Real Estate

Precedent-Breaking Vote in Miami Beach Was "Gift to a Powerful Developer," City Says

The City of Miami Beach calls the developers' argument "nonsense."
The City of Miami Beach calls the developers' argument "nonsense." Photo by gregobagel / Getty Images
Bill Clinton argued about the meaning of "is." The Kardashian clan argues about what it means to be a "self-made" billionaire. And Miami Beach argues about the definition of a floor so a developer can get a bigger skyscraper.

In recent weeks, developers of a proposed tower at 500 Alton Rd. have claimed they were robbed of two floors of a building designed to be 40 stories tall. They blame the way the city calculates and defines something called "floor area ratio."

The city's land development code says elevator shafts, stairwells, and mechanical chutes count toward the total square footage allowed for new building projects. But the developers — among them Russell Galbut, one of the most powerful influencers in Miami Beach — say that's unfair. And in a landmark decision at the city's Board of Adjustment meeting last month, board members agreed, effectively erasing four decades of precedent in Miami Beach to cater to the whims of the development team. (There have also been complaints that board members have conflicts of interest involving Galbut and his attorney, but that's almost another story.)

Daniel Ciraldo, executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League, says the bid to redefine the city's code is an example of powerful developers stomping their feet and beating their chests to get what they want.

"If this is left to stand, it can open a Pandora's box for anyone to manipulate and dictate how the zoning code works, and that's a scary thought," Ciraldo tells New Times.
Stick with us for a Boring But Very Important explanation.

The developers claim that if the city didn't count elevator shafts and stairwells as part of the space, they would have more square footage for residential units for the tower (read: more potential income). They say that although the city's code defines "floor area" and how to calculate it, the code never defines what a floor actually is. The developers' attorneys literally studied the Oxford English Dictionary and the Dictionary of Architecture and Construction to make their case to the Board of Adjustment in a nearly three-hour meeting this past November.

The board ultimately sided with the developers by voting 5-2 to exclude building elements such as elevator shafts, mechanical chutes, and stairwells from floor area calculations, as first reported by the blog RE:MiamiBeach. The vote reversed the city planning director's determination and flipped on its head some 40 years of zoning interpretations, critics argue, which could have citywide implications.

The developers, for their part, claim they don't want to change the city code's language or the project's approved floor area. Ronald Lowy, Galbut's attorney, said during the November meeting they simply wanted an "interpretation" about what elements should be included.

The City of Miami Beach, however, isn't happy with the board's decision. Thomas Mooney, the city's planning director, has filed an appeal in Miami-Dade Circuit Court to set aside the board's decision. In court filings, Mooney calls the developers' argument "nonsense."

The developers have submitted at least 14 previous project applications with no objections to floor area calculations, court documents say. The appeal also claims the board made an unauthorized change to the city's land development regulations outside of its authority. In the appeal, Mooney calls the vote by the Board of Adjustment (BOA) "a gift to a powerful developer."

"The BOA doesn't have the power to act in a legislative capacity and amend the zoning code," City Attorney Raul Aguila said in a statement to New Times. "That power is reserved unto the city commission.”

According to the appeal, the site came with a maximum height of 75 feet for a tower, but the city ended up giving the developers 519 feet to build their condo. Despite the approvals, the developers "nevertheless decided they wanted more floor area," the appeal says.

Ciraldo wonders if it will ever be enough.

"Why would we bend over and change a rule to seemingly benefit one developer and one small group of people that really want it to the detriment of following our laws?" he says.

He's not the only one complaining: More than 200 Miami Beach residents have signed an online petition demanding the city commission appeal the BOA's ruling. The project appears to be on hold for now, at least until a judge issues a ruling or the city reaches a settlement with the development companies and the board.
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Alexi C. Cardona is a former staff writer at Miami New Times.