River development plan adrift

The massive zoning overhaul plan known as Miami 21 claimed headlines as it was dealt a political defeat earlier this month, obscuring the possible transformation of the Miami River waterfront.

Miami 21 was voted down in an August 6 vote, and state-level planners have left unfinished a city plan to turn 25 riverfront acres between 18th and 24th avenues into mixed-use residential space. The Florida Department of Community Affairs, which enforces the state’s growth management laws, needs to approve the measure, which could push property values up and spur residential development.

Besides the battling state and municipal bureaucracies, the Miami River revamp has fierce critics and ardent advocates.

Luciana Gonzalez, assistant to the city of Miami’s planning director, says the city is “going into a mediation process” in October with the DCA and the Miami River Working Group “to try and resolve our differences.”

Fran Bohnsack, president of the Miami River Marine Group, a non-profit representing waterfront businesses along the river, says the conflict will be resolved if the city stops encouraging high-rises in what is now an industrial area. “We are not just going to go away,” she says.

Gonzalez says there is plenty of room along the river for condominiums and industrial use. “The city envisions a mixture of uses so they can all co-exist,” she says. 

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But Andrew Dickman, an attorney representing the Miami River Marine Group, says encouraging residential development along the Miami River threatens the livelihood of 55 marine businesses. Escalating property values would raise taxes and rents. Dickman also fears future condominium residents will complain about the noise of the marine industry. “The more residents you put on the river, the more conflicts we’ll be running into. This is a 24-hour, 365-day-a-year operation.” 

So far both the state’s DCA and the Third District Court of Appeals support the Miami River Marine Group. In 2007, in three separate rulings on condo plans, the appeals court overturned Miami City Commission approvals for the 633-unit Coastal on the River, the 1,073-unit Hurricane Cove and the 689-unit Brisas del Rio because they violated a 1950s-era master plan protecting “water-dependent industries” from residential encroachment. The city is still appealing those rulings. 

The DCA twice rejected Miami’s comprehensive plan because it failed to protect marine industries. In spite of assurances from Miami officials, and a $50,000 study from Lambert Advisory LLC, that marine uses aren’t being pushed out, the DCA rejected the plan in July 2008 and again in January.

Bohnsack and Dickman claim Miami officials are breaking the law by seeking to legalize condominium development on those same 25 acres through Miami 21.

City Attorney Julie Bru did not return phone calls from The Real Deal. Gonzalez, though, insists Miami’s comprehensive plan has nothing to do with Miami 21.”It is an issue the city needs to deal with separately. The two are not together,” she says.