind San Francisco's Bank of America pyramid and Chicago's Sears Tower.

On February 25 the planning department finished a written order confirming the DRB's rejection of Continuum's project. Schulman has twenty days from that date to ask for a rehearing before the DRB or to appeal the board's decision to the city commission. When contacted for this story, Schulman declined to comment in detail on either the Portofino or Continuum plans for the Ocean Parcel, stating only that Continuum was "considering all options" -- including suing the city. Developer Bruce Eichner, reached at his Manhattan office, was more blunt. He noted that he will watch carefully what happens with Portofino's application, and that he is "amending" his own plan. He also warned that if neither his nor Kramer's plans are approved, either or both of the developers will sue the city.

The handiwork of one of Greenberg Traurig's biggest clients is visible right outside Lucia Dougherty's office window. Past Biscayne Bay, past the serried ranks of cargo containers at the Port of Miami, looms the terra cotta monolith that is Portofino Tower. "The climate in Miami Beach is terrible for development," Dougherty says, pushing her wire-rims up into her straight blond hair as a makeshift headband. "And the more Miami Beach and Dade County squeeze, the more that is going to be to the benefit of the City of Miami. Here, take a look."

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