There’s been plenty of ferment since J. Laurence “Larry” Eisenberg signed a contract to buy a development site in Miami’s Morningside area.

A booming real estate market collapsed. A recession came and went. A new zoning code was adopted. And the site became part of a historic district called MiMo.

For nine years, his proposed 63-unit residential project has been in limbo as Morningside neighbors put up a fight: His application to build a residential high-rise went before the Miami City Commission twice and before the 3rd District Court of Appeal three times.

Eisenberg’s application survived it all. And now that the market north of downtown in the Biscayne Boulevard corridor is heating up, Eisenberg is again trying to get the project moving.

Yet, the Morningside Civic Association is again mounting resistance. The neighbors don’t want a high-rise on the boulevard at the edge of a residential neighborhood. Eisenberg is asking the City Commission to deny an appeal by the Morningside neighbors who want to invalidate the contested 2003 permit issued by city staff. The Class II Special Permit gave Eisenberg the right to build an eight-story building at 5101 Biscayne Blvd.

That permit fueled a legal fight that saw the 3rd DCA send the application back to the City Commission for a rehearing.

Eisenberg plans to go before commissioners next month to make his case. The hearing was initially scheduled for this week but had to be shifted because of a “scheduling conflict,” said Miami attorney Susan Trench, who represents Chetbro Inc., the owner of the land Eisenberg wants to buy. Trench declined further comment, saying her client didn’t want to speak about the case until after the hearing. Eisenberg was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

The neighbors claim the permit should be revoked because the project would violate setback requirements established by the city zoning code. If the permit is revoked, any future project on that site could not be higher than two floors, or 35 feet high, a limitation imposed by the district’s historic designation implemented six years ago. If the 2003 permit survives, Eisenberg could build up to eight floors because he is exempt from the MiMo rules — adopted after he submitted his application. The historist district was created to help preserve its many buildings featuring architecture in the Miami Modernist style, which is by the exemplified by the Bacardi Building on Biscayne Boulevard.

2003 Permit Issue

Resident Elvis Cruz is one of the forces behind the Morningside Civic Association’s effort to defeat Eisenberg’s plan. The vocal community activist plans to attend the December rehearing to explain why the 2003 permit was issued “erroneously.”

“This is going to be my 87th appearance at City Hall to protect my neighborhood from high rises since 2003,” he said, referring to the year the last housing boom started.

One of his partial victories includes the height reduction of a Kubik, a controversial project planned during the housing boom to be built near Biscayne Boulevard and Northeast 58th Street. The project was initially approved in 2003 for 14 floors and was later reduced to 11 floors after a lengthy legal battle between the developer and the Morningside neighbors, he said. By the time the Kubik fight was settled in 2006, the housing market was in drastic decline. The demand for condos dried up, so the project was never built.

Cruz said the crusade to limit the height of new buildings to 35 feet is paying off. The area is beginning to see a wave of redevelopment that’s bringing one- to two-story retail buildings to the neighborhood.

The lower height stimulates development because it is much cheaper to build low than it is to build high, Cruz said.

“Furthermore, if you have a high height limit in a piece of property, that invites speculation and as a result nothing gets built,” he added. “People sit on land waiting for the big pay that never comes.”

Protracted Fight

The fight between the Morningside Civic Association and Eisenberg began in 2004. Shortly after the city staff approved the Class II permit, the neighbors unsuccessfully appealed to the Zoning Board. They appealed to the Miami City Commission. After two new hearings, the commission reversed the Zoning Board. Eisenberg appealed to the Miami-Dade Circuit Court and won. The court said the City Commission exceeded its appellate jurisdiction by considering new evidence at the hearings.

The neighbors appealed to the 3rd DCA in 2006. The court sent the case back to the City Commission. Commissioners reviewed the application and approved the project with the condition the height be reduced from eight floors to two floors.

Eisenberg appealed again and the circuit court upheld the City Commission’s decision.

The decision was appealed to 3rd DCA, which sent the case back to the City Commission, which again imposed the two-story height limit. Eisenberg unsuccessfully appealed to the circuit court and later to the 3rd DCA. Last April, the 3rd DCA sent the case back to the City Commission to conduct a “limited appellate review” of the Zoning Board decision to deny the neighbors’ appeal instead of reviewing new evidence. That review is to happen next month.

“The hearing is limited to discussing what happened up to the Zoning Board hearing of Oct. 2004,” Cruz said.

Lucia Dougherty, a Greenberg Traurig attorney who represents Eisenberg, confirms he remains involved in the property as a trustee. She could not comment on his plans for the property.

Michael Maxwell, head of the Real Estate Development Program at Nova Southeastern University, is surprised at the time this case is taking to be resolved. He said cases that takes this long are usually related to environmental protection issues. “It takes time and patience to overcome residents and neighbors’ objections,” said Maxwell, also a developer. “But I would think that after nine years those [objections] could be overcome. But if the neighbors are insisting it to be two stories … then, that is pretty difficult.”