Can Miami 21’s Community Vision Be Saved?

OLIVIA JOHNSON—On September 20, 2021, the Miami 21 Ad Hoc Task Force adjourned for the final time with a completed Miami 21 Report ready to send to City Commissioners and the Mayor for review on October 28th. The City asked the Task Force, steeped in controversy from its inception, to review the Miami 21 Code and to provide the commission with recommended changes. Miami 21, adopted in 2009 and implemented in 2010, is in need of some reworking. The code has adopted multiple provisions over the years, but it has not done much to address the realities of Miami’s climate change, gentrification, and affordable housing crises. The Task Force was charged with making recommendations to improve Miami 21 on these issues amongst other goals. Yet, hidden amongst the Task Force’s nearly 200 recommendations was an undeniable admonition of the zoning code that has dictated Miami development for the last eleven years for being too difficult on rapid development.

Before Miami 21 was adopted, Miami, through Zoning Ordinance 11000 (“Z.O. 11000”), had a stringent Euclidean zoning code. Euclidean zoning, named for Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., which upheld zoning as a legitimate exercise of state police power, is characterized by regulating development based on permitted use. Euclidean zoning has been criticized for increasing residential segregation and urban sprawl while decreasing housing supply. In the early 2000s, Miami began seeing double-digit appreciation in condo prices, experiencing a massive condo boom that peaked at 98%. Z.O. 11000 contained an incentive that allowed developers to increase their project size by up to 25% for $6.67 per each additional square foot contribution to a City fund for subsidized housing and an additional one-time fee. Z.O. 11000 itself was criticized for the ease by which developers and their attorneys could exploit the code’s loopholes through its vague language and over-incentivizing of development.

Miami 21, proposed in 2005 by then Mayor Manny Diaz, was intended to offer a solution. Drafted in accordance with the New Urbanism style of city planning, Miami 21 is a form-based code meaning it regulates on specific urban form standards rather than prescribed uses. Miami 21’s goals were to create a city that was safer, more walkable, and had more usable space to promote “a climate of economic inclusion where all have access to the promise of prosperity and opportunity.”  Miami 21 and its promises of a better Miami for everyone, at its best, was an ambitious attempt to represent the “Miami of the 21st Century.” But Miami 21 was met with serious hesitancy by communities and developers alike when it was first proposed. The plan took four years of public hearings and commission votes to get implemented.

Developers’ attorneys initially argued that Miami 21 would make development approval too expensive and that the changes on height restrictions was unconstitutional. Communities feared that the new transect restrictions would force them to rebuild as a commercial building to maintain urban form. Perhaps the most controversial element emerging from Miami 21 is the code’s inclusion of Special Area Plans (“SAPs”). SAPs give developers with nine acres of contiguous holdings flexibility outside of the Miami 21 zoning to rapidly urbanize. Developers can get extra density in zoning and higher design flexibility. The SAP provision was designed to promote successional growth by getting developers to negotiate with city planning officials and create better community development.

SAPs are responsible for some of Miami 21’s most visible victories, most notably Brickell City Center. But recently, community activists have warned that SAPs are the newest weapon of gentrification. SAPs allow for government up-zoning in exchange for a developer package of community benefits. But these benefits are negotiated between the City and developer, often with the impacted community left out. Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood currently finds itself the newest target of several SAP projects including Magic City and Sabal Palms (previously called Eastside Ridge). The Little Haiti community has a household annual median income hovering around $25,000; as luxury developments via SAPs move into this community, housing prices go up and residents, some of whom have lived there for generations, face displacement.

Community concerns prompted Miami’s Planning, Zoning, and Appeals board to vote to ask the commission to remove the SAP provision from the Miami 21 Code; member Anthony Parrish wrote an op-ed in the Miami Herald about the dangers of SAPs on the Little Haiti community. The City commission never took up a vote, instead, waiting on the Miami 21 Ad Hoc Task Force’s recommendation.

The Task Force did not recommend removing SAPs from Miami 21. Instead, the Task Force recommendations for SAPs reflect the current status quo with the development agreement still existing between the City and the developers with an emphasis on providing for grocers, resilience, and transit. Community lawyers expected a soft stance on SAPs given the Task Force’s three land-use attorneys each represent developers in some of Miami’s largest SAP proposals including Sabal Palms and Miami Freedom Park.

While removing the SAP provision is supported by some, other community advocates favor keeping SAPs but strengthening community involvement in the process and using the government up-zoning provision to provide for neighborhood needs such as affordable housing. Many advocates are asking for SAP provisions to genuinely enforce community involvement by requiring a community representative or organization at negotiations or having mandatory affordable housing inclusions. Mandatory negotiated contracts between developers and communities in the form of Community Benefits Agreements could also mitigate the harms these large projects create.

The fate of Miami 21 and the Special Area Plan provision stands to be seen on October 28 as the commission hears the Task Force’s recommendations. The failures of Miami 21 could lead to an overhaul of the zoning code and revert the City back to a Euclidean form. Or, this could finally be the opportunity for Miami 21 to live up to the progressive, community-oriented vision it promised in 2005.