Miami Beach developers and activists agree on one thing: North Beach needs rezoning

It’s a historic instance of preservationist and developer joining forces to support a movement to rezone a neighborhood and jump start redevelopment of a district long envisioned as a “main street” for North Beach.

Development interests and the historic preservation community are encouraging Miami Beach voters to support a referendum to increase the maximum allowable square footage for buildings in the center of North Beach’s commercial corridor, a 10-block district surrounding 71st Street.

If a majority of residents vote yes, they would be clearing a path for new mixed-use buildings with retail stores and cafes on ground floors and apartments above.

The Town Center section of 71st Street is a generally sleepy stretch lined by a few restaurants, some empty land, an old post office, a law office, one five-story apartment building, a pharmacy, a pair of gas stations, two banks and dated buildings with underutilized office space. The Byron Carlyle Theater also houses O Cinema Miami Beach on this street.

The proposed upzoning is key to a master plan for the area developed with input from more than 1,000 residents in North Beach, the majority of whom agreed they want to see a revitalized “Town Center,” which is made up of properties bounded by 72nd Street to the north, 69th Street to the south, Collins Avenue to the east and Indian Creek Drive, which becomes Dickens Avenue, to the west.

The question asks voters if the city should increase the floor area ratio, the formula that determines the overall size of a building, for this batch of properties. Increases to zoned floor area ratio in Miami Beach must be approved by voter referendum.

If approved, the area could be redeveloped into larger mixed-used buildings that have been envisioned in the master plan, a document authored by planning firm Dover, Kohl & Partners with guidance from the community last year.

Read more: A new vision for North Beach was unveiled last year

The foundation for the landmark alliance between developers and preservationists happened after elected officials decided to give a local historic designation to two swaths of historic buildings just outside Town Center — a designation that grants significant protection from demolition.

One of the central elements of the plan is to create local historic districts to protect the architecturally rich stock of Miami Modern apartment buildings while allowing for more density in Town Center so property owners can redevelop — a balance between preservation and revitalization that was reached over a yearlong planning process.

The historic districts are moving through the designation process at City Hall. Leading preservationists agreed to rally for passage of the referendum after the city agreed to include waterfront properties in the new historic districts — an addition that was initially resisted by property owners and some city officials who raised concerns about limiting property rights for buildings that are vulnerable to tidal flooding and sea level rise.

Now, those waterfront buildings have been added into the historic districts. Thus, this became an unprecedented situation where preservationists support increasing a floor area ratio increase in Miami Beach.

“It will open the door for the restoration of historic properties up there,” said Nancy Liebman, a prominent voice in the preservation community who played a role in saving South Beach’s Art Deco buildings. She stressed that the increase would bring redevelopment that would encourage the restoration of the low-slung Miami Modern and later-era Art Deco apartment buildings nearby.

If you don’t have a Town Center, you don’t have the revitalization of North Beach.

Matis Cohen, North Beach developer

For Robert Finvarb, a developer and North Beach native who owns property in the Town Center zone, the rezoning would allow him to build a place that injects life into a “tired” street. He envisions a gourmet grocery on the the ground floor, with apartments geared toward families who can’t afford the typical luxury developments you find on the beachfront. But he still wants to maintain the charm unique to North Beach, which has long been a quieter, more family-oriented alternative to the bustle of South Beach.

“There is an authenticity to this place,” he said. “I believe that authenticity can be preserved.”

That sentiment was echoed by North Beach activists such as Carolina Jones, who has lived in the area since 2001. She said engaged residents would work with developers and existing tenants to try to keep any popular businesses on the street.

She said she’s longed for Town Center to take off “organically through the market” for years. But existing zoning laws have not attracted redevelopment. She supports the referendum, and she hopes other residents across the city will support North Beach’s will to reinvent itself.

“Our challenge is we have to sell this plan to the rest of Miami Beach,” she said.

Another North Beach resident, Eduardo Gonzalez, opposes the referendum because he believes the increased density will lead to more traffic congestion. Redevelopment will bring families and retail workers into the area, putting more cars on the road, he says

Proponents of the master plan believe a redeveloped Town Center will bring in the kinds of retail and restaurants that will serve the surrounding neighborhood, causing locals to leave their cars at home. The authors of the master plan also emphasized that North Beach’s transformation will coincide with an increase in people using transit or ridesharing services or riding bicycles.

For Gonzalez, the calculation is simple. More people equals more traffic.

“The argument that this is going to reduce traffic simply doesn’t hold water,” he said.

A large cross-section of civic activists and groups have come forward to endorse the “yes” vote. Daniel Ciraldo, executive director for the Miami Design Preservation League, told the Herald the preservationist civic group is fully behind the yes vote to uphold the compromise developed in the master plan.

“Overall, it is a win-win for the community.”

Early voting begins Oct. 23. Election Day is Nov. 7.