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Miami 21’s Special Area Plans Have Created Special Problems

In a recent article, Neisen Kasdin, managing partner of Akerman LLP’s Miami office, argued that the opposition to special area plans (SAPs) was “largely driven by community activists who oppose change because they like things the way they are and want to preserve their positions of power in the community. They generate opposition by preying upon people’s fear of progress, often without regard to the true long-term interests of the community.”

Nothing could be further from the truth—the opposition to SAPs has been galvanized across a broad spectrum of opponents who have watched this planning tool turned against our most vulnerable communities by developers. That outrage resulted in the City of Miami Planning Zoning & Appeals Board voting unanimously last year to recommend to city commissioners that SAPs be abolished from the Miami 21 zoning code.

SAPs Are Government Up-Zoning

A “special area plan” is a zoning process in Miami 21 that allows a developer that assembles over nine acres of land to apply for the right to build at much greater height and density than would otherwise be allowed. If that application is approved after going before the PZAB for its recommendation and then obtaining final approval from the city commission, the developer then has greater flexibility (e.g., the Magic City SAP received exemption from certain liquor sales limitations) as well as relief from the Code’s otherwise strict rules regarding “succession.”

Miami 21 is a “form based” code designed for “successional growth.” For example, the T-3 transect governs single family and duplex residences of maximum two stories, and T-4 governs multifamily apartments of three stories maximum. Any up-zonings of more than one transect are generally not allowed. SAPs are a planned exception to successional growth, intended to incentivize developers to cooperate with the city planning staff to create a better development than the developer might otherwise build. Kasdin is correct that this process has worked well in some high density places, such as Brickell City Centre. But not all, and there’s the rub—“one size does not fit all.”

At their root, the projects Kasdin is promoting involve governmental up-zoning, with lobbyists approaching the city of Miami on behalf of developers seeking permission to build more than they are otherwise legally allowed to build.

This type of government led development is neither organic nor the result of natural market forces. Rather, market forces are being manipulated to incentivize acquisition of real property in poorer neighborhoods where private investment has been largely absent, except by slumlords, often for decades.

In theory, this process involves the city agreeing to allow more density and height in exchange for the developer making available to residents certain benefits, such as affordable housing, workforce preferences and living wages. But the “community benefits” are only as good as the negotiating process, and it is often the case that the neighborhood doesn’t get what it deserves in a process controlled by connected people in “special deals for special people” handed out by compromised politicians who don’t have the public interest at heart.


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