When Andrew Frey looks around Miami he sees two main types of new development: high-rise condos downtown and single-family suburban subdivisions. Gone are the midsized, multi-family, art deco buildings found in historic areas like South Beach and Little Havana. Plenty of people still love that classic style, he says, but it’s been effectively regulated out of existence by another of the city’s great loves: the car.
“I started thinking about why don’t we get those buildings in Miami,” says Frey, founder of the Miami-based developer Tecela. “Then it really leapt out at me that required parking was probably the biggest obstacle.”
Take your typical eight-unit apartment building on a 5,000-square foot lot. Set aside 2,400 square feet for the city’s parking minimum (1.5 spots per unit, 200-square feet per spot), another 2,200 for a driveway, and a five-foot asphalt buffer strip per landscape codes—and pretty soon the car accounts for all your space. High-rises can afford costly parking garages, and suburban sites have room for big surface lots, but for middle-tier developments the math just doesn’t add up.
“You’ve got a 5,000-square foot lot, and 5,000 square feet of asphalt, and no building,” says Frey. “It seemed to be not just cost-prohibitive but actually volumetrically impossible.”
Thanks largely to Frey’s efforts, that situation is poised to change. In late October the city commission approved a new planning ordinance that reduces parking requirements in transit-rich areas—especially for smaller-scale buildings. The move put Miami on a growing list of U.S. cities striking down parking minimums as a way to increase housing affordability and decrease car-reliance, and marks a bold step for a city with car-oriented roots toward development patterns far friendlier to pedestrians and public transportation.
“It’s a huge cultural and mentality shift in the city,” says Francis Suarez, commissioner for Miami’s fourth district, who championed the ordinance. “We’re a city that developed with a very high vertical urban core and flat suburban sprawl. … What we’re trying to do is create land use and zoning entitlements that speak to making our current transit and future transit more efficient.”
Promoting transit and walkability
At the core of the new ordinance are parking exemptions that build on previous reductions established in the city’s Miami 21 plan. In designated transit areas, buildings under 10,000 square feet—think: four- or five-story buildings with mixed-use on the ground floor—no longer have to build parking at all. Larger buildings in these areas, already eligible to reduce parking by 30 percent, can now buy their way into a 50 percent reduction by paying a parking impact fee.
Beyond the exemptions themselves, the new ordinance also expands where they apply. The previous rules focused on zones in the urban core and transit-oriented areas around rail stations. The updated code stretches these parking reductions to an additional urban zone, parts of the city designated as civic space, and three of Miami’s high-frequency bus corridors. One of those strips is Biscayne Boulevard, which is undergoing its own larger push toward walkability.
“It’s very much the intent of the new zoning ordinance to promote pedestrian activity throughout the city,” says Francisco Garcia, Miami’s planning director. “It stands to reason that if we’re going to take our thoroughfares and have them lined up with driveways leading into every property that provides parking on-site, that very pedestrian activity becomes thwarted right quick.”
On the same day the parking regulations passed, the city commission approved another new measure that should magnify its impact: a transportation trust fund. The trust fund, a project steered by Commissioner Suarez, will receive three main types of payments:
- It will capture 20 percent of any one-time cash payment to the city exceeding $500,000—public air rights sold to a developer, for instance.
- It will collect a quarter of 1 percent of the city’s general budget fund and reserve that money for transit operations and maintenance. Suarez says he hopes this money will go toward the city’s trolley system, in particular.
- It will get the parking impact fee paid for by large-scale developers to increase their exemption beyond 30 percent and up to 50 percent, with that money set aside for potential creation for public garages—a “hedge,” says Suarez, in case parking supplies fall too far.
Turning Miami into Brooklyn
Together the new measures launch Miami on a dramatically different urban trajectory. At a public hearing last October, one city commissioner told listeners it would “change the complexion of the City of Miami” to resemble Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (“I’m from Brooklyn,” he said. “I’m okay with this.”) Another commissioner, urging caution, asked how many people in attendance had arrived by public transit. Only one raised a hand.
“I don’t know how far ahead or how well aligned we are with the change in culture,” says Garcia, the planning director. “Hopefully we’re just well aligned enough that it will take hold quickly and be a great success. That’s certainly not a foregone conclusion.”
Despite these concerns, Suarez says there was no huge no public outcry or opposition. “To the extent there might have been doubters or detractors or people who were afraid to take that leap,” he says, “it was very much muted by the cacophony of supporters always there.” He credits Frey for rallying a broad coalition of organizations to back the measure, from contractors and architects to merchants and homeless advocates.
“I was trying to take a playbook from Robert Moses, except in the opposite direction,” says Frey. “Moses figured out why it was in everyone’s interest to do the stuff he wanted to do. So I tried to do the same thing but with pro-urbanism policy.”
Frey, at least, is ready to put his money where his mouth is. After several years working for a large-scale apartment developer in Miami called CC Residential, he struck out on his own a few months ago to pursue his interest in the small-scale housing projects that, he says, “actually make great urban places.” Just days after the ordinance passed he’d already arranged a contract for a 5,000-square foot site—with no parking.
“What I’d love to have to show for it in a year or two is a more interesting mix of dwelling-unit types—a return to a denser and more efficient fabric of mixed-use residential and commercial buildings in these areas,” says Garcia. “Which is, by the way, the bread and butter of many of the older cities in the United States. But it’s a type of development that hasn’t happened very successfully over the last 100 years, since the car came to prominence.”