Midtown Wal-Mart appeal depends on zoning interpretation

Grant Stern and Jacob Pfeffer (credit: Erik Bojnansky)
Grant Stern and Jacob Pfeffer (credit: Erik Bojnansky)

The fate of Wal-Mart’s Midtown Miami superstore could come down to one word: total.

A three-judge panel in Miami-Dade Circuit Court’s appellate division ordered attorneys for Wal-Mart and project opponents to submit briefs within one week focusing on how the city’s zoning code defines “total” during Thursday’s hearing in a lawsuit challenging the development. The reason: the proposed 203,000-square-foot Midtown Miami store has five off-street loading berths. Under the zoning code, stores of up to 250,000 square feet must have “three berths total.”

When Miami commissioners unanimously approved a special permit for the Midtown Wal-Mart in November 2013, it appeared the store was a done deal. But in April, 11 Miami residents and businesses filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the permit.

During Thursday’s hearing, Mark Emanuele, a Lydecker Diaz attorney representing Wal-Mart, argued the code implies three births is a minimum requirement. Coral Gables attorney Paul Savage countered on behalf of the plaintiffs that the word total should be interpreted literally.

Wal-Mart has been fighting to open a superstore on a 4.6-acre parcel within Midtown Miami at 3055 North Miami Avenue since 2012. In January, Wal-Mart acquired the property from DDR Corp. for $8.2 million.

Project supporters claim the store will offer affordable shopping opportunities for area residents and create 300 jobs. Wal-Mart opponents fear the corporation’s aggressively competitive policy would kill small businesses in Greater Downtown Miami. They also believe the store doesn’t comply with Midtown’s stringent zoning regulations.

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Jacob Pfeffer, owner of a perfume store at downtown’s Bayside Marketplace and one of the plaintiffs in the suit, is confident the judges will reject arguments made by Wal-Mart and Miami’s city attorneys.

“We knew that once politics was removed from the process the code would prevail,” Pfeffer said, “and that’s why we felt positive going into today.”

Another opponent, mortgage broker and radio host Grant Stern, claims Wal-Mart and the city are “reinterpreting” the established zoning code.

“We are here to interpret [the code] as it was written,” Stern said.

Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, a senior partner at Lydecker Diaz, insists the proposed Wal-Mart store satisfies the city’s design standards.

“Our arguments are pretty clear,” Diaz said. “These are minimum requirements as applied by the law.”