Helping Clients Navigate Complex Urban Land Use Matters
Lucia A. Dougherty knows how to turn an empty urban lot into a soaring office tower or residential high-rise. As shareholder and co-chair of Greenberg Traurig’s Miami Land Development & Zoning Practice, Dougherty has guided her clients through the approval process for some of South Florida’s biggest real estate developments.
“I really enjoy driving down the street and seeing the buildings that our firm has helped bring into existence,” says Dougherty, who was once called the “Empress of the Skyline” for her contributions to changing South Florida’s landscape. For example, Dougherty and her team have handled the permitting for three leading cultural institutions: the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, now under construction in Museum Park, the neighboring Perez Art Museum Miami, and the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
But Dougherty doesn’t even have to get into her car to see the visible results of her law practice, since her downtown Miami office overlooks Brickell Key, the high-density urban island developed by Hong Kong-based Swire Properties.
This fall, she helped Swire win approval of a city ordinance to develop the last vacant parcel on the island as a residential building with up to 668 units, rather than the prior commercial zoning. While Brickell Key’s residential capacity had been capped at 3,075 units under the city’s development regional impact (DRI) standards, Dougherty noted that the new project’s density would be well below the maximum residential limits for Brickell Avenue and downtown Miami.
“Lucia’s expertise has been very successful and valued over the years regarding Brickell Key legal land use matters,” says Stephen Owens, president of Swire Properties. “She is a delightful and well-regarded professional.”
The Views From City Hall
Dougherty grew up on three continents, as her father was in the ever-changing oil industry. She lived in Venezuela until she was eight, and then moved to New York, Belgium and the UK, where she studied at the American School of London. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University, followed by a master’s degree in library science from the University of Oklahoma.
Dougherty started her career as a librarian, but soon began taking law classes at night. After earning her juris doctor from Oklahoma City University School of Law in 1975 she worked as an assistant city attorney in Oklahoma City, where she handled everything from traffic cases to homeowners who kept illegal chickens in their back yards. She married Michael Allen, a professional tennis player and hang-gliding enthusiast. When her husband was killed in an accident, Dougherty moved to South Florida to be closer to her parents, who had retired to Lighthouse Point in Broward.
After settling into Miami, Dougherty enrolled at the University of Miami School of Law, earning an LLM in ocean and coastal law. Her goal was a position with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). When that didn’t materialize, she shifted gears and moved into municipal law in the Miami Beach city attorney’s office, where she began her career as a South Florida land use attorney.
In the next few years, Dougherty honed her credentials in municipal law. Her office moved back and forth across causeways over Biscayne Bay, as she served as Miami Beach assistant city attorney, Miami assistant city attorney, Miami Beach city attorney and Miami city attorney, a post she held from 1984 to 1988. “Lucia was the perfect city attorney knowledgeable, resourceful, compatible and with street smarts,” says former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré. “She was a major player in moving the City of Miami ahead.”
Making Her Mark on the City
Twenty-seven years ago, veteran attorneys Mel Greenberg and Bob Traurig convinced Dougherty to leave the public sector and join their firm. “I remember having breakfast with Mel, and telling him I wasn’t sure if I could go out and get clients,” she recalls. “Mel told me all I needed to do was make clients feel like I was the most-sought-after attorney in town, but they were the most important client…. Then he gave me a big smile.”
Back in the late 1980s, real estate development was a male-dominated profession, but it didn’t take Dougherty long to demonstrate her abilities and go to work on major projects. “I was ready for a new challenge, and found I really enjoyed building our land use and zoning practice,” she says. “I am proud of the work our team has done in being highly responsive to the needs of our clients – and it’s still fun for me.”
Through the years, Dougherty has helped clients navigate the challenging – and often changing – land use, zoning and entitlement issues in South Florida. “There always seem to be more regulations for developers,” she says. “However, when the economy hits a bump in the road, cities are ready to roll out the red carpet for new projects. Then, when thing get better, they roll up that carpet again.”
Dougherty enjoys finding creative solutions that allow proposed projects to move forward in keeping with the surrounding community. After the City of Miami approved the transfer of development rights (TDRs) for historic buildings, Dougherty represented investor Avra Jain, whose Vagabond Group was purchasing Miami Modern (MiMo) hotels on Biscayne Boulevard. “We were the first law firm to determine the eligibility and sale of unused development rights for historic properties,” she says. “We were able to help Avra finance several buildings on Biscayne Boulevard by selling these TDRs.”
Dougherty also represents clients seeking Certificates of Appropriateness for the development of historic properties or development within historic districts, and handles real property tax appeals, procurement matters and bid protests, special area plans, and other government-related approvals. Because each municipality has a different zoning code, she typically limits her land use practice to projects in Miami, Coral Gables and Miami Beach.
A Changing Market Cycle
Back in 1988, one of Dougherty’s first clients at Greenberg Traurig was the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, and she is still the organization’s legal counsel. “The visitor industry is one of the biggest engines in the South Florida economy,” she says. “Visitors from around the world come here for business and pleasure. They buy homes, purchase businesses and invest in properties, as well as contribute to our retail and service industries.”
In the past few years, Dougherty has seen an upsurge in interest from visitors and potential investors from Asia. She is currently helping a group of Chinese investors move ahead with development plans for two major properties.
On the personal side, Dougherty enjoys traveling with her fiancé Burgess Chambers to relaxing, non-urban destinations around the world. “Our hobby is fly fishing, and we’ve gone to Argentina, Chile, Ireland and Wyoming, as well as places closer to home,” she says.
As for the South Florida market outlook, Dougherty says urban residential development has already hit a high mark, and the pace may slow in 2016/17. “But some farsighted owners are already preparing for the next market cycle,” she adds. “It can take years to get the right entitlements, so it’s a real benefit to have the resources that allow you to plan for the long term.”
South Florida Legal Guide 2016 Edition