Awards For Advocates Of Miami’s Hard-Won Code

Miami was the first major US city to adopt Transect-based zoning citywide, but it wasn’t an easy victory. On June 4, the first Groves Award, from the Transect Codes Council and the Congress for New Urbanism, will be presented to two city officials who brought the Miami 21 code to fruition despite fierce political battles.

Ana Gelabert Sanchez, the city’s former planning director, and Manny Diaz, the former mayor, will receive the award in a ceremony in Madison, Wisconsin, during the CNU’s 19th annual congress. The code, written by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. (DPZ) and adopted by the Miami City Commission in May 2010, culminated in a five-year initiative whose outcome was sometimes in doubt.

Last May, just two weeks before the code was to take effect, The Miami Herald reported that it was “once again on political life support — this time because of a concerted, behind-the-scenes blitzkrieg by a squad of developers’ lawyers who have long sought to scuttle the measure.”

Influential firms, plus the Builders Association of South Florida and the Latin Builders Association, “met with Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado and city commissioners to pressure them to block or kill the new, pedestrian-friendly code,” The Herald reported.

But the code survived that challenge, just as it had survived earlier resistance. Marina Khoury, one of the chief individuals at DPZ who shepherded Miami 21 through the lengthy public process, says the code now seems to be gaining “more widespread acceptance” among developers and land-use attorneys. As a result, the city is “getting better projects due to it,” Khoury says.

Among its accomplishments, the code has prohibited blank walls on parking garages, demanded habitable uses on ground floors, and required better transitions from tall buildings to single-family houses, Khoury says.

Some “minor amendments” were made to the code late in the debate over implementation, Khoury says. One amendment lowered the maximum height, for example, one T4 zone, to 40 feet from 53 feet. Another amendment eliminated the requirement that the newly combined planning and zoning board members have specific qualifications.

Advocates of Miami 21 had wanted the board to include individuals from specific fields — such as an architect, a planner, a lawyer, and a developer. But the City Commission removed that requirement, resulting in the Commission “appointing whoever they want,” according to Khoury.

“For the most part, it has been a smooth ride,” Luciana Gonzalez in the Miami Planning Department says of the first year of implementation. New city commissioners and the new mayor “wanted to make some tweaks” to the code and did so, but the revisions “don’t change the integrity of the code at all,” Gonzalez says.

The code has continued to be amended in minor ways, partly because it was impossible to foresee every situation that would arise after Miami 21 was put in place. “It’s always been intended to be a living document,” Gonzalez observes. Nevertheless, the code remains true to “the principles nevertheless, smart growth, and New Urbanism,” she emphasizes.

The code formally incorporates walkability, sustainability, predictability, respect for neighborhood context, and a high-quality public realm into the city’s standards.

The code allows projects of more than nine acres to be treated as “special area plans” because of their significant impact. One project, Brickell City Centre, has been submitted as a particular area plan. “It’s a major mixed-use development — residential, hotel, office, and open spaces and civic spaces,” plus improvements to a Metromover station, Gonzalez says.

The Groves Award is named for Kenneth Groves, who died in September 2010 after nine years as planning director of Montgomery, Alabama — a tenure that resulted in an overhaul of Montgomery’s zoning and ushered in more urbane development downtown. CNU Board Chair Victor Dover, who chaired the award jury, called Miami 21 “a model for coding reform for large, complex urban environments.”

A cornerstone of Mayor Diaz’s administration, Miami 21, replaced a code accused of encouraging “haphazard development” and fostering “an urban environment that favored autos over pedestrians,” according to The Miami Herald. The new code ensures that new buildings have pedestrian-friendly frontages along the sidewalks to foster a more engaging street life.

Miami 21 has been winning numerous awards, including — just last month — the 2011 National Planning Excellence Award for Best Practice from the American Planning Association. Said the APA: “In the past ten years, Miami has experienced unprecedented growth. The city needed to address its historical sprawl, automobile-dependency, and use-segregated automobile dependencylan presents a solution for continued growth without infringing upon established neighborhoods while encouraging walkability and better interaction between the public and private realm.”

“The heart of Miami 21 is the form-based zoning code,” APA said. “The code addresses the relationship between buildings and the public spaces that surround them, the form and mass of buildings about one another transitions between different types and sizes of buildings, and the scale and types of streets and blocks.”

The Center for Applied Transect Studies says of the former mayor and the former planning director: “Diaz led the political charge with a hands-on approach and spearheaded the effort to incorporate environmental stewardship into the code. Gelabert-Sanchez oversaw the massive, five-year effort to write, edit, test, and implement the code. The project included a major marketing and outreach campaign, more than 500 meetings with community stakeholders, and the work of a large consultant team.”

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk was in charge of DPZ’s work on Miami 21.