Mayor hopes new North Miami plan makes city more livable
By Edson Eggar
North Miami will never be Aventura or Coral Gables, Mayor Kevin Burns concedes, but he hopes a comprehensive plan and zoning code being developed for the 80-year-old city will make it a more livable place for its 60,000 residents.
When the "very conservative" plan is implemented early next year, the mayor said, it will allow greater density and higher buildings and open the door for growth that will make the city a more livable place for its mostly modest-income residents.
Although Florida's 1985 Growth Management Act calls for cities to review and update their comprehensive plans every seven years, North Miami hadn't revised its plan since April 1991, said Maxine Calloway, the city's director of community planning and development. Mr. Burns, up for re-election next year, campaigned for office in 2004 by calling for an update of the city's comprehensive plan and zoning code.
Ms. Calloway said the city began the process by developing and adopting an evaluation and appraisal report in September 2005 after reviewing the effectiveness of the city's existing plan and determining what should be revised.
As part of the process, the city held a public hearing earlier this year on proposals for revisions. The City Council on Tuesday was scheduled to consider citizen comments and work on details of the new plan, which must be reviewed by state officials who would assure its compliance with the Growth Management Act.
In reaction to citizen concern over some nine-story buildings constructed on Biscayne Boulevard in the 1970s, the city has restricted buildings to four stories and 25 units per acre. "People thought Biscayne Boulevard was going to become a canyon," Burns said. "But the restrictions in the old plan have caused North Miami to become stagnant while surrounding communities like Aventura and Sunny Isles have experienced good growth."
Mr. Burns said the new plan proposal would allow buildings to be 110 feet high — about 10 stories in residential towers and eight in commercial properties. City voters approved by a 2-1 margin two charter amendments in November that cleared the way for increased density and higher buildings.
Mr. Burns said the City Council constantly faces variance requests and the city's processes for approving projects are cumbersome and frustrating for developers. Calloway said the new comprehensive plan would allow the City Council to approve projects as long as they are consistent with the comprehensive plan and the Growth Management Act.
North Miami voters demonstrated their comfort with greater building heights and densities in November 2002 when they approved the 25-story Biscayne Landing Planned Unit Development in a special referendum. The four-tower project, expected to be built out in eight years on 193 acres along Biscayne Boulevard that until 1980 was a landfill, is expected to accommodate 6,000 residents.
In an unusual partnership with Boca Developers, the city granted a 200-year land lease in exchange for income Mr. Burns said exceeds $35 million a year and funds the city's Community Redevelopment Agency. Boca Developers also committed up to $25 million toward renovation and expansion of North Miami's library and the construction of an Olympic training facility.
The new plan would allow mixed-use development, which didn't exist in the 1991 plan. That would open the door to developers who want to build multiple-story structures that feature retail business on the ground floor with apartments or offices on upper floors. Currently, Mr. Burns said, the city's downtown is "very quiet" because nobody lives there. By allowing mixed-use development, the city hopes to encourage new housing and restaurants and businesses that would provide employment.
In addition, Mr. Burns said, the new plan would make it feasible for property owners to remove and replace blighted structures. Existing blighted or damaged units can be repaired, even if they don't comply with the 1991 plan, but demolishing and replacing them creates a problem for owners. As an example, one property with 36 units could be rebuilt now with only about a dozen units, forcing a price tag of about $700,000 for each unit — unaffordable for most of the city's residents.
The increased density under the new plan would make it possible for developers to keep some units at 3,000 square feet but include units that are smaller and more affordable. Burns hopes the new plan will encourage replacement of some blighted rental units by condos that would be affordable for first-time homebuyers.
He also said he hopes the new plan will spur improvements in commercial areas like the one along Northwest Seventh Avenue. "You can't find a storefront for rent there, where there are lots of businesses that sell things the community needs," the mayor said. "If we can allow some rebuilding, it will help revitalize that community."
In addition, the new plan updates the city's 30-year-old park plan. Mr. Burns said the city has a sufficient amount of parkland but buildings and facilities in city parks need to be renovated and upgraded. The city would like to place more parks closer to where residents live. "A lot of our residents work two or three jobs, and we need to provide as much as we can," Mr. Burns said.
The proposed new plan projects a 2025 population of 80,000, including the 6,000 at Biscayne Landing. It doesn't anticipate a major change in the city's population diversity that includes a large number of Haitian Americans and non-Cuban Hispanics.
"We're proud of the residents we have, and we'd like to help them," Mr. Burns said. "We want to be a community where people are proud to live."
Meanwhile, the city, which hadn't built a new school in 60 years, is building four as part of an agreement with the school board in which the city leases land to the board and helps with financing.