The Miami-Dade County Commission has given zoning approval to Triple Five Worldwide Group’s plan to build American Dream Miami which will be the largest mall in North America. To call American Dream Miami a mall is not a fair description. It will be a 6 million square foot theme park, office, retail, shopping and entertainment complex. Plans call for 2000 hotel rooms, an ice climbing wall, an indoor ski slope, a water park with submarine rides, shopping, dining, a performing arts center and offices. The project will be built on 175 acres at the intersection of I-75, the Florida Turnpike and Miami Gardens Drive, just south of the Miami-Dade – Broward County line.

In addition, Graham Companies, which is selling a portion of the property to Triple Five, received approval to develop 300 acres to the south of a larger commercial and residential project, containing 3 million square feet of office, 1 million square feet of retail and 2,000 rental units to be developed over the next 20 years.   The American Dream project is expected to add nearly 100,000 trips per day to area roads. The Graham project would add over 50,000 trips per day.

While local leaders are very excited about the potential economic impact of these 2 projects and tout tax revenues and job creation, the traffic congestion is one area where major disagreement exists. While Miami-Dade County will address traffic issues in the approval process, Broward County and cities near the county line have expressed concern. In Miami-Dade County, the developers will have to improve or pay for improvements to state roads affected which the state does not address or pay for. However, Triple Five claims that there will be no impact, or minimal impact at most, to Broward County roads. The developer’s claims are ridiculous. Studies show major traffic diversions to Broward County roads including the Turnpike extension and Miramar Parkway. The complex is 1 mile from the county line and common sense dictates that a high percentage of visitors will be coming from the north. Any market study would compare visitors to Hard Rock Stadium, also on the county line, for Dolphins games, soccer games and concerts, and see how many people come from Broward and north. Countless comparisons in Broward and Miami-Dade could be made. The American Dream Mall would not survive without visitors outside Miami-Dade County.

Prior to Miami-Dade’s approval, Broward threatened to file a lawsuit unless the developer agreed to make improvements to Broward roads impacted by American Dream Miami. Negotiations ensued and Triple Five agreed to spend $650,000 on modernization of traffic lights on Miramar Parkway.   This conciliation is not enough and Broward continues to push for more but won’t find support from its counterparts in Miami-Dade. In a letter to Broward Mayor Beam Furr, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez wrote that Miami-Dade County had found no evidence that the American Dream Miami and Graham projects combined would contribute more than 5% of the daily traffic on any Broward roads which would be the trigger to demand fees from the developers. Mayor Gimenez’ conclusion comes despite several reports showing a high impact in Broward County.

American Dream Mall and the Graham Project demonstrate a total lack of regional cooperation in planning. While Triple Five can save a few dollars by not paying fees to Broward to mitigate potential traffic impact, their reluctance to pay is not only cheap, it is shortsighted. The expected price tag of the Triple Five project is $4 Billion.   There is no estimate yet for the Graham Company project. However, adding a few million dollars for traffic mitigation in Broward County is meaningless for either party. The shortsightedness is hard to understand. Clearly, the developers know that the visitors will be coming to this theme park from Broward and the north, whether they are residents or tourists. These visitors will make up a huge percentage of the annual visitors to American Dream Miami. They will be sitting in traffic unnecessarily and starting their experience poorly. This could be avoided, or made better. Triple Five, Graham Companies, Miami-Dade County…. Think bigger.

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        Voters in Los Angeles approved a measure which will require developers to designate a certain percentage of condominiums and apartments for lower income residents. Known as “Measure JJJ”, the new law makes LA the latest in a growing number of cities to adopt inclusionary zoning as a method to address its affordable housing problem. However, the new law is also designed to help local unions by mandating that developers hire union workers and pay higher wages.

            On the affordable housing side, Measure JJJ is slightly different than other cities’ policies, such as New York and San Francisco, the requirements only apply to projects when a developer needs certain zoning changes or general plan amendments such as height changes. More common inclusionary zoning policies apply to all projects meeting minimum size requirements (JJJ’s minimum size is 10 units). JJJ then requires that developers set aside 25% of their apartment units for low income tenants or 40% of their condominium units for moderate income tenants. The developer may provide off-site units or pay into a housing trust fund to satisfy these requirements.

            Opponents of the LA measure, which include affordable housing advocates, argue that it is bad policy to legislate land use policy via ballot initiative. This does not allow for flexibility and changing circumstances. Further, combining demanding affirmative housing requirements with wage mandates is very expensive for developers. This, opponents argue, will add significant costs to construction and have the opposite effect on affordable housing intended; a reduction in new projects and therefore, a reduction in affordable housing units.

            LA already has an affordable housing component in its code. Developers can receive a density bonus on new development for providing affordable housing units. This is similar to new affordable housing policy in Miami-Dade County and is used in other jurisdictions.

            LA’s intentions are good and it is important to understand that California is a citizen based/ballot initiative driven system of legislation. This makes major legislation complex and inefficient. As I continue to write in this blog, affordable housing policy needs to include thoughtful incentives. Inclusionary zoning is a tool to use, but should not be the only tool, as it acts as a hammer. The LA City Council can build upon Measure JJJ and clarify developers’ rights and responsibilities and create other carrots to encourage meaningful affordable housing development like other major cities.

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        Floridians are hurricane experts. We know how to prepare. We are always vigilant. But it has been 11 years since South Florida has gone through the drill. Maybe we have become lazy. I know my wife called me lazy on more than one occasion as Hurricane Matthew began to bear down on us. We knew it was out there more than a week in advance and we began listening to our favorite meteorologists (everybody in hurricane country has a favorite meteorologist). You can tell when they get serious when they start to raise their voices a little bit, when their jackets come off, when their ties are loosened, when their voices get a bit hoarse. These are all signs that the threat is real.

             Here, we were waking up for the second day of Rosh Hashanah on Tuesday. The cone of danger was clearly targeting us. My wife announced that we had to put gas in the cars immediately. The storm was still 2-3 days away. Off to services we went. She later put gas in her car. The 2:00 update had put Broward and Miami-Dade Counties under a Tropical Storm Watch, meaning within the next 48 hours we could possibly see tropical storm force winds. To seasoned veterans, that is an ordinary afternoon thunderstorm. But, Palm Beach County and north were under a Hurricane Watch. One small wobble, and the hurricane would be headed our way.

             Later that afternoon, I took my daughter to the airport to go back to New York. I assured my wife that I would gas up my car on the way home because the TV news shows were showing breaking news of long gas lines all over town. Of course, I did not fill up my car. When I got home from the airport, the 5:00 update was out. The Hurricane Watch had been extended southward to the Broward/Miami-Dade County line. We would likely be hit by a hurricane within 48 hours. Now, we had to plan. My wife’s first thought was that we had to run to the bank and withdraw as much cash as possible. I sat on the couch and waited for the Vice Presidential debate. That is where I was accused of being lazy. I told her that there would be cash in the ATM tomorrow and I didn’t understand why hoarding cash was necessary. But, that is what the TV people always tell us to do, so we do it. We discussed our preparedness plan. At some point Thursday, I would move the outdoor furniture in and close the shutters. We discussed where our important papers were. The office. That led to a discussion as to how safe the office is. Therefore, I was to either scan the papers or bring them home. The only papers of any value in the office is our insurance policy, which the insurance company has and I have the agent’s number but I won’t go into that with my wife.

             Wednesday morning, my alarm didn’t go off (am/pm problem Jerry Seinfeld) so we watched the 5:00 a.m. update at 5:45. We were now under a Hurricane Warning. That meant we were likely to experience hurricane force winds within 24 hours or less. Our plans had to be put in place within 12 hours. We discussed flash lights. We have many. Do we have batteries? We had not touched our hurricane kit in years. In fact, we had pilfered the batteries from the hurricane kit over the years. No batteries. What are we going to do? I would have to find more batteries. Frankly, when it gets dark, I would prefer just to go to sleep, but, for some reason, we need light. Off to work we went. I promised to stop for gas. My wife insisted that I would be stuck in a gas line for hours. The gas line at the gas station I stopped at was all of 2 cars. However, gas prices had jumped about 23 cents a gallon in the last 2 days. The gouging had begun.

             By 10:00, my wife’s office had announced they would close at 5 and would be closed Thursday and Friday. We decided to close Thursday and would see what happens Friday. I went out at lunch in search of D batteries. 4 stops later, no D’s to be found. Fortunately, I did find working lanterns with working D’s in our house before I left. Still need some more D’s for a couple more flash lights and lanterns if possible. But, at least we wouldn’t be totally in the dark when the power goes out.

             Shutters started going up at the office around 3:00. I decided to leave the office at 4:00 and start implementing our plan. My wife thoughtfully picked up steaks, burgers and hot dogs which we would put on the grill when the power goes out. Though we had lots of wine and whiskey at home, I stopped and bought a 12-pack of beer. Something about a hurricane makes me want beer. I think it is the heat that follows. Then, because there is no power, you have to drink it all before it gets warm. After Wilma in 2005, all the neighbors sat in front of our houses with our grills and beer and had a block party. Also, I made a mental note to ask my wife if she wanted to stock the freezer with ice cream. The first thing you want to eat when the power goes out is ice cream. Can’t have that spoil, right?

             I started my work at home at 4:45. It really isn’t too much work, but it was the first time I had to do it without the help of my kids, both now living in the northeast. I got started on the task long before my wife got home from work. The order of things to do is very specific. Start by closing the shutters that require a ladder. Done. Move outside furniture and trashcans inside, starting with the garage, leaving room to park 2 cars. Done. Continue by carefully stacking remaining outdoor furniture in living room (after carefully placing blankets and sheets on the floor). Done. Close remaining shutters that need to be closed from the outside and do so before it gets dark. Done. Squeeze the cars back in the garage. Done. Finally, close remaining shutters that are closed from the inside the house. Done. I was finished in under 2 hours with 3 bloody knuckles to show for it. Not bad.

             We would now be stuck in a dark house for the foreseeable future. Our plan for the evening? A couple of steaks, a bottle of wine or 2 and as many episodes of House of Cards as we could watch before the wine kicked in. Resolved not to watch forecast updates all night as hysteria would begin to kick in during the overnight broadcasts. 2 episodes later, and about 10 phone call interruptions from concerned friends and family, we were done. But one last thing to do – make sure we had books to read on our Kindles. Done.

             Thursday morning and the forecast had changed. Matthew was still bearing down on the coast, likely north of us, but still at Category 4 strength, so we could expect hurricane force had winds arriving sometime in the afternoon. But the cone had taken an ominous turn. The projected path suggested that the darn thing was aiming to take a second strike at us after the weekend. For some reason, the meteorologists weren’t focusing on this. They were too busy screaming at us to evacuate. Governor Scott was telling us that we were going to die if we didn’t do what he said. And I was looking for information about a potential second strike. If it came back, even at weaker strength, the damage would be much worse. I remember communities that have taken 2 hits in a relatively short time, usually from separate storms. The battering from the first storm was bad enough. But because of the initial damage, the second hit was usually devastating. Resources were thin and defenses were weak.

             But as the day progressed and we huddled in our fortress, nothing happened. Sure, it was windy and rainy, but we Floridians are used to wind and rain. The local stations were all in with breathless reports of scattered power outages and random trees down. Young, excited reporters were stationed on the beach interviewing brave souls who disregarded the Governor’s dire warnings and wanted to see the action first hand. Since there was no action happening locally, the local stations cut to Nassau which was experiencing a direct hit. Again, reporters had to stand outside to give us a live look at what “could” happen if we weren’t prepared. They showed us street flooding, downed power lines, a gas station that had suffered some damage. They cut to footage of Haiti which always gets hit and, because of its extreme poverty and lack of any infrastructure, suffers tremendous devastation. But locally, we were experiencing a true non-event.

             By 8:00, the Hurricane Warnings were finally down graded to Tropical Storm Warnings and South Floridians were declared to be “off the hook – this time”. The Space Coast, however, was now the clear target. My wife and I simply continued our House of Cards binge watch, and opened another bottle of wine. At some point, I tired and turned to Thursday Night Football and the Baseball Playoffs. We discussed plans for unwinding. In the morning, I would open up the downstairs shutters and we would wait to hear whether Matthew would return before opening the upstairs shutters and putting the patio furniture back outside.

             And so it was. I awoke before sunrise and spent 15 minutes opening the shutters. The yard had some leaves and downed branches, but no more than we would following a typical summer thunderstorm. By 8:00, our lawn service was out cutting the grass. Life was back to normal. I received word from the office that the shutters were down and we would be open and we all returned to work. My wife got an extra day off as her place of employment previously announced the 2-day closure.

             What did we learn from this experience? I hear many people expressing frustration. They are frustrated that Matthew did not hit after they went through all of the preparations and after all the stress and excitement. Are they nuts? Had the storm hit South Florida, insurance companies predicted a potential $200 billion loss. This was a Category 4 storm. Sorry for the inconvenience, but a miss is a good thing. What we learned is that we have not lost our hurricane preparedness skills. It is not a bad thing to test them out once in a while as we were certainly out of practice. I would gladly do this every year only to have the storm veer off at the last minute each time. We have seen our community suffer tremendously in the past and we have seen too many communities suffer each year. So the lesson is always be prepared, always be diligent. And most importantly, keep your spirits up. Once you know you have done everything to keep your family and your property safe and enjoy the time together.

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        The cost of renting an apartment or buying a new home or condominium in Miami is expensive. In fact, according to Wallethub.com, Miami and Miami Beach ranked 299 and 300, respectively out of 300 U.S. cities in affordability. Rents and sale prices are both extremely high, making it extremely difficult for working class people to live in the downtown, urban and eastern areas of the county.

             Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Jordan has proposed a remedy for this problem. The Commission will consider Commissioner Jordan’s proposal to require that new developments of 20 or more units provide at least 10% of its units for work force housing. Of these units, 50% would be set aside for those earning from 60% to 79% ($48,100) of the median county income and 50% would be set aside for those earning from 80% to 140% of the median county income. A developer meeting this requirement would receive a density bonus of 15% of the total units. If the developer has no work force units, the developer must pay a fee into the county affordable housing trust. Developers may earn additional density bonuses equal to 1% for every 1% increase in the amount of work force units.

             The proposed ordinance will provide that municipalities may opt out of the requirement provided that the cities adopt adequate work force housing ordinances. Two cities, in particular, have been vocal in their opposition to Commissioner Jordan’s proposal. Aventura and Sunny Isles, two small, but affluent cities which are densely populated with luxury condominiums have formally objected to the Commission. Aventura has passed an ordinance objecting to the proposed county ordinance and Sunny Isles has directed its city attorney to send a letter of objection. Both cities have some work force components in their city code, however, there is not data available as to the number of work force and affordable housing residents living in the two cities.

             Many builders and developers are concerned about the ordinance as well. Jose Gonzales of the Latin Builders Association believes that the ordinance could have “unintended consequences”. For example, the density bonuses could cause additional parking requirements which in turn could inflate construction costs. This adds risk to the developer and underwriting risk to the lenders that neither are prepared to take. Another concern is how condominiums would assess the lower priced units in a building. In a luxury condominium, monthly maintenance fees equate to the mortgage payment for an average homeowner. These payments would price such work force units out of the market even if set aside for work force residents. There are clearly solutions to this problem. The work force units in a condominium could remain rentals, owned by the developer or a third party investor, or, they may have to remain much smaller than the higher end units so that they may be assessed lower. New York developers often use a “2 door” method. But, that method creates a 2 class system, shutting the lower end unit owners off from the amenities of the higher end units.

             Despite the high cost of Miami and the push back against the proposed ordinance, there are success stories of affordable and work force housing in Miami. Melo Group, for example, recently announced plans for Square Station, located between NE 14th Street and NE 15th Street next to the School Board Metro Mover Station. Square Station will consist of 710, 1 to 3 bedroom apartments in 2 towers. The developer has entered into a covenant with the city which provides that 96 of the 710 units will be reserved for workforce housing. Here, workforce will mean that the tenants can not earn more than 140% of the median county income. In return, the city has waived impact fees on the 96 units. This will be a tremendous cost savings to the developer.

             This is not the first time I have written about the need for thoughtful affordable housing policy (see Here and Here). It won’t be the last. Commissioner Jordan’s proposal is a good start. It might need some work, but the concept is correct. Encourage developers to provide affordable housing by offering incentives. Additional units is one way. Commissioner Jordan did not go so far as to offer an inclusionary zoning ordinance as I have previously discussed. If developers continue to push back and not accept the carrot, inclusionary zoning is a stick that needs to be wielded.

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