Condos may rise behind Mercy Hospital
By MICHAEL VASQUEZ
For more than 50 years, Mercy Hospital has occupied the same spot on the Coconut Grove waterfront — healing the sick, growing in size, and once in a while ticking off the neighbors.
Back in the 1990s, it was a proposed 120-bed nursing home and a 650-car parking garage that outraged residents. They worried about traffic tie-ups. Miami city commissioners sided with the hospital. The battle lines were drawn.
Nowadays, it is Mercy’s first-ever foray into high-rise condo territory that is prompting protests at City Hall. City commissioners in the coming months will decide whether to approve three high-rise towers slated for the Mercy property, a vote that will serve as a key test for just-elected Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes the Grove.
Mercy wouldn’t build the condos, which would range from 26 to 36 stories. That task would fall to a development team that includes developer Jorge Perez’s Related Group.
Two years ago, Mercy agreed to sell 6.7 prime acres of its tax-exempt medical campus to Boca Raton-based Ocean Land Investments, which is partnering with Related. The price: $98 million. The developers would not inherit the tax-exempt status.
Mercy says the land deal is key to its capital-improvements plan. Eighty-two percent of Mercy’s square footage is more than 30 years old. Mercy envisions an ambitious $300 million overhaul that will improve the Catholic hospital’s appearance while luring additional clinical programs.
The 42-acre, 483-bed hospital, sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph, employs more than 2,300. The Sisters are responsible for oversight of the hospital and its assets. Mercy is not affiliated with, or supported by, the Archdiocese of Miami. Hospital representatives — including a nun, Sister Elizabeth Worley, who formerly chaired its board — have appeared at city meetings to lobby for the condo project’s approval.
City commissioners must grant a land-zoning change for the condos to happen. Residents opposed to the project complain that the towers are dramatically out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood and will further clog roads.
”High rises belong downtown,” resident Patrick Goggins said. “We don’t want Bayshore Drive to become another Brickell Avenue.”
The condo plans have gained the support of homeowners’ groups in the nearby Natoma Manors and Bay Heights subdivisions. That support, however, has prompted its own series of questions.
The associations struck a confidential deal with the developers — prompting objections from some who deem it an inappropriate way of silencing critics. Attorney Tucker Gibbs, who represents the homeowners groups, declined to comment. Gibbs has neither confirmed nor denied the deal included payment of an undisclosed sum.
In 1993, when Mercy wanted its nursing home and parking garage, it agreed to pay the same two neighborhoods $125,000 each for security, traffic control and study costs.
Regarding the current agreement, Related Group executive Bill Thompson said negotiations with the associations were beneficial to the neighborhood as a whole — prompting a reduction in the density of the condos, for example.
Related once planned 1,000 condo units on the Mercy site, but is now proposing 300 ultra-luxury units at prices ranging from $3 million to $15 million. Thompson said the new tenants will be part-time residents purchasing second or third homes — the type of folks who don’t always need to get to the office by 9, and therefore won’t add to traffic woes as much as some think.
”These agreements take all types of forms and shapes,” Thompson said. “People should look at the merits of the deal.”
Thompson said the towers won’t even be visible from Bayshore Drive, as they would be built behind the hospital on a jut of land resembling a peninsula. Traffic concerns are legitimate, he said, but he added that if additional medical space were built instead of condos, the traffic impact would be worse.
The hospital, as part of its sales pitch to residents, has promised to limit future expansion and focus on improving the space it now has.
Thompson noted the Cocoanut Grove Village Council earlier this year — while voicing misgivings about the secret agreement — endorsed the condo project.
BOARDS SAY NO
Miami’s Planning Advisory Board, which advises city commissioners, is recommending against the proposed condos, as is the city’s zoning board, which serves a similar function. Traffic ranked among the boards’ concerns. City commissioners will have the final say, and it is new Commissioner Sarnoff who will play a key role because it’s in his district.
On the campaign trail, Sarnoff expressed reservations about the project, calling it oversized.
Mercy President John Matuska lives near the hospital and says he’s sensitive to residents’ objections. But he sees the condos as the least disruptive way for Mercy to finance a more modern facility. While some worry a city-granted rezoning would give Mercy the legal right to sell off more land for high rises in the future, Matuska says there are no plans to do so, and the hospital won’t do anything without involving the public.
”We’re not trying to pull a fast one,” Matuska said. “Mercy’s been here for 56 years now. I really don’t have any place to move Mercy to, and so it’s in our best interest to try to be good neighbors.”