By Trevor Bach
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On September 18, 1979, City of Miami voters went to the polls and overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the city charter. Residents endorsed a proposal requiring that all future development along Biscayne Bay or on either bank of the Miami River below the Fifth Street bridge be placed 50 feet from water's edge. Supporters of the measure hoped to provide pathways along the waterfront where citizens could enjoy a stroll, a bike ride, or simple contemplation of Miami's spectacular views. Recalls attorney and veteran civic activist Dan Paul, the amendment's chief proponent at the time: "Before [the referendum] there was no public space between buildings and the water that the people could use."
Twenty-one years later it appears that the will of the people doesn't amount to much. A provision in the charter amendment has allowed the city commission to grant waivers to the mandatory setback. Over the years politicians, acting at the behest of developers, routinely have ignored a principle voters thought they'd enshrined in law: Access to Miami's waterfront should be a public right, not a luxury reserved for millionaires.
The American Airlines Arena; the Hotel Inter-Continental; and the Hyatt Regency hotel, just northwest of the Brickell Avenue bridge, are a few of the developments that received waivers to the setback requirement.
Now, as the Miami River Commission and the Trust for Public Land prepare to unveil an ambitious new plan for a comprehensive Miami River greenway path to run from State Road 112 near the airport all the way to Biscayne Bay, the Miami City Commission once again has voted to approve a waiver to the waterfront setback law. This time the parcel of land in question is particularly significant and symbolic: It lies at the mouth of the river, precisely where the greenway is to begin.
This past December 14 an all-star cast of lawyers, architects, and consultants representing a project called One Miami came before the commission to request a waiver to the setback requirement. More than a dozen private citizens also were there, intent on persuading commissioners to deny the request.
The waterfront property slated for development is a sliver of land immediately south of the Inter-Continental Hotel and east of the Dupont Plaza building. Despite its petite size -- not quite three acres -- developers hope to erect two towers on the site. As presented to the commission, one of the buildings would be residential, soaring 49 stories into the air and offering 425 pricey condominiums. A second tower, largely dedicated to office space, would rise 34 stories. Shops and restaurants would fill its bottom floors. Additionally developers contemplated a twelve-story garage with 1800 parking spaces.
The land forms part of a nine-acre site collectively called One Miami Centre, much of which consists of parking lots just north of the Dupont Plaza building. In 1998 a consortium of Boca Raton-based developers headed by Ned Siegel and Morris Stoltz purchased the entire nine acres with the goal of transforming them into a landmark downtown development.
Developer Jorge Perez and his company The Related Group of Florida agreed to plunk down a million-dollar deposit on the waterfront portion of the property with an option to buy it -- contingent on receiving a setback waiver. Perez, whose company is the top condo developer in South Florida, hired Miami's premier architects, Arquitectonica, to design his part of the project.
The firm drafted plans for buildings that, at several points, would sit closer to the water than the required 50 feet. The design also includes a road that would cut through the proposed greenway to reach a parking garage on the site. With the inclusion of benches and other additions, the project calls for only about fourteen feet of public walkway along the water.
A highly successful developer, Jorge Perez is no stranger to Miami politics. He co-chaired, with Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, a committee that attempted to land the 2000 Democratic Convention in Miami, and he serves as a member of the influential Hispanic businessmen's civic group Mesa Redonda. This past July he held a swanky fundraiser in support of the candidacy of Miami Mayor Joe Carollo's brother Frank, who sought a seat in the state House of Representatives. (Despite raising more money, Carollo lost to incumbent Manuel Prieguez.) Leaving nothing to chance, Perez hired Greenberg Traurig attorney Lucia Dougherty, a well-connected land-use expert, for the One Miami effort. He also employed former Miami assistant city manager Dena Bianchino to work on the project. After ten months with The Related Group, Bianchino returned to her old job at the city, albeit with a pay raise.
Tony Doris, a columnist with the Miami Daily Business Review, was the first to flag the awkwardness of this arrangement. Although Bianchino has recused herself from working on Perez's development as a city official, she does supervise the planning staff that had to decide whether to recommend approval of it. As Doris wrote in his column: "Now ask yourself how likely you'd be to speak up if you were one of her employees and you felt a need to criticize the work that she dedicated months to finessing."
City staff recommended commissioners waive the setback requirement, having concluded that the proposed development met the threshold for justifying such action: It must "provide a public benefit." Examples contained in the statute include direct public access, public walkways, and plazas. Perez's One Miami project promised all these.
Despite the importance of the development, commissioners didn't get to the matter until shortly after 8:00 p.m. But after six hours watching the commission vote on other matters, nearly all those who came to speak in opposition to the project already had departed.
Among them was Dan Paul, who views the site as critical to the waterfront promenade he has envisioned for more than twenty years. Paul, however, didn't have much hope he could persuade commissioners to reject the waiver; they are, he believes, too hungry for the tax revenue such big building projects can generate. "The public's right to enjoy the waterfront is furthest from [commissioners'] minds," he says.
Fran Bohnsack, executive director of the Miami River Marine Group, a trade organization for companies that operate on the river, also left after several hours of waiting. Bohnsack fears that approval of the project will make it easier for other developments to receive waivers to the setback, and so she attended the meeting to defend public access to the waterfront. People should have a chance to see a working river in action, she argues. Bohnsack also wanted to urge commissioners to think about the traffic chaos they would unleash by approving the project. Huge delays associated with the Brickell Avenue drawbridge already exist, she notes. Thousands more cars in the area will only add to motorists' current frustrations. "You aren't going to blame One Miami," Bohnsack complains. "You are going to point the finger at the big ship going through the drawbridge."
Nancy Lee, a Sierra Club Miami chapter board member, left at about 7:30 p.m. She had wanted to ask commissioners several questions, including this: "Why do we bother to have rules if every time we are just going to circumvent them?"
Miami River Commission Managing Director David Miller lasted until shortly before 8:00 p.m. The River Commission is an advisory board whose job is to review proposed projects that affect the river -- before they reach the city commission. After studying successful waterway paths in cities like Fort Lauderdale, Chattanooga, and Pittsburgh, the River Commission endorsed an ideal width of 22 feet for the proposed greenway. "It's not just a bunch of benches in front of a private building," says commission member Ernest Martin. "We want it to be more like Lincoln Road along the river."
Understanding that this width will not always be possible to achieve along the congested river, the commission set sixteen feet as the minimum width for a functional greenway. "So [walkers, joggers, and Rollerbladers] can pass without knocking each other into the bay," jokes Miller.
A week before the city commission was to review One Miami, representatives of the developer placed it before the River Commission for consideration as a last-minute agenda addition. Though rushed, the commission gave its conditional approval to the project. At the December 14 Miami City Commission meeting Miller had hoped publicly to present a letter to commissioners that concluded, "The Miami River Commission respectfully recommends the proposed riverwalk be widened to provide at least sixteen feet of clear, unobstructed walkway." Instead he gave his message to the city clerk before leaving.
Most of the discussion about One Miami before the commission involved protests by the site's neighbors, the Hotel Inter-Continental, the Miami Center office building, and the First Union Bank tower. They were concerned that the skyscrapers and parking garage would plunge their offices and pool deck into shade.
Only a few people were left to argue for the public. They included historian Paul George, hired by Miami One's powerful neighbors, and civic activist Blanca Mesa. George detailed the historical and archeological importance of the area around the site and bemoaned that this history is not valued. At 9:38 p.m. Mesa strode to the podium with the unenviable task of presenting the views of all the citizens who had left the chambers and the groups they represented. Chairman Willy Gort, though, refused to let her exceed her five-minute speaking allotment. "I've been waiting for five hours," Mesa pleaded. "Please let me finish my sentence."
Only after Commissioner Arthur Teele intervened was Mesa allowed to return to the podium. In response Gort stood up and walked from the dais. "We have lost so much of what is special," Mesa implored. "This waterfront belongs to all two million people in Miami-Dade County."
After further discussion, at a little after 10:30 p.m., Commissioners Johnny Winton, Arthur Teele, Joe Sanchez, and Willy Gort voted to approve the waiver with two conditions: The Related Group had to meet with the neighbors to try and rectify their concerns; additionally Winton insisted the developer work with city staff to make the project more "pedestrian friendly" before One Miami received its building permits. Results of the discussions with neighbors would be presented to the commission at the next meeting, on Thursday, January 11. (Tomas Regalado was the only commissioner to vote against the measure.)
Meanwhile civic activists like Dan Paul are in the familiar position of watching as their dreams are trampled upon once again. "It is," he says with disgust, "a blatant disregard for the popular will."