By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Maureen McCarthy’s days of quietly relaxing in her lush backyard’s pool and Jacuzzi are numbered.
Thanks to Miami 21, the 12-year-old rewrite of the city’s zoning code, the Miami Dade College professor now has to live with a four-story apartment building full of tenants hovering over her two-bedroom house in Silver Bluff Estates, a tree-lined neighborhood of predominantly old single-family homes like McCarthy’s.
“They put huge patio balconies overlooking my backyard,” McCarthy told Florida Bulldog. “In some places, [the building] is 18 inches from my property line. There are [two young men] on the second floor and one of them the other day said, ‘I am a king and this is my kingdom’ while looking down at my backyard.”
There’s not much McCarthy can do to reclaim her privacy. Her block has been zoned for single-family, duplex and multi-family uses since 2009 when Miami 21 was approved amid fanfare from city leaders that the rewrite was necessary to promote development while preserving Miami’s neighborhoods. Developer Star Brite Group did not need to make any rezoning requests for its property at 2010 SW 25th Terrace and earnestly began construction in 2019 shortly after buying the then-vacant lot for $825,000. In December, the company completed the 18-unit apartment building known as Silver Cove Lofts, where a 981-square-foot two-bedroom unit goes for about $1,800 a month, according to an online rental listing.
McCarthy and neighboring homeowners worry Silver Cove Lofts is the beginning of a redevelopment wave that will eventually erase their idyllic enclave. “It is not pushing me out at this point, but it is bad for the neighborhood,” McCarthy said. “It takes away from the quaint, cozy feel of Silver Bluff. That building is out of place in my opinion.”
Jeff Brown, who’s lived across the street from McCarthy for nearly 40 years, said he and other residents on his block, which is zoned for single-family homes only, said the apartment building is so detrimental to the neighborhood that it will negatively impact property values. “Several neighbors have talked about whether we should sell the whole block, take the money and leave,” Brown said. “This is my starter home and I’ve never wanted to leave.”
Jay Karlik, Star Brite’s chief investment officer, said the company purchased the property with the approved plans in place. Any complaints about the property’s zoning should have been taken up with the city, Karlik said. “We had nothing to do with the zoning or with approving the plans,” he said. “We tried on multiple occasions to reach out to the neighbor and her attorney. We have not received any responses to date.”
Miami 21 fails to protect neighborhoods
The city’s Miami 21 website includes a statement from the measure’s grand champion, former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, which states: “Miami 21 is more than a way to manage and guide growth. It is an expression of our shared values and aspirations — our desire for safe, livable spaces for human interaction, our desire for growth that nurtures our native environment, and our desire to create a climate of economic inclusion where all have access to the promise of prosperity and opportunity.”
In 2009, Diaz led the push to rewrite the zoning code while he was in office in order to streamline the zoning and permitting process and encourage new commercial development at a time the city was still emerging from near insolvency. A Miami lawyer who is now chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, Diaz did not respond to Florida Bulldog emails with a detailed list of questions about how Miami 21 could allow a developer to construct a four-story apartment building right up against a single-family home, and if that is what he envisioned the zoning rewrite doing.
Anthony R. Parrish Jr., a developer of affordable single-family houses and a Miami neighborhood preservationist, said at the time Miami 21 passed that Diaz was trying hard to attract new businesses and development to the city. “I applaud him for that,” Parrish said. “However, I also see what happens when people with different sensibilities come from dense metropolises like New York City…The question is one of balance. Personally, I think the balance is out of whack.”
Parrish is also a member of Miami’s Planning and Zoning Appeals Board, but he spoke to Florida Bulldog as a private citizen, he said. As a result of Miami 21, heritage trees get cut down to make room for 5,000-plus square-foot modern homes in Coconut Grove; new private schools and businesses seek zoning changes to allow them to come into residential neighborhoods; and neighborhoods where people of color predominantly reside are being gentrified, Parrish said.
“Established black neighborhoods like West Grove and now Little Haiti are at risk of being obliterated altogether as ‘new money’ either convinces residents to sell out or renters are forced out by increasing rents,” Parrish said.
In the case of Silver Cove, Parrish said the apartment building is obviously out of scale in relation to nearby homes. The adjacent single family residences including McCarthy’s are also zoned for multi-family, Parrish noted. “So the argument goes that they can now sell their little houses for a lot more money if they so choose,” he said. “But how about if those owners like their little single-family homes and don’t want to move?”
‘Monster’ comes to Silver Bluff
In March 2015, a company called Rentphil Investments purchased the site next door to McCarthy’s house for $450,000 in a foreclosure sale. Seven months later, McCarthy and her neighbors got wind of Rentphil’s plan to build a five-story, 18-unit apartment building at 2010 SW 25th Terrace after receiving a city notice that the property owner was seeking administrative waivers. Rentphill sought approval to shrink the number of required parking spaces from 29 to 27, as well as permission to place the building’s vehicle entry point on the principal frontage, according to city documents. Rentphil’s plans showed a building with 12 two-bedroom apartments and six three-bedroom apartments as well as a management office, a gym and recreational spaces.
On Oct. 1, 2015, McCarthy wrote a letter to the city’s neighborhood enhancement team in Silver Bluff voicing her objections about the project. “An 18-unit apartment building would be very detrimental to our neighborhood,” she wrote. “Our neighborhood would not benefit from this building.”
The same week, her neighbor Brown also voiced his opposition by noting the project would add more cars to an already congested and narrow street used by rush hour commuters to avoid U.S.1, according to a letter he wrote to then-City Commissioner Francis Suarez, who is now mayor. Both McCarthy and Brown expressed concerns a five-story building would hurt the charming character of Silver Bluff and suggested Rentphil consider doing townhouses instead.
The letters were added to Rentphil’s waiver request file, but the city’s then-acting zoning administrator Devin Cejas apparently did not take their complaints into consideration. He approved the waivers on Jan. 13, 2016. According to city documents, objectors had 15 days to file a petition with the Miami Planning and Zoning Appeals Board. No one did.
The property sat dormant until November 2018 when Star Brite bought the site from Rentphill, which earned $374,900 above what it originally paid. In January 2019, McCarthy started noticing building materials on the Silver Cove site and received an email alert from the Miami Building Department that permits had been pulled to begin construction, she said.
Over the next two years, including all of 2020 when she taught her classes online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she had to endure living next door to an active construction zone while coming to terms that an apartment building would tower over her abode.
“I didn’t realize how the building was going to [look] until I actually started seeing the structure going up,” McCarthy said. “I had two-by-fours falling on my property. The backyard was always covered in dust. They got plaster all over my house. And I have video of a 50-pound bundle of insulation crashing down [on the pool deck.] It went on like this for 23 months.”
Daisy Gonzalez, who owns a rental house next door to McCarthy’s residence, said Silver Cove has no setback, which is why the building comes up so close to their backyards. “If they throw water, it will land on my property,” Gonzalez said. “Construction debris fell in my yard too. Even paper plates and plastic bottles that the workers threw away after having lunch.”
City officials have told her that she could raze her property and do her own apartment building, Gonzalez said. “The city didn’t take into consideration any of the neighbors when they permitted this,” she said. “They placed a monster in an area that is single-family residential.”
McCarthy sues for relief
On Sept. 9, 2020, McCarthy sued the city in an attempt to win a temporary and permanent injunction to revoke Silver Cove’s building permits. She alleged the project constituted a public nuisance that resulted in her loss of privacy, peaceful enjoyment of her property and loss of property value.
McCarthy’s attorney, David Winker, said Miami 21 is supposed to provide for transitional zoning. “Everything is supposed to be one step up and one step down,” Winker said. “That’s not the case here. The reason the city upzoned the area is because it backs up to the Metrorail tracks. Yet, it’s about a mile to two stations in either direction.”
According to the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, McCarthy “failed to exhaust her administrative remedies,” including not filing a petition with the zoning appeals board. “The Subject Property was built as a multi-family structure as a matter of right under Miami 21, the city’s zoning ordinance,” the motion states. “In reality, there are no violations of any zoning or building code as it relates to the construction at the subject property.”
Winker said McCarthy and the city entered into a confidential settlement. According to the case docket, she voluntarily dismissed the complaint on May 25. A month later, she sued Star Brite and its holding company, Silver Cove Apartments LLC, for negligence and being a private nuisance. She is seeking damages from the construction debris that rained down on her property, the lawsuit states.
Karlik said Star Brite and Silver Cove have not been served the lawsuit. The company has put the building on the market with an asking price of $400,000 per unit, or roughly $7.2 million. “We have reached out to her attorney via phone calls on multiple occasions,” Karlik said. “He hasn’t responded to us. We are trying to remedy the situation and it doesn’t seem like they want to move forward.”
McCarthy said Star Brite didn’t respond to her complaints until she hired a lawyer. “It’s very sad and frustrating when I have to put my life’s investment and a great deal of energy into making my home a special place,” she said. “Then along comes a developer with no regard for the neighbors or the neighborhood, damages my property and takes 100 percent of my privacy.”