Sarnoff shares his vision for new term
Miami’s newest city commissioner discusses his views about traffic, green space, affordable housing and Miami 21.
BY TANIA VALDEMORO
As Miami’s newly elected District 2 commissioner, Marc Sarnoff represents Miami’s eastern neighborhoods including Coconut Grove, the Roads, Brickell, downtown, Edgewater, the Upper Eastside and a small portion of Overtown.
On Wednesday, eight days after his runoff victory over Linda Haskins, Miami Herald staff writer Tania Valdemoro sat down with Sarnoff in his Coconut Grove home to discuss his views on key issues facing Miami’s neighborhoods and residents.
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Q: At your victory party last week, you pledged to protect Miami’s neighborhoods as the city’s building boom continues. Would you explain the approach you would take coming to the City Commission?
A: I believe that neighborhoods need to be protected from high-rise growth on the fringes. I hope I’ve not seen yet a high-rise go directly into a neighborhood, but it’s the adjacent areas that seem to get infringed upon. Whether it is Coral Way, whether it’s Biscayne Boulevard, you can see high-rise developments every bit of 20 or 30 stories, and right next to it is a single-family house. I think that’s wrong. There must be a better gradiation to protect those neighborhoods.
The other way is to force developers to comply with what is called concurrency. That means they have to show there is adequate traffic flow, adequate potable water, adequate schools, all the things that infrastructure requires. Instead of getting what’s called waivers, they have to show that there is adequate concurrency for all those issues.
Q: What are your main priorities for the coming year?
A: In the first few — maybe 100 — days, I’d like to see the tree ordinance redone. I’d like to see the Home Depot issue [in Coconut Grove] resolved as best we can. I’d like to get a glimmer of how Miami 21 will come out, if it will come out, when it will come out.
We may need some tweaking or redrafting for specifically the Biscayne Boulevard area because what I’ve seen of [Miami 21] is too high for Biscayne Boulevard. Miami 21 allows too much density on the boulevard. And I just don’t want to create — and keep creating — more traffic for already F-rated roads by either FDOT or on the county level. As far as they’re concerned, once you are rated F, it doesn’t matter how much more traffic you bring there. Yet, for the rest of us, it matters.
Q: In your campaign literature, you said you would propose an immediate moratorium on Miami 21. How long would that last, and what are you hoping to achieve with a moratorium?
A: Well, what I said was I would propose a moratorium on any kind of variances for the existing code as it is until Miami 21 came into being. We then need to decide, are we going to have a Miami 21? Is it going to be viable?
And if we’re not going to have a Miami 21, then I’d like to propose some legislation, for instance, on the Biscayne Boulevard corridor, to lower [building] heights. But what I said and what I meant to say is very simply that there should be a moratorium on variances so when a developer comes in and says, “Well, you know, this piece of property should or could be developed but it’s such an odd shape.”
And that’s what they do. They always complain it’s an odd shape or they pay too much money for it and now they want to upzone their property so they can put more density on the property. That’s happened a lot in the past four, five years because people spend a lot on property — they may have purchased what should have been, for instance, a five- or seven-story building, but now they want to get a 15-, 20- or 50-story building on there. And they only paid for what was zoned as a seven-story building.
Q: What would you do to increase the city’s supply of affordable housing and help people access that?
A: I always try to draw the distinction between workforce and affordable housing. Workforce housing can be as much as $220,000 or $250,000 a year. Affordable housing is a whole different feature and component. It is something significantly less than workforce housing, and it’s always going to be rental. I’m going to presume that someone making $20,000 or $25,000 or even less than that can only afford rental.
And we need to create affordable housing, hopefully that is not in the high-rise vein. The reason I say that is approximately 160,000 high-rise units have been destroyed in Atlanta, Chicago [and] Maryland because it’s a failed institution, creating these high-rise developments of affordable housing.
Q: How would you encourage increasing green space in the neighborhoods?
A: I would encourage all citizens, wherever they can plant a garden patch, to plant a garden patch and to plant trees whenever and wherever they can on their property and outside their property. I think we can all be a little bit more Johnny Appleseed-ish.
The second thing I would do is see whether we could acquire tracts of property where you can combine land through trade with developers. You can find property enough where you can create a brand-new park. This is the carrot-stick approach with development, where you can talk a developer into transferring a contiguous piece of property so you can create one-, two- and three-acre parks.
I think we need to do a better job of taking care of the parks that we have. Morningside Park needs a great many trees planted and replanted from the hurricane. Kennedy Park just started coming back online a year after the hurricane. I think the waterfront for the Sasaki plan [in Coconut Grove] is just a wonderful opportunity for us to see what signature park we could have in the city.
Q: What reforms do you have in mind for the Neighborhood Enhancement Team offices in your district or citywide?
A: I’d like to see code enforcement come back to the NET offices. I’d like to see the NET offices go back to how they were five years ago when you could file police reports in the NET office. It should be very convenient for you to report crime, and a crime should be properly recorded as a statistic. I’m not sure we’re getting a true reflection of the crime.
Q: Residents in the Upper Eastside are coping with the construction on Biscayne Boulevard. What would you do to help the businesses, which expect to lose revenue while the road is being fixed?
A: This is where I learned that FDOT is different from the county because when this happened in Village West, the county was able to offset some of their losses with either loans or grant programs. My understanding is that FDOT doesn’t do that. I’d really like to investigate and learn why FDOT doesn’t do it but the county will do it on a county road.
I think we need, before we get to that stage, to make sure we do everything we can do to make sure businesses are viable. That includes keeping the dust down to a minimum and putting up barriers. I think it’s extremely imperative that all the Upper Eastsiders frequent their own restaurants. And I would ask my friends in the south to go to the Upper Eastside and frequent the restaurants, as I am going to do, because they need all the help they can get during this time.
Many of these restaurants, Uva and others, have really established a great outdoor bistro, and you don’t want to see them harmed to the point they can’t withstand the time for the construction.
Q: FDOT recently told people on the Upper Eastside they intend to study whether to six-lane 79th Street. Do you support this idea?
A: No, I think it’s a huge mistake. I think 79th Street should go back to a more natural traffic flow of two ways as opposed to one lane going in one direction and three lanes going in the other direction.
I think the six-lane proposal would destroy whatever businesses are left on 79th Street because there will have to be some kind of eminent domain and you’ll do away with people’s ability to park and frequent those establishments.
Q: You said in the past you oppose mega-condo projects. Would you oppose the Biscayne Plaza redevelopment [on Biscayne Boulevard and 79th Street]?
A: I don’t know the project completely. I have seen bits and pieces of it. There are parts of it that are interesting. I think the height is too high. I think some of the concepts they’ve put together are interesting, but, right now, from what I know of it, it’s just too high and it creates too much density.
Q: Name one thing you would like people to know about you that they don’t already know.
A: I’ve heard that some people think I can be aloof or cold. But I think I am an individual that really cares about people, and I really care about the little issues as much as I care about the big issues. I’d like to address everyone’s concerns as best I can. And it’s tough to do in office because there are 29,000 concerns out there.
I really would like to do a good job for everyone, including the developers. . . . I think all the people in Miami can be cared for. I think they all want to be heard.