Jose Luis Ferreira de Melo, center, with sons Carlos, left, and Martin
Jose Luis Ferreira de Melo, center, with sons Carlos, left, and Martin (J. Albert Diaz)

A Miami zoning board narrowly rejected an ambitious vision to redevelop a blighted section of the city’s urban core into a canyon of skyscrapers.

The rebuke by the city Planning, Zoning and Appeals Board, near the end of a long and at times confusing public meeting Wednesday night, stung the small group of developers and property owners who came out to endorse the plan.

“They don’t understand zoning, these guys,” Mark Kreisler, a developer who spoke in favor of the plan, said of the advisory board that shot down the proposal. He made the comment to a group of nodding supporters who assembled outside of the City Commission chambers after the rejection.

Another developer in the group suggested the board members were perhaps too tired to understand the nuances of what was proposed, given the fact it came up shortly before the meeting’s five-hour mark.

The issue was whether the board would recommend rezoning of a full block northwest of Miami Place and Northeast 14th Street, which Miami-based developer Melo Group scooped up in January. The group is run by Jose Luis Melo and sons Martin and Carlos.

The proposed rezoning would have given Melo the right to build a 36-story building on 1.23 acres with total developed area of more than 1 million square feet. A city planner said “bonus” developer rights, which Melo could purchase, would allow a building as tall as 60 stories.

Zoning for the land south of the Metromover school board station and three blocks west of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts allows a building up to 24 stories high with up to 378,000 square feet.

Future Sprawl?

The debate shifted to whether it would be desirable to have the neighborhood around the Melo property eventually upzoned to accommodate a row of residential high-rises. Both supporters and opponents of the Melo proposal took it as a given that a zoning change would give way to that sprawl.

“What you precipitate is a domino effect of negative precedent for new zoning applications,” city planner Derrick Cook said. “You will have an immensely big project, and the whole area will propagate and become” upzoned.

That characterization was not challenged by those speaking in support of the plan, including several nearby property owners, who emphasized such development would be a major improvement for a desolate area where vacant land and parking lots make up much of the landscape.

Iris Escarra, a land-use attorney at Greenberg Traurig who spoke on behalf of the Melos, noted any upzoning sprawl in the neighborhood would be contained by a few natural barriers—the Florida East Coast Railway to the west, the I-395 overpass to the south, the city cemetery to the north and large county-owned properties on Northeast Second Avenue to the east.

She also said the area always had been destined to house high-density residential towers since the comprehensive development master plan envisions buildings with up to 500 units.

Escarra suggested the proposed change was a way to correct a glitch in city zoning that encourages high-rise buildings but makes it impossible for developers to build them. She said the developers could make a profit with a 19-story building.

“In essence you can never reach the maximum allowed units for your project because your square footage is capped,” Escarra said.

Cook somewhat contradicted that assessment, citing the city’s Miami 21 urban planning overhaul approved four years ago.

“If our intent was to upzone to [allow 36 stories] or higher when we went through Miami 21, we would have done that,” he said.

Two Votes

Former Miami-Dade Circuit Judge David H. Young, a board member, appeared the most ardent opponent. He pointed out several times there was no information on whether the neighborhood’s educational and traffic infrastructure could support the thousands of families that would live there were it to become a row of high-rises.

“Where are we going to educate these people?” Young asked.

At a few minutes to midnight, Carlos Melo emphasized his project and others that could spring up around it would be focused on middle-income renters and “provide local people a place to live close to their job.”

“If you leave the [current zoning], we’re just going to leave the piece of land there,” he warned the board.

In the subsequent vote, the board technically did not take any action. The body voted 4-4 to deny a recommendation, a double negative as Assistant City Attorney Rafael Suarez-Rivas called it. After prodding by city staff to have a “clean” vote, a second motion to recommend the project was defeated 5-3. While the defeat of both motions means the board made no recommendation, members instructed the city staff to record their second vote as a thumbs-down on the plan.

Melo told the Daily Business Review after the meeting he would continue to push forward to develop his land. The City Commission has the final say on development plans.

In a brief interview after the votes, he emphasized his family company has always been in the business of building up neighborhoods rather than assembling land and flipping it to speculators.

“We’re developers. We develop,” he said.