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September 11th, 2014

Historic designation, new zoning possible for “Garden District”

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verything from historic designation to zoning code changes is on the table for the Key Biscayne “Garden District” as the Village Council tries to get out in front of potential redevelopment – although the likelihood of major changes is a matter of some debate.
The collection of over two dozen low-rise condos on Galen, East Enid and Sunrise drives will be on the Council’s radar as Building, Zoning and Planning Director Jud Kurlancheek explores National Register of Historic Places designation and local leaders consider whether to amend the rules for floor area ratio, building height, setbacks, etc.
Council member Mayra Pena Lindsay put the issue on the agenda Tuesday, August 26, stating she wants the Village to plan ahead to “prevent unintended consequences” when the existing buildings are replaced. “My goal is to have a full analysis and determine where we want to go – I wanted to bring this up before it’s too late, so we can zone appropriately,” Pena Lindsay said.
Mayor Frank Caplan agreed, noting if local leaders decide they want to protect the “old Florida charm” some say the district boasts, they need to take action.
“If that’s what we want to survive there, we’ve got to code for it,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out what values we want to champion, and then code for it.
“If we think it’s important to preserve what’s there, it will not be preserved if we do nothing.”
Council members’ remarks came after Kurlancheek made a presentation on what would happen if the Garden District’s 28 buildings are torn down and rebuilt. Bottom line, the BZP chief said, “If these buildings are demolished and there’s new construction, they’re going to be bigger.”
He said 18 of the buildings are below the maximum 50-foot height limit and could go from four stories to up to six stories under the code; and 15 of the 28 condos aren’t maxing out their FAR, which determines the amount of air conditioned space and mass of a structure.
The existing buildings average a 0.71 FAR, but redevelopment could up that to 1.2 to 1.4.
Parking areas would also need to expand: Kurlancheek said the condominiums currently have 339 total spaces, but the new code would require 758 spots.
All of that is true despite the fact that redevelopment would bring a major decrease in units.
Currently, Kurlancheek said, there are 858 units in the district – but even if all of the buildings are redeveloped, there’s a total allowed density of 390 units.
However, that probably wouldn’t correspond to a huge reduction in bedrooms, as the trend is for developers to build larger homes aimed at full-time families rather than the district’s original population of snowbirds and retirees.
Based on ongoing redevelopment of 101 Sunrise Drive, Kurlancheek estimated the district would go from about 1,222 bedrooms to 1,164 bedrooms.
With all that in mind, Kurlancheek told Council members if they want the buildings to remain somewhat as they exist now, one way to do so would be through historic designation. “There’s absolutely no negative whatsoever – zero downside – only advantages,” he said.
He thinks the Garden District could qualify.
“There is a pattern of building materials, scale, mass and streetscape throughout the district that is unique in Key Biscayne and gives this area a sense of place and community,” he reported.
Listing on the NRHP carries no architectural or zoning regulations, and building and demolition permits would not have to stop, Kurlancheek said. Instead, homeowners would simply qualify for a program – 100 percent voluntary – in which they can get federal tax credits by keeping exterior remodeling consistent with the condos’ original design.
Vice Mayor Michael Davey brought up concerns that some residents may be skeptical of the idea – seeing it as creating extra paperwork and hurdles if they want to remodel – but Kurlancheek said the NRHP is not restrictive: “You can paint it purple if you want,” he said.
Kurlancheek added at the Council’s direction the administration can continue exploring the idea, noting historic designation “builds prestige and pride.”
Local leaders agreed Kurlanhceek should prepare an application for Council review.
Meanwhile, the BZP Director also gave local leaders another option to consider: changing some of the zoning rules in the Garden District. He said lowering FAR and density could address the area’s parking crunch and the mass of buildings, which are major concerns; and altering setbacks could keep new condos from being right up against the street.
Council member Michael Kelly said it’s worth looking into.
“While there are qualities there that are admirable, there are also problems with congestion and buildings that, from my standpoint, look like they need to be renovated,” Kelly said. “We don’t want to perpetuate problems with parking.”
Meanwhile, Council member Ed London had another way of looking at things: letting buildings go higher to keep their footprints from being so large.
“If you have taller buildings and decrease the lot coverage, you’d have much more green area. Lot coverage is the key if you want to keep green,” London said.
Ultimately, Caplan suggested holding a zoning working with Garden District residents and other interested residents.
While that may well happen, there is some debate over just how likely redevelopment actually is.
London was the first to pose the question after Kurlancheek confirmed the ownership of the vast majority of the buildings is traditional condo-style: meaning numerous unit owners per building.
“From a practical standpoint, what is the likelihood of a developer going in there and being able to purchase all those units from all those people to do away with the condominium, and then demolish the building?” London asked. “It’s great to discuss these things, but the practicality of being able to do anything is low.”
Pena Lindsay disagreed, citing examples in Miami Beach in recent history, and Kurlancheek said he knows of at least one building where owners have discussed the option.
He suspects others have done so as well, and said as unit owners retire and age the idea of selling for a tidy profit may become increasingly attractive.
But Village Attorney Steve Helfman said London makes a good point – especially considering a new development would face significant restrictions.
“Most [redevelopment] is happening where the underlying zoning allows for a significant increase in density and FAR development,” Helfman noted. “But there are limits on what you can do here.”
The Council recently passed a density cap ordinance that states new buildings can’t have more dwelling units than the structure they replace. Also, Helfman said, the local zoning code can’t be changed to increase density without a public referendum.
He noted, “There are all sorts of restrictions on the ability to redevelop these properties in terms of a developer coming in and acquiring them. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but we’ve got in place restrictions that limit the ability for a group of condo owners to sell out at a premium.”

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