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Miami 21 – Innovative, But Flawed Zoning

Miami 21 – Innovative, But Flawed Zoning

The City of Miami took a bold step in 2009 when it re-wrote its zoning code, throwing out its traditional use based zoning and replacing it with Miami 21, a form based code. In implementing Miami 21, Miami became the 1st city in the United States to enact a city-wide form based code. Other cities have included form based components to their codes for parts of their communities such as downtown areas or tourist districts. But none have previously enacted a comprehensive city-wide form based code before Miami.

A form based zoning code regulates zoning, not on how the property will be used, but in context with what is going around the property. It seeks to regulate space of buildings and allow mixes of uses. A form based code encourages compatibility by promoting transitions between high and low rises. Pedestrian friendly design is a high priority as is “ground flow” and street scape.

Miami 21 incorporates these goals It is pedestrian oriented and encourages public space. It seeks higher density and a mixture of uses. And, it encourages affordable housing and historic preservation. Miami 21 has been recognized by the AIA with an Honor Award for Urban Design.

While architects, critics, planners and developers praise Miami 21, I question whether there are inherent flaws in the code. The intent is genuine. However, it appears that the code pre-supposes that every project will be a tear down and new construction. My recent experience with the rehabilitation and renovation of an existing building in Wynwood, Miami’s centerpiece district to showcase Miami 21, is an example of how difficult it is to navigate the code, even for city staff. Clearly, the provisions of the code relevant to our property required that the building be 2-stories. However, the existing building was only 5,000 square feet and one-story. The client had no intention of demolishing the building and re-building and using a second floor for residential or office. He wanted to spend $300,000 to renovate the place and operate a restaurant. We could not get written assurance from city zoning staff that, for renovations only, single story would be grandfathered. Staff only would provide verbal assurances. There is not explicit provision in Miami 21 to point to.

Is it the intent of Miami 21 to replace all existing building upon the change of use? I don’t think this is what form based zoning is about.

Proponents of form based zoning argue that traditional zoning’s separation of uses is out dated. While I would agree that many zoning classifications are ancient and an overhaul is a good idea, I also believe that there is a place for quiet, traditional residential neighborhoods with regulated commercial uses. Do we need to urbanize an entire city? I keep seeing the word “vibrant” used to describe Miami and Miami 21. Does vibrant mean noise, traffic, music, pedestrians and high rise buildings everywhere? I admit, I have not read, nor do I plan to read the entire code. But if form based zoning extends to the entire city, it would, by implication, allow hungry developers to move into quiet neighborhoods and change the character. Perhaps Miami should consider a hybrid approach and retain traditional zoning in traditional residential neighborhoods.

I don’t disagree that Miami’s transformation has been amazing and that Miami 21 and its planners and early visionaries have played a huge role in this. Keep moving forward with this vision, but be careful not to urbanize areas that should not be urbanized. Protect neighborhoods. Make sure that affordable housing exists in all reaches of the city, not just in high rises and not just on the east side. Protect working families and middle class who work hardest from this new urban design.

David Blattner

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