For activist, election victory just a skirmish in density fight
|By: Oscar Pedro Musibay|
he election of activist and attorney Marc Sarnoff to the Miami City Commission is likely to cause trouble for the high-density development that made Mayor Manny Diaz a national celebrity.
Observers say the newly elected commissioner will be a vigorous advocate for smaller projects in low-density, low-rise residential neighborhoods throughout the city. Most agree the Diaz lobby still holds a majority vote on the commission, which means Sarnoff will experience a tough time changing the city’s direction on development.
But Sarnoff did win by capitalizing on his opposition to a Home Depot in Coconut Grove, drawing on growing discontent with fast-paced development and its effect on the quality of life.
Residents of the Grove and the Brickell Avenue corridor turned out for the Nov. 21 runoff in higher numbers than voters in other parts of the district, helping Sarnoff beat out appointed Commissioner Linda Haskins — whom Diaz strongly backed — by a nearly 2-1 margin.
Support in the Grove and other vocal opposition by some neighborhood associations to high-rise projects in neighborhoods like The Roads and Morningside are broadcasting a negative message about the mayor’s and commission’s infill development policies.
That could spell trouble for Related Group’s Mercy Hospital redevelopment, which has triggered some neighborhood opposition, when Sarnoff votes for the first time Dec. 14.
He insists he’s not anti-development, saying “development is good” as long as there is concurrent planning for roads, water, schools and other infrastructure.
Sarnoff has said high rises should not be allowed north of 36th Street because Metrorail and other municipal resources aren’t there. He also said buildings of five stories and up should not be allowed next to single-family homes.
“Look at Coral Way. Right behind Coral Way are [single-family] neighborhoods, and yet there are 36-story buildings being built on Coral Way,” Sarnoff said. “That person that lives two, three, four houses away, and even 10, 15, 20 houses away, no longer has sunshine. I think that’s wrong.”
He said approval of the 15-story Kubik condo project on Biscayne Boulevard between Northeast 55th and 58th street was a “horrible mistake.”
The proposal sparked a lawsuit by residents trying to stop construction of the project in a neighborhood of single-family homes and low-rise commercial. The city responded by passing a height limit in the area.
“I’m pro-smart development,” Sarnoff said. “I think we should continue to develop Miami, and we should do it in a smart way. We need to keep the high rises away from the residential areas and not put pressure upon those residential areas. We need to make sure that we create and occupy green space and we don’t seem to be doing that. High-rise development belongs downtown.”
Patricia Baloyra, head of Broad and Cassel’s real estate practice, said she doesn’t see Sarnoff’s victory scaring off developers and investors.
“I don’t think he was running on a platform of ‘no growth,’ so I don’t think that his victory will dampen interest from investors and developers — for now,” she said.
Sarnoff supports the city’s proposed zoning-in-progress legislation, which would act as a de facto building moratorium during development of Miami 21, a citywide zoning reassessment, according to Baloyra and other real estate attorneys. His support could cause investors to be more cautious.
“Any building moratorium is bound to cause investors and developers to be more circumspect, at least in the short term,” she said. “There is also a scarcity of affordable and work force housing, and a moratorium would of course delay any progress on that important and time-sensitive issue.”
Zoning-in-progress rules are being reviewed by the city and commissioners.
Irela Bague, chairwoman of the advisory Miami River Commission, which is the first stop for developers pursuing projects and rezoning on the river, said Sarnoff could have a big impact on development along the waterway.
The river commission has supported scaling down development density from the mouth toward the more industrial areas upriver.
But city commissioners and the mayor have backed high-rise redevelopment in poorer neighborhoods like East Little Havana and pushed for higher densities near single-family homes and the conversion of marine zoning to mixed-use residential on the river.
They also have stacked the Miami River Commission with like-minded appointees.
The river commission, left with a shrinking pool of marine-zoned properties, modified its infill plan last year to prohibit changes to marine zoning.
“Our infill plan was amended last year to preserve all marine uses,” Bague said. “Anything that goes for a zoning change, from marine to anything else the marine industry is going to fight it. I don’t know if he is going to support that or not.”
Commissioner Tomas Regalado has been on the losing end of several votes approving redevelopment including the Freedom Tower condo and Home Depot projects.
Regalado said he doesn’t know what to expect from Sarnoff but doesn’t expect his new colleague to be as pro-development as the “happy duo,” his reference to Diaz and former City Commissioner Johnny Winton.
Winton was suspended from office following an altercation with police at Miami International Airport last May, and Diaz named former city chief financial officer Haskins to replace him until voters chose a replacement.
“We have the Mercy Hospital project, which is a huge project and which will be a test. In January, we have the streetcar. He is not running out of tests,” Regalado said. “It’s only the vote that counts — not the words but the vote.”
Another signal will be whether Sarnoff votes his mind or defers to commissioners on projects in their districts, an unwritten code in Miami politics.
“On his campaign Web site, in response to the question ‘Can you vote against a commissioner on another district issue?’ Marc Sarnoff answered, ‘Definitely.’ So the resulting intracommission dynamics could prove interesting, considering the general consensus regarding deference to the commissioner of the district,” attorney Baloyra said.
Little Havana activist Yvonne Bayona said Sarnoff may be more sensitive to the residents’ concerns about overdevelopment. But she doesn’t expect him to have a big impact on commission decisions because Commissioners Angel Gonzalez, Joe Sanchez and Michelle Spence-Jones routinely align with Diaz on development, she said.
“The majority is going to rule,” she said. “As far as the commission is concerned, there are more pro-development commissioners.”