Miami Beach Neighbors Oppose It. Will Big Money and Legal Threats Make It Happen?
Recently, we were in Manhattan during a record- breaking heat wave. On our way to Bloomingdale’s, we passed the bold glass and steel Cesar Pelli-designed One Beacon Court, also known as the Bloomberg building, after the city’s mayor, whose corporate headquarters is there. The soaring 55-story skyscraper, with its innovative seven-story elliptical glass wall, became an instant East Side landmark when it opened in 2004. One hundred and five condos, filling the 32nd to 55th floors, sold out in a few months, fetching between $2,000 and $3,000 per square foot (the typical Miami Beach two-bedroom would command $3 million there). One penthouse sold for $27 million preconstruction.
Offices fill the rest of the tower, while a few major retailers are at street level. Among those are Le Cirque, the renowned four-star restaurant, two banks, the hip Swedish-based clothing emporium H&M and then, startlingly, two big-box stores. One is The Container Store, a storage-solution center that makes sense in a town where space is at a premium. But the other store in the tony One Beacon Court at first seems incongruous. It’s a 100,000-square-foot Home Depot, one of only two in Manhattan (the other is in Chelsea).
The Home Depot sign underneath multimillion- dollar condos is about the last thing you’d expect to find. But residential New Yorkers, known for obstinate opposition to any local development they find the least bothersome-they held off English restaurateur and retailer Terence Conran from opening his 59th Street marketplace for 20 years-did not battle The Home Depot. Why? When we went inside, it was clear that this is not your parents’ building-supply store. A $10 million, four-level complex designed largely in a– modernist metal-and-glass style, there is no lumber department or garden center. Instead, it is packed with large appliances and luxury home brands-even boasting of home delivery. It is tailor-made for its Manhattan location.
When we returned to Miami Beach, we told a friend about discovering a Home Depot across from Bloomingdale’s.
“Home Depot.” He almost spit out the words. “If they get their way, they’ll soon be on the Beach, ruining a good neighborhood.”
Unwittingly, he had led us to this month’s Chatter, the bruising battle between some South Beach residents and prominent real- estate developers over an ambitious plan to build the Beach’s first Home Depot.
The neighborhood in question is Sunset Harbour, which roughly is bounded by Purdy Avenue on the west, Alton on the east, Dade Boulevard on the south, and 20th Street on the north. The area is one of Miami Beach’s two neighborhoods zoned in part as light industrial.” That means that the residential component-400 condos in two late-1990s-designed towers-shares the neighborhood with two unsavory 24- hour towing companies, two discreet 20,000-squarefoot-plus storage warehouses, several unsightly auto- repair and auto-body shops, a frightening Florida Power & Light substation and even an Office Depot (which replaced the gay dance club Salvation). Several buildings along Purdy sit empty. The Sunset Harbour neighborhood is probably best known to most Beach residents as the home of the island’s largest Publix, the 50,000-square-foot Carlos Zapata-designed store on 20th Street, chic home-interior and clothing designer Tomas Maier, the Beach’s premier dry cleaners, Mark’s, and Joe Allen restaurant, deservedly one of the Beach’s favorite hangouts.
The uneasy truce between those who paid top dollar for their bayfront condos and the 41 light-industrial or commercial businesses that occupy most of the neighborhood-was broken earlier this year when residents learned that Solomon and Zalman Fellig, brothers who own several properties there, were planning to introduce big-box stores on two of their parcels. One was The Home Depot and the other Whole Foods Market. The words “Home Depot” were a rallying cry for the area’s residents. It conjured the idea of an ugly and oversized building attracting hordes of South Florida buyers, as well as around-the-clock truck deliveries (the thus unsuccessful fight of Coconut Grove residents battling a Home Depot there is the subject of a documentary-Don’t Box Me In: A Coconut Grove Story-by Miami filmmaker Richard Fendelman).
“Home Depot should change its name to ‘I Love You’ or something like that,” says award-winning documentarian Fendelman. A self- described pacifist who lives a Zen lifestyle, Fendelman admits that The Home Depot’s effort to move in to Coconut Grove has made him an angry activist. “Maybe people just get too uptight when they hear the words ‘Home Depot’”
“This was an area that was neglected for a long time,” says former Miami Beach commissioner Nancy Liebman, who lives on nearby Belle Isle. “It is now in transition, gentrifying into a quirky, urban neighborhood. Unfortunately, people have learned to live with the towing companies and the rest of that. But big- box, destination stores, like Home Depot, will totally alter its character. The streets are narrow and access is difficult. The Felligs say it’s their property and they can do what they want, but actually the city has the right to determine what goes there.”
Liebman is right. In late 2005, Miami Beach officials approached the Felligs, offering to trade a city- owned lot on Bay Road, plus $4 million, for four Fellig-owned properties on West. But the Miami Beach City Commission aborted the swap after local residents flooded its chambers, fearing it would pave the way for an even bigger Home Depot. In February, the city suggested that the planning board adopt an ordinance giving it first say over projects larger than 50,000 square feet. The commission still has final say, with the city having veto power over big-box stores in Sunset Harbour.
“This is about chasing dollars and profits,” says Liebman, “not about enhancing the neighborhood.”
“That is completely wrong,” counters attorney Alex Angueira, a Steams Weaver partner representing the Felligs. Angueira, a former federal prosecutor, recently met with us for several hours to present his client’s case. “The neighborhood is not cute and sweet,” he says. “It has been light industrial for years. And the Felligs have been there for 20 years. They want to make it better, not ruin it.”
Angueira was persuasive in demonstrating that The Home Depot his clients want is as different in architecture and style as the one at One Beacon Court in Manhattan. A 40-foot-tall brown modern structure accented with substantial green landscaping, it would not look like any other store in the vast chain. “And we have gone out of our way, at great cost, to satisfy the concerns of the residents,” Angueira says. ‘The architects essentially internalized everything.”
That means the complex’s 600 parking spaces would be inside, not visible from the street. Shoppers would pick up most of their purchases from an internal loading dock. Delivery trucks would be allowed only between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m, and then limited to a closed loading zone with soundproofed doors. The Felligs even agreed to small requests, such as eliminating noisy backup beepers for delivery trucks, instead hiring flagmen, and using soft incandescent lighting inside the store to avoid any glare toward the residential towers. The building-supply area in the 77,000-square-foot store (the entire building, including parking, would be more than 200,000 square feet) would be limited, and there will be no garden center.
“No matter how they present it,” says one city official who prefers to remain anonymous, “it’s not like they are bringing in Tiffany’s, or Barneys, or some other great tenant. Whole Foods serves a local customer. It would be attractive to a lot of folks, except maybe Epicure (the Alton Road gourmet shop). But a Home Depot isn’t a local hardware store. They’re designed to serve broad regions and would attract contractors from downtown Miami, Wynwood, even the Biscayne corridor. Remember, there are only two ways in and out four-lane Alton Road and the two- lane Venetian Causeway. It’s going to be a greater traffic nightmare than it already is?
Residents convinced the city to require the Felligs to do an extensive traffic-impact study. “And we submitted one,’ says Angueira, “and it was gold.’ He contends it convincingly demonstrated shoppers would be drawn only from a 1.5-mile radius and that during weekdays there would be little traffic congestion.
“That original traffic study was a joke,’ counters Herb Frank, president of the Belle Isle Residents Association.
“That study really was Mickey Mouse,’ agrees Marilyn Freundlich, a community activist who has been at the forefront of opposing the development. “Our roads just can’t accommodate these destination stores. It seemed like Home Depot itself had done the traffic study. It only calculated the impact at off-hours, during the weekdays, and didn’t include rush hours or weekends. They have made all types of promises, but I don’t trust them.”
Thoughts of dozens of weekly trips by 18- wheel rigs delivering goods to Home Depot scares most residents. “The traffic is the real problem here,” says Mike Hammond, a local real-estate developer. “This is awkward for me, since I’m normally for development. But this is the wrong project for this neighborhood. The Felligs haven’t done the necessary impact studies. They are simply taking pixie dust and hoping they can wave a magic wand over the traffic problems.” Hammond and others who live nearby are also concerned about safety issues from the flood of new traffic and how it might affect the local park, Island View, and the children who play there.
“I fear this will have a ripple effect felt by all residents on so many levels,” says Bianca Oakes, a real-estate professional and local resident opposed to the project. “Our property values will be negatively affected and our quality of life diminished. If we do not protect our community and allow such reckless development to take place in our neighborhoods, this could become the norm for Miami Beach. Its size is the problem. It’s just too big for the Beach.”
“We’re not totally opposed to the Felligs developing their properties,’ says Frank Kruszeski, a member of the Miami Beach Budget Advisory Committee and ex-president of the 1800 Sunset Harbour condominium. “But we want something that is in scale and appropriate for the neighborhood?
Kruszeski believes that when a hurricane approaches the area would be jammed with people from miles around stocking up on goods. Instead, Kruszeski and others have suggested the Felligs construct a mixed-use project of condos, upscale restaurants and possibly even a single big-box retailer like Whole Foods or Barnes & Noble.
‘Why should my clients have to pick tenants that pay less per square foot than the company they want for the property?” Angueira asks. “These people are killing us with their love. We’re getting a little tired of being pushed around by bullies.”
Angueira makes it clear that he considers city officials to be some of the bullies. At a raucous July 25th public hearing, the city requested that the Felligs undertake a new, substantially expanded traffic- impact study. “It would cost us $200,000 and take four to six months to complete,” Angueira says. Instead, he asked for a vote that night, and the commission deadlocked. As a result, it deferred the matter for 90 days.
“We are about reasonable, responsible, intelligent, good public policy,” says Victor Diaz, chairman of the planning board who must first vote on the Felligs’ proposal. “And most important, what we do in managing growth is strongly supported by the citizens of Miami Beach. It is our responsibility to be proactive and not wait until things are built and then are irrevocable.”
“These big-box stores don’t belong in our seaside resort community,” says Saul Gross, a city commissioner who will have to eventually vote on The Home Depot proposal. “They bring too much traffic to our already overcrowded streets. We will have access to these big boxes right across the bay at Midtown, and perhaps the Nereid site. That’s close enough for me. Since I spent my formative urban years in Manhattan, I understand why people might compare Miami Beach to Manhattan. But the delicious thing about living here is that we are not congested like Manhattan, and the scale of everything is so much more accessible. Let’s keep it that way.”
The Felligs will almost certainly go to court if their proposed project is rejected.
“Let’s hope the city, or even the courts, reject this,” ex-commissioner Liebman says. “It would be a disaster for that little neighborhood. And anyway, no one comes to vacation in Miami Beach to see a Home Depot.”