Rendering of the Miami World Expo Center
Rendering of the Miami World Expo Center ()

If all goes according to plan, a small army of dump trucks and cranes will come into a blighted area north of downtown Miami and begin building the massive Miami Worldcenter, turning 10 blocks used primarily for parking into a major mixed-use project.

Months in advance, city planners want to take a wrecking ball to Ordinance 13314, the design standards approved for the 25-acre zoning district in 2008.

The city manager has proposed an overhaul that would vastly increase the size of the project and switch many potential future changes to review by the staff rather than elected officials and appointed advisers.

The city Planning, Zoning and Appeals Board on Monday will take up the proposal that would better fit the needs of the developer, Miami Worldcenter Associates LLC.

The city manager’s motion declares as its main goal amending the development standards to incorporate the 4.7-acre lot once occupied by the demolished Miami Arena, where an exposition center and hotel is planned.

But within a list of substantial modifications, the city proposal would double Miami Worldcenter’s allowed density to 785,000 square feet per acre, a Miami land use attorney told the Daily Business Review. The latest plan calls for the entire project calls for 765,000 square feet.

Under the revised standards, setback requirements for towers throughout the project would be curtailed, and some buildings would be allowed to encroach on street and sidewalk designations.

The proposal also would allow the developer to bypass the usual legislative red tape, such as board review and public comment—if some future code exemptions are needed.

Currently, developers seeking significant zoning deviations must secure the blessing of the 12-member zoning board or push zoning changes all the way to the City Commission, opening the door to input from opponents and concerned citizens. The city proposal would assign zoning authority to Miami’s appointed planning director to review many exemptions.

Unprecedented Change

Land use lawyers not involved in the Miami Worldcenter project told the DBR the end result would be administrative review of development plan changes with minimal public notice and no public discussion.

The attorneys, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they conduct business with the city, noted the creation of such a process is unprecedented in the admittedly short history of the Miami 21 code. One lawyer said it would allow the city’s planning staff to “do whatever they damn well please.”

Cesar Garcia-Pons, the city’s deputy planning director, vehemently denied that interpretation. He explained the current density allowance is measured using a different metric—floor area ratio—than the proposed floor lot ratio. While several attorneys said the change would allow the density to double, Garcia-Pons said that “specifically on this project because of its scale” the new proposal actually allowed less square footage than the old standards. He offered no calculations by deadline.

Garcia-Pons justified the proposed switch to the special administrative zoning process by saying it was appropriate to give a project with a painstakingly detailed master plan like Miami Worldcenter more leeway than regular plans from a wildcard developer.

“This is a codified master plan of a project,” Garcia-Pons said. “We know what the anticipated outcome is. We understand what this project is and its intent. What we now have is a new process, the Miami Worldcenter permit, so that if there is a minor change we know exactly what we want and we know what to compare it against. We’re not going from a position of not knowing anything about the future of the project and giving a 10 percent or 20 percent review.”

The planner said the ordinance would be amended mainly to bring the Worldcenter design standards adopted shortly before the city’s Miami 21 zoning code in line with the rest of the code.

The Worldcenter zoning district “was really a precursor to Miami 21, with a lot of the elements from Miami 21 in that but not the same terminology, not the same standards, not the same thing than what it turned out to be.” Garcia-Pons said. “Since it’s been three, four years since that was approved and Miami Worldcenter is back, we’re looking to update the development to the standards of today.”

Weeks Of Collaboration

Nitin Motwani, managing principal of the master developer, also noted the need to “bring Miami Worldcenter’s existing special district zoning in line with Miami 21″ in a statement.

“As with all modifications to the city zoning code, the city is the applicant, and the changes represent many weeks of collaboration between us and the planning and zoning departments. We fully support the application and remain committed to delivering Miami Worldcenter as envisioned: a vibrant, mixed-use destination, with more than 35,000 square feet of new parks as well as wide, landscaped sidewalks and a truly pedestrian-oriented environment.”

The disputed increase in density and the new administrative exemption process are not the only changes tucked in the city proposal. Street-level building setbacks are being reduced in a few streets, while setbacks above the eighth floor required in nearly all buildings are being eliminated. The most striking example is on Northeast Ninth Street between First and Second avenues.

What was originally envisioned as a 100-foot-wide street corridor is being replaced with a 20-foot-wide pedestrian “paseo” covered by retail floors overhead. While this would essentially create a tunnel surrounded by retail buildings, the new plan lists the area as open space.

The plan also calls for the elimination of one of the most celebrated Miami 21 mandates. In a provision applauded by urbanists, new retail construction in Miami must have clear glass covering at least 70 percent of retail facades. In the Miami Worldcenter district, the requirement would be reduced to 50 percent for certain retail buildings.

Staff As Advocates?

Garcia-Pons claimed many of the changes were minor or meant to bring the site into closer harmony with Miami 21, noting the Worldcenter developers “have the right to build this project, and what we’re doing is we’re just cleaning up” the code.

Coral Gables attorney Paul Savage, who is suing to turn back approval of a previous Miami Worldcenter action, disagreed with Garcia-Pons’ characterization of the proposal as administrative housekeeping. The changes “seek to put yet more actions under the rubric of ‘administrative’ approvals, which are done without public hearing and behind closed doors,” Savage wrote in an email.

Savage particularly objected to a modification changing the last section of the original Miami Worldcenter ordinance to give the text of the new ordinance primacy over the zoning code.

“The most egregious change is that this section can now trump anything else in Miami 21,” he said. “My understanding is that these special districts were in need of additional regulation as a layer on top of the general Miami 21 provisions, not as a vehicle to trump its provisions.”

Savage said the proposal suggests “municipal staff is actually advocating for the project and even amending the code to accommodate it.”

• Project expansion

• Administrative zoning exemption process

• Streetscaping plan changes

• Setback requirement reductions

• Add an Expo Center on the old Miami Arena site and a tower on Northeast First Avenue

• Drop requirement for glass coverage on some street-level stores to 50 percent from 70 percent

• Switch goal from “improving street connectedness” to “improving pedestrian connectivity”

• Mandatory bicycle racks