By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Biscayne Gardens, a bedroom neighborhood in unincorporated Miami-Dade between North Miami and North Miami Beach, is about to experience an apartment development boom thanks to a county mandate aimed at transforming vacant land into workforce and affordable housing projects. Area residents aren’t happy about it.
On Sept. 15, a proposal to build a 100-unit apartment and townhouse complex on four acres of vacant land got the final greenlight despite overwhelming opposition. Critics claim the project, located at 190 NW 162nd St., is among a handful of large developments in the pipeline that are going to degrade their quality of life, create more traffic congestion and put a severe strain on emergency fire and police services.
“It’s not just this one project,” Biscayne Gardens homeowner Gonzalo de la Cruz, told Florida Bulldog. “It’s five different projects being approved individually that will add nearly 2,000 residents within a couple blocks of each other. It’s bad urban planning.”
Miami-Dade County’s urban infill housing initiative is making it possible for speculators and builders to identify redevelopable and empty lots in urban residential neighborhoods that can be rezoned for higher and denser uses. In an effort to increase the county’s affordable and workforce housing stock, Miami-Dade provides zoning bonuses to developers who convert vacant land near urban centers into multifamily buildings.
“These guys are aware that the county has a mandate to fill in vacant land to provide more housing,” said Bruce Lamberto, another Biscayne Gardens homeowner. “Developers are going around looking for land. In the back of their minds, they know they can get it rezoned and it will be worth three times more than what they paid.”
Request for density change
In the case of the 100-unit project, the land is owned by an affiliate of AR Future Holdings, a Hollywood-based developer headed by accountant Ronny Ackermann. In September 2018, AR Future bought the 174,977-square-foot overgrown lot for $1.14 million and immediately sought an amendment to the county’s comprehensive development master plan that would increase the maximum number of dwelling units from six per acre to 25 per acre and change the land designation from low-density residential to low/medium-density residential. In its application, AR Future cited the county’s urban infill initiative as a reason to grant its rezoning request.
Ackermann did not respond to Florida Bulldog phone messages seeking comment. Felix Lasarte, a land-use attorney representing AR Future development entity, said the project is designed to minimize its scale closer to the neighboring single-family homes while addressing a critical need for housing in Miami-Dade.
“This is the type of housing all urban planners support,” Lasarte said. “You want density in an urbanized area. This is not in the middle of agricultural land beyond the urban development boundary.”
Within a year, Miami-Dade planning and zoning staff, Community Council 8, an five-member elected body of local homeowners, and the county’s Planning Advisory Board recommended approval of AR Future’s application. On April 11, 2019, the Miami-Dade County Commission voted in favor of the amendment.
The same day county commissioners also approved a comprehensive development master plan amendment for another Biscayne Gardens project on the condition the entire building would be for workforce housing.
BHI Montebella, a partnership that includes Fort-Lauderdale real estate development firm Stellar Communities, succeeded in getting seven acres immediately adjacent to the Golden Glades Interchange changed from low/medium-density residential to medium/high-density residential. Instead of a maximum of 92 dwelling units for the entire site, BHI Montebella can now build a 426-unit project.
Miami-Dade officials approved the master plan amendments despite vociferous opposition from the Biscayne Gardens Civic Association and more than two dozen residents, including de la Cruz and Lamberto, according to petitions and letters submitted to the county’s planning and zoning department, as well as video archives of zoning hearings.
“This is legalized spot zoning of higher density in a single family residential area,” Lamberto said. “This goes against the principles of good planning.”
More projects are looking to take advantage of the same bonuses AR Future and BHI Montebella received, de la Cruz said. For instance, through an entity called Golden Glades NMB, Stellar Communities is under contract to purchase seven three-bedroom estate houses and a vacant lot neighboring the BHI Montebella site.
The properties would be redeveloped into a 441-unit apartment complex, according to an application Golden Glades NMB submitted for an amendment to the comprehensive development master plan in March.
In June, Miami-Dade planning and zoning staff recommended approval of Golden Glades NMB’s request to change the maximum density of the eight properties from six residential units an acre to 60 units an acre. The community council and the planning advisory board also recommended approval of Golden Glades NMB’s amendment. On Oct. 21, the Miami-Dade County Commission is scheduled to vote on the application.
Meanwhile, AR Future moved forward with obtaining approval for its site plan earlier this year. The company submitted a proposal and renderings depicting a five-story building with 62 apartments on the west side of the property along NW Second Avenue and 38 one-story townhouse-style apartments on the east side that are closer to surrounding single-family homes.
During the Sept. 15 Community Council 8 virtual hearing, de la Cruz and four other Biscayne Gardens homeowners spoke against the project. De la Cruz noted that the five-story building would dwarf more than a dozen commercial buildings, most of which are between one-and-two stories, along NW Second Avenue between 154th and 165th streets.
“If you were to walk or drive past this proposed building it would stick out like a sore thumb,” de la Cruz said. “None of it fits the character of the neighborhood. They are simply trying to cram extra units into an already too small location.”
The council voted 3-2 to approve AR Future’s site plan.
Objecting to vote
Yet, de la Cruz believes the community council should never have held the second reading for AR Future’s site plan. On Sept. 18, de la Cruz asked Miami-Dade Planning and Zoning assistant director Nathan Kogon to rescind the council’s vote because its Sept. 15 hearing received insufficient public notice, according to emails the Biscayne Gardens homeowner provided to Florida Bulldog. He also shared photos of AR Future’s property where a sign advertising the meeting had been taken down.
“As per municipal code, the property owner shall be responsible for ensuring that the (public notice) sign is maintained on the site until completion of the public hearing,” de la Cruz said. “Attached are photographs taken of the site showing that no sign was posted. The photos were taken between 09/04 and 09/14.”
In his reply to de la Cruz, Kogon said the Sept. 15 hearing “complied with all procedural due process requirements and that the code does not provide a mechanism to rescind the action.”
Tere Florin, a Miami-Dade Planning and Zoning spokeswoman, said the county provided proper notice by advertising the hearing in a printed publication twice and mailing property owners within the surrounding area.
“In addition, surplus notice is given by posting the property with a sign,” Florin said in a statement. “But the procedural due process requirement to provide notice is satisfied even if the posted sign is not maintained until completion of the hearing, because multiple other forms of notice have been provided.”
The fact that de la Cruz and four other homeowners provided testimony at the Sept. 15 hearing shows that notice was provided and the meeting complied with procedural due process requirements, Florin added.
De la Cruz said he knew about the meeting because she signed up for a county newsletter that provides information on upcoming public hearings. “I am proactive so I get the notices to all the county meetings,” he said. “I go through them to see which ones pertain to my area.”
He said that’s not the case with all Biscayne Gardens residents. De la Cruz claimed the sign had been ripped off its post and was lying in the overgrown grass. “I drove by every couple of days and took pictures,” he said. “No one reposted the sign. I wouldn’t say someone took it down on purpose, but I do believe it’s part of the reason only four people (not counting himself) spoke at the virtual hearing.”