By Eric Kallis
January 09, 2009
A father-and-son development team from Brooklyn, N.Y., is moving forward with plans to transform East Little Havana with a mixed-use project designed to capture the flavor of Cuba’s capital.
Abe Podolsky and son David are a procedural step away from getting approval to build La Quinta & La Ocho, a “New Urbanism” development planned for 2.3 acres at 504 SW Eighth St. The project will pair 229 rental apartments and about 22,000 square feet of retail space.
Miami city commissioners are expected to vote this month on the second reading of a land-use change and a major-use special permit to allow the project to proceed as planned. The agendas for this month’s two City Commission meetings were not set as of Thursday.
The commission unanimously approved the first reading of the land-use change last month. The property, which the Podolskys bought for $32 million in November 2005, was originally zoned for medium multifamily use, which only allows the development of 65 units per acre. A change to restricted commercial increases the maximum number of units per acre to 150.
Even with the necessary permits in place, the developers are not likely to start construction until the economic and real estate downturn wanes, said Abe Podolsky, principal of Brickell Square LLC.
The Podolskys received the initial support of the commission even though the city’s Planning Advisory Board last summer voted 7-2 not to approve the land-use change. But the six of the board’s nine members voted to support the major-use special permit application for the project as long as specific language is written into the plans to prevent commercial intrusion into residential areas.
Planning Advisory Board chairwoman Arva Moore Parks, a Brickell area historian, said she is philosophically opposed to most land-use changes in single-family neighborhoods, which influenced her decision to vote against the developer’s request.
“A problem that has occurred throughout Little Havana is that the owner gets a land-use or zoning change and has no plans to build on the land,” Parks said. “What they are doing is up-zoning the property and waiting for the next boom. The good thing about this project is that the land-use [application] came first before the MUSP.”
Concerns about a land-use domino effect that could come from allowing greater density at the project site likely influenced the board, said land-use attorney Ben Fernandez, a partner at Miami-based Bercow Radell & Fernandez who represents to Podolskys. But the developers expect the commission to accept the major-use special permit request, according to Fernandez, who said the project has been well-received by the neighbors and business owners in the area.
“I think it was difficult for the board because they had to consider the land-use change before the major-use special permit,” he said. “They fear that if the project does not get built, [the land-use change] could open a Pandora’s box of all permitted uses under the designation. But I think if they see what’s being proposed in the MUSP [application] they would support it.”
Helping ease the concerns of nearby property owners was the project’s design by architectural firm Chael Cooper & Associates, an affiliate of Dover Kohl & Partners, Podolsky said.
The white, 14-story building with thin support columns and balconies has architectural elements similar to Havana churches or the city’s National Capitol building.
“We had tremendous feedback from the local community groups and some of the business leaders,” he said. “When they saw that what we envisioned was not a monolithic glass Brickell-type structure and is more in line with Little Havana they were very excited.”
The Podolskys envision the development, their first in South Florida, as becoming a much-needed pedestrian-friendly bridge linking East Little Havana to the Brickell Avenue district, Podolsky said. They are targeting middle-income renters — households earning $50,000 to $60,000 year — for the residential component.
“You will think that we took a building out of Cuba and transplanted it,” he said. “I always felt a warm and inviting feeling from the cultural heritage of Calle Ocho, and we’d love to be a part of this. We are not looking for the Trump clients of the world; we are striving for that middle-income Latino family that might work at Brickell or want to be near” I-95.
The project’s location and the presence of several restaurants and retail space in the area makes the goal of a walkable alternative to downtown Miami realistic, said Pablo Canton, of the city’s Little Havana Neighborhood Enhancement Team.
“The location could not be any better in Little Havana,” said Canton, who has been administrator of the enhancement team for 17 years.
“The transportation is excellent, and it is very close to everything. People who walk around there will find one of the best Mexican restaurants in the city, Chinese food, a bakery and pharmacy. Little by little we are seeing development spread from downtown into Little Havana.”
Reasonable rental rates should make the project more appealing to potential lenders, Podolsky said.
“As soon as banks get their feet planted and start lending money again, what better project [to lend to first] than this?” he said. “We will put the rental rates out at a number well below anything comparable in the market.
Podolsky said he is unsure how much the project is going to cost and declined to provide any estimates.
He is already looking for potential ground-floor retail tenants, which could include a bank, drug store or satellite office for a medical clinic.
Having the existing rental apartments and grocery operating on the site during the two years of permitting has lessened the urgency for the Podolskys to have to build right away, Podolsky said. He is in discussions with the owners of the grocery about possibly remaining on the site once the project is complete.
Including the food store in the ground-floor plans would be the best way to serve the community, Canton said.
“We need some kind of supermarket in that area,” he said.
The Podolskys also own vacant land on Biscayne Boulevard between Northeast 113th and 116th Streets near Miami Shores. The property could be the site of their second mixed-use project, but the market will “give us the answer” on whether it will be developed, Podolsky said.
“Biscayne Boulevard is a home run of an address,” Podolsky said. “We are in this market for the long run.”
The South Miami City Commission adopted the recomendations of the Green Task Force, a committee of citizens and professionals from various fields charged with making the City of South Miami more 'green'.
La Quinta y Ocho passed first reading in the City Commission on December 18, 2008, and is currently scheduled for the second and final reading on February 18, 2009.
We have an extension from the Villagers until the end of March, and the City of South Miami has sent the project out to bid for the second time.