The Issue of Over-Development Sparks Heated Debate
More than three years ago, when the city set out to revise and update its 1,000-page zoning code, few thought the task would be easy. Now, after hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees and staff time, hours of contentious community meetings via Zoom, and bucket-loads of election-eve rancor over the final product, the verdict is almost in.
During a special Feb. 9 evening session, the city commission approved the bulk of the rewritten code that is designed to simplify regulations and encourage small-scale development. But commissioners once again agreed to duck a decision on the most controversial piece of the revision, how to regulate growth on the city’s iconic Miracle Mile. A vote on that section could come up at the March 9 meeting.
The bulk of the code was passed last month by a 4-1 vote, with only Vice Mayor Vince Lago saying no. Lago says he withheld his approval because, “I was not satisfied with the extreme bifurcation of the code; too many issues have been broken out” that are being voted on separately. Lago, a staunch opponent of over-development in the city, says he favors no buildings higher than four stories on Miracle Mile, and has proposed changes to regulations on remote parking, height and density formulas to promote projects even smaller than the six stories now allowed. “We have to be very careful when up-zoning Miracle Mile,” says Lago.
Lago did join his colleagues in approving an up-zoning of the Crafts District, a three-square block area bound by Le Jeune Road, Santander Avenue, Salzedo Street and Palermo Avenue. Residents there have long been in favor of becoming a mixed-use area for multi-family, retail and commercial properties, in line with city founder George Merrick’s vision for the area.
When reflecting on Miracle Mile, Lago often recalls his childhood, when he would walk the shopping district with his grandparents. “I have fond memories of our downtown. It was like an oasis filled with history,” he says. “And I know we can get stuck in the past. I am in favor of progress, but I am not in favor of forgetting our character.”
Lago is running for mayor. His opponent in the April 13 election is Commissioner Pat Keon. She also favors holding the line on big developmentand thinks revisions to the code help do that. Of Lago’s vote last month, Keon said, “I have no idea why he voted no. I voted yes because [the changes] brought clarity to the code, provide guidelines for mixed-use development and increase and define open space.”
Prior to that February vote, about 50 demonstrators gathered outside of City Hall. Most of the speakers were candidates for the two open commission seats being vacated by Lago and Keon. They came with campaign signs, position statements and opinions. Most who spoke echoed the concern of Gables preservation activist Karelia Martinez Carbonell, who said that if the Miracle Mile portion of the revised code passed, “the flood gates will open” for large developments on the street.
Many of those same candidates later called in during the Zoom meeting to sound off. Among those speaking were Rhonda Anderson, Jackson Rip Holmes, Tania Cruz-Gimenez, and Javier Baños. All used the platform to firmly declare their opposition to big changes on the Mile. One candidate, Mayra Joli, screamed so relentlessly at the commissioners during her two minutes of allotted time that Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli muted her and declared, “You should have your blood pressure checked.”
One voice of reason throughout the meeting was that of Commissioner Michael Mena, who calmly encouraged residents to address substantive issues in the new zoning code, rather than merely ranting against it. “Those saying leave it as it is [are wrong]. We need to reduce the height limit to four stories,” he said, again citing the current code which allows a developer to assemble a block of properties and build a massive structure with floors of parking facing – and deadening – the street.
Stay tuned. This battle is not over.