Little being done about permitted empty excavation sites
By Jacquelyn Weiner
Lurking in the depths of towering buildings throughout Brickell and downtown, excavations and the beginnings of foundations constructed in more optimistic times serve as glaring reminders of the recession.
These abandoned, hollowed-out construction sites mar the landscape surrounding gleaming-new buildings - and the neighbors aren't thrilled.
Yet because many of these sites fall under existing building permits, the city says there's only so much that can be done.
Claudia Bruce, president of the Brickell Homeowner's Association, says these halted developments have become blemishes to the Brickell area and have been a constant problem for the past few years.
"It's been an ongoing issue for so long," Ms. Bruce said. "It's something that we just keep after all the time."
Efforts to keep these sites clean and under check involve frequent calls to the area Neighborhood Enhancement Teams, which serve as liaisons between residents and the city government, and to the district's city commissioner, Marc Sarnoff, she said.
"It just takes a lot of complaining," Ms. Bruce said.
Yet with some of these sites collecting trash and stagnant water, the question is who's to blame.
"Every time that I pass by, it's like an eyesore, said Mariano Fernandez, a building official with the city's building department. "It becomes a cesspool because people will start dumping garbage."
Yet the City of Miami can only do so much, particularly because most of these sites still have active building permits, Mr. Fernandez said.
"What we have been doing in the last month is sending letters to the developers or contractors [on sites where the permit has expired] saying that we would like them to maintain… a safe situation," Mr. Fernandez said.
The department has attempted to contact the contractors and developers of eight open-excavation sites where all permits have expired, he said.
Among those on the list in the Brickell area are the sites for Capital at Brickell, 1430 South Miami Ave., and for Bunker Brickell, 1750 SW First Ave.
Cabi Developers, behind Capital at Brickell, chose not to comment by press time.
In addition, developer Hans Baumgartner would not comment about Bunker Brickell.
Neither site was mentioned by Mr. Fernandez as being particularly troublesome, though each has had large pits for two years or more.
Of those contractors and developers that have responded to the city's letters, Mr. Fernandez said, most have said they simply cannot afford to continue construction until conditions improve.
Most of the city's issues with the open excavations deal with stagnant water and broken fencing, he said.
Yet because many of these sites fall under existing building permits, the building department doesn't have much authority over their upkeep, he said.
"Other than that, there's not too much we can do," Mr. Fernandez said. "If they become unsafe, we'll refer that to a separate structure or a code-enforcement unit."
The cases will likely be turned over to code enforcement soon, he said.
After building department permits expire, code enforcement has more leeway in shaping up the sites, said Director Mariano Loret de Mola.
"As long as they have an active permit, I don't have a case with them," Mr. Loret de Mola said. "If the active permit ends, then I can open a case for vacant and abandoned property."
So far, code enforcement issues have mostly dealt with maintaining a fence to keep the area secure, he said.
But if these ditches become a concern, code enforcement will ask developers to fill the hole, he said.
If code enforcement chooses to pursue issues with a development after noncompliance, the case will go before the code enforcement board and a daily fine may be levied, he said.
"If they don't react, then we put a lien on the property," he said.
The ultimate action would be foreclosure, Mr. Loret de Mola said, calling the procedures "a lengthy process."
"It's a problem right now because some of these… [developers] are in bankruptcy," he said. "We have been caught in the middle."
Still, some say they wish the city would do more.
"It just seems awfully funny that the city is so afraid to maintain a lot," Ms. Bruce said. "I always got the feeling that they were walking on eggshells around developers."
In particular, Ms. Bruce cited the waiting game the Brickell area has played in anticipation of a public park at the site of the on-hold Villa Magna development on Brickell Bay.
Developer Tibor Hollo has pledged to let the city use the site of Villa Magna, the planned condominium on Brickell's last prime bay front parcel, as a city park until the condo market improves.
An initial agreement was forged between Mr. Hollo and Commissioner Sarnoff in late 2008, but months later, a lease has yet to be brought before the city commission for approval.
That deal, part of an ongoing initiative to turn vacant land into public parks, is still being actively negotiated, Commissioner Sarnoff said.
"We're close," he said.
Mr. Sarnoff, whose district includes Brickell and downtown, said unsightly, abandoned construction sites were on his radar within months of taking office.
Yet faced with resistance from both the city's administration and developers, his proposal for a park-creation initiative remains in draft form, he said.
The problem with the developers, who often live in other cities, is that they effectively become "absentee landlords" when their projects fall to the wayside, he said.
"We simply do not require them to shoulder their obligations to the rest of the citizens by maintaining their land," Mr. Sarnoff said. "Shame on us."