It brought Miami the intensely urban, work-play lifestyle and animated sidewalks and cafes of Brickell. It brought street-embracing retail centers to what had been a shopping desert. Welcoming, pedestrian-friendly towers with concealed parking — or no parking at all — to downtown Miami, including one instant architectural masterwork. New public green spaces and waterfront promenades to the banks of the Miami River and the bay’s edge in Edgewater. And jazzy, rejuvenated MiMo motels on Biscayne Boulevard.
Can a simple zoning code — the rules that govern what can be built, and where, and how big it can be — transform a city?
If that code is Miami 21, a once-radical-seeming set of development regulations adopted by the city 11 years ago amid widespread skepticism, the evidence seems to support an emphatic Yes.
Now, just over a decade on, the city is undertaking a fresh look at Miami 21. This week, after a five-month delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the city formally launched a special task force of experts and residents charged with substantially revising the code and tackling new goals that weren’t on the front burner when it was enacted in 2009.
Chief among those: Finding ways to promote development of critically needed affordable housing, figuring out new rules for developing projects to meet sea-level rise, reviewing the adequacy of existing zoning for specific city neighborhoods, and addressing issues of equity and gentrification that Miami 21 may have inadvertently helped fuel.
Almost certainly, the task force’s 12 members — a mix of architects and planners, developers, land-use lawyers and residents — will wrestle with how, or whether, to limit the massive and sometimes controversial Miami 21 Special Area Plan projects that have become flashpoints of community opposition.
Although the city’s planning board last year called for doing away with the so-called SAPs entirely, city officials want to refine them. Experts say that could be done by increasing community participation while curbing density or building heights to ensure the projects are compatible with surrounding neighborhoods.
SAPs have won both praise and scorn.
The SAP section of Miami 21 was intended to sensitively guide large-scale development on at least nine acres through negotiations between developers and city planners. It led to the creation of the Brickell City Centre, the shopping, hotel, office and residential complex on several blocks of long-vacant land on the south side of the Miami River. It also allowed the transformation of the once-forlorn Miami Design District into an uber-luxury, pedestrian-friendly urban shopping and cultural district.
Although the Miami 21 code has been amended several times, the city has not conducted the sort of thorough assessment that its designers at the Miami planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk envisioned would occur every few years to adapt to a changing world.
“The city has evolved tremendously since the inception of Miami 21,” Miami City Manager Art Noriega told the task force during the inaugural meeting, which was conducted virtually. “This is something we probably should have started some time back.”
Under a resolution adopted by the Miami commission, the task force will meet at least monthly and issue a report with recommended revisions or additions by December to city commissioners.
The questions the task force should explore, say its members and Miami 21 principal author Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, take on added dimensions in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
One consideration: should the prospect of subsequent waves of infection or new epidemics justify requirements for greater setbacks and open space at the street level around buildings? That requirement would allow for maximum air circulation and space for social distancing, including separated cafe tables and wider sidewalks, they said.
Another factor: Will decreased use of formal offices, or a greater need for working from home, produce a greater need for live-work housing that combines residential space with businesses or office space?
Even questions over the continued desirability of increased urban density to foster city life should be on the table after coronavirus spread rapidly in close urban quarters like New York City, they say.
“Wider sidewalks and fewer or narrower traffic lanes, wellness and equity questions, and rethinking of public space — the amount of it, the dimensions of it — would certainly be appropriate in light of world health,” said Plater-Zyberk. She stressed she has not kept up with the code’s use closely and is not involved in the revision effort.
When it comes to affordable housing, there’s only so much a zoning code can do to spur affordable housing short of requiring it — something elected officials have resisted and may now be barred by a new state statute, experts say. Plater-Zyberk said Miami 21 could nonetheless provide greater incentives than it does now to developers. It could offer more capacity to build in exchange for strict commitments to including affordable or workforce housing in projects — though she warned those must be carefully calibrated.
But she said Miami 21’s basic precepts have more than proven themselves.
To promote walkability, activity and good urban design, the code bars visible parking or loading areas, requiring those be concealed behind screens or “liners” consisting of apartments, offices and shops. It requires “habitable space” at street level and lots of clear glass at sidewalk level, plus working doors and entryways, to make walking easy and alluring.
The best SAPs, meanwhile, allowed developers and planners flexibility to arrange new buildings in innovative, cohesive ways that a strict adherence to Miami 21 would not permit. But Plater-Zyberk said city planners may have interpreted some SAP rules too liberally.
One goal of SAPs is to allow planners and developers to depart from Miami 21 rules to amass density and height in sections of the property to create variety and open spaces across the site. Instead, at times, developers were allowed to increase density across the board in exchange for providing open spaces and other public benefits, she said.
That could be fixed with a tweak of the rules, she said.
“We got some special places out of that,” said Plater-Zyberk, whose firm drew up the master plan for the revamped Design District. “And then, I think, the fact that so many of the big buildings have been built with doors and windows at the street level instead of parking garages was important.”
Miami 21, proposed in 2005 by then-Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, was shaped through years of intense public meetings, contested hearings and some determined opposition. It finally was approved by the Miami commission in 2009, just as development ground to a virtual halt amid a deep world recession.
The new code represented a sharp departure from its predecessor, which strictly separated uses like housing, office and commercial — a suburban concept that critics say led to dead streets, a dying downtown and commercial districts without the foot traffic necessary to sustain them. It also produced jarring contrasts like massive parking garages, ramps and blank walls on important streets, and towers looming over single family homes. The complex and often ambiguous rules also lent themselves to manipulation by developers and their attorneys, critics charged.
When construction finally restarted post-Recession with a vengeance, it was on the new, urban template of Miami 21. It’s been in place during one of the most extensive and long-lasting waves of development in city history.
A variant of what’s known as a form-based code, Miami 21 regulates the shape of buildings and how they meet the street to create lively urban places through clear diagrams. The code won awards and attention across the country. Some other cities adopted similar strategies, most notably Denver, today widely regarded as another example of a revitalized pedestrian-friendly urban center.
A key advance wrought by Miami 21 was its fostering of mixed uses within a single building or project in dense urban areas. Unlike the strict separation under the old model that requires driving from one place to the other, mixing uses puts living, working, shopping and recreation all within a close, walkable environment.
That Miami 21 model helped transform Brickell from a district of sterile sidewalks to a magnet for young professionals, cafes and restaurants and workplaces that would have been difficult, if not illegal, to achieve under the previous code. Once rundown areas such as Edgewater and Biscayne Boulevard were overhauled through redevelopment on the Miami 21 template into sought-after neighborhoods.
“People started noticing right away the fact that streets were becoming nicer,” Plater-Zyberk recalled. “I think there are a lot of obvious good impacts, from the low-rise bank on the corner that before would have put a parking lot out in front, to a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape.”
Planning consultant and urban designer Juan Mullerat, a member of the current Miami 21 task force, said much of the code’s success lay in advancing sophisticated goals in simple terms.
“It’s created better walkable human architecture. It has been able to humanize the public realm,” Mullerat, who worked for a year at Plater-Zyberk’s firm while the code was being developed, said. “The biggest strength of Miami 21 is its ability to put in simple terms some very complicated planning concepts. At the end of the day, it’s an approachable code.”
Miami 21 also embraced some innovative ideas. It promotes preservation of historic buildings and places by allowing their owners to sell unused building rights to developers in high-density districts like Edgewater or Brickell, while plowing the proceeds into renovations. That transfer of development rights program gave new life to the iconic Vagabond and other historic motels in the MiMo district along Biscayne Boulevard in the city’s Upper East Side.
It also allows developers of residential buildings near transit stations to reduce parking on site, or eschew it completely, to reduce auto dependency and bolster use of public transportation.
It also instituted a program of “public benefits’’ in which developers pay into city funds for affordable housing, parks and transportation improvements in exchange for “bonus” capacity to build. Plater-Zyberk said the city should assess and track benefits collected so far to see how effective the program has been as part of the Miami 21 review — and tweak the rules if necessary.
One prominent condo developer, Related Group executive vice president Carlos Rosso, said Miami 21 could do more to “incentivize” builders to expand green and open spaces in and around their projects. Related was among the earliest to seize on Miami 21’s public benefits requirements, persuading the city to swap a piece of a dead-end street in Edgewater for a small public waterfront park and baywalk the developer built as part of its Icon Bay condo project.
“We also opened up some additional streets, and now suddenly this park is connected to three streets,” Rosso said. “You go there in the afternoon, and it’s a small neighborhood focal point. People can meet, take their dogs, take their kids to play on the grass.”
While Miami 21 strengthened requirements for developers of new projects on the bay and river to include public promenades, Rosso said it should go further to encourage creative approaches like that at Icon Bay. Related and other stakeholders have been pushing the city to fully connect the baywalk from the Design District south to Maurice Ferre Park in downtown Miami, a concept they call the Biscayne Line.
The missing pieces of the long-contemplated baywalk could be completed if the code includes measures to encourage building associations and property owners to provide a connection now — perhaps using floating or suspended promenades in cases where lots are built out to the bay’s edge — even if they don’t intend to redevelop immediately. Those incentives could take the shape of credits against future fees, Rosso suggested.
Echoing others, Rosso also said the task force should explore further easing minimum parking requirements, which critics say increase construction and housing costs and contribute to traffic congestion. Eliminating those requirements, though, isn’t feasible without transit improvements that a zoning code can’t mandate, he said.
“We need to improve public transportation to get rid of the parking,” said Rosso, who added Related is communicating with city planners to offer input on Miami 21.
The parking requirements also play into one gaping area where numerous experts and developers say Miami 21 has been ineffective: Encouraging needed, affordable and modestly scaled infill housing in neighborhoods like Little Havana. Though it’s dotted with scores of vacant lots, Miami 21 regulations make it difficult if not impossible for property owners to build the kind of small apartment buildings that could make a real dent in the city’s housing crisis, the critics say.
That’s because a typical, narrow city lot can’t easily accommodate required on-site parking and car access while hewing to low-density zoning in some residential areas. As a result, critics note, very little has been built in those neighborhoods under Miami 21.
“Essentially they are undevelopable,” Mullerat said.
The lack of that kind of modestly scaled neighborhood development, called the “missing middle” — that is, a homey scale between high-rise projects and single family homes that’s the backbone of many traditional cities — is a national problem, experts say. That’s in part because banks and the development industry are geared to more-profitable big development, they said.
But tweaking the rules to make it easier to develop those lots would spread prosperity by allowing small entrepreneurs to build, Mullerat said. What any revisions to Miami 21 must avoid, he said, is giving developers more capacity to develop without ensuring real community improvements. That’s something he said has happened in neighborhoods like Coconut Grove, where the city has allowed construction of oversized homes that erase local character and, in the case of the historically black West Grove section, push longtime residents out.
“We have tools at our disposal as planners. Any change in the zoning needs to be equitable and it needs to be community driven,” Mullerat said. “A rezoning affects the surrounding property values, the living conditions and the identity of a whole neighborhood.”
Some of those tensions between big development and its community impact reared up in the first task force hearing, intended as an organizational meeting.
The three land-use attorneys appointed to the panel did not participate in the meeting at the suggestion of the city attorney’s office amid questions over whether their inclusion on the task force might constitute a prohibited conflict of interest under state law. All three are registered to act as lobbyists for dozens of developers seeking waivers and city zoning and development approvals under Miami 21.
The city is awaiting rulings from the Miami-Dade County and Florida ethics commissions, assistant city attorney Amber Ketterer said. A complaint from a city resident triggered a Miami-Dade review, according to a June 4 email to the city from ethics commission executive director Jose Arrojo.
One of the three attorneys, Iris Escarra of Greenberg Traurig, praised the code in an interview before Wednesday’s meeting for helping produce what she considers some of the finest architecture in the city’s history. She singled out the undulating 1000 Museum luxury condo tower by late famed British architect Zaha Hadid on Biscayne Boulevard in downtown Miami, which she helped shepherd to approval.
“If you look at the buildings that have developed over the last 10 years under Miami 21, some have stunning architecture,” she said.
“Miami 21 as a zoning code has allowed for that sort of creative architecture to come in and allow for city skyline to be enhanced. What the code has done is made everyone focus on how the building relates to its environment,” Escarra said. “The code has activated many streets that before could have been a wall with an entry, and that’s it.
“It is designed and intended to engage everything around you.”
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