Commentary: Miami Beach Historic homes

An Email From the Miami Design Preservation League

Back on November 9, 2012, a group of volunteers from Miami Design Preservation League met with members of the staff of the Miami Beach City Planning Department to discuss the alarming increase in the demolition of historic homes in the city.

Clearly something was up.

In past years, one or two older homes had been demolished per a year and usually none of great merit. By November of 2012, the city was granting two or three demolition requests for architecturally significant homes per month. This developing trend was shocking. The character of Miami Beach’s residential neighborhoods was eroding by the week.

Representatives of MDPL and the city agreed to try to formulate changes to the city’s laws to protect homes that are important to the rich architectural heritage of Miami Beach and its special character.

As we discussed the issue with community leaders, MDPL was warned that changes to the current law would be no easy task.

We were told that powerful contractors and real estate speculators – along with their politically connected lawyers and lobbyist – would make every effort to prevent changes to the current law. Nevertheless, we were greatly encouraged by the steady stream of calls and emails from residents pleading with us to “please do something to stop these people from ruining our neighborhoods.”

Egregious Example: 42 Star Island Drive

In December, a plan was presented to the city to demolish one of Miami Beach’s most important and historic homes, the house at 42 Star Island Drive. Designed by celebrated architect Walter DeGarmo, the house was built in 1925 for insurance executive J.W. Popham and located on one of the most visible lots in Miami Beach. Sitting across from the MacArthur Causeway on Biscayne Bay, millions of motorists and boaters have traveled past this waterfront home for 88 years.

Daniel Ciraldo grew up on Miami Beach – on the Sunset and Venetian Islands. He too was alarmed by the rapidly changing neighborhoods of his hometown. Without any connection to a preservation group or experience with local government, Daniel started investigating the demolition trend he and his neighbors were noticing. The proposal to demolish the DeGarmo mansion at 42 Star Island Drive stood out to him as an egregious example of the demolition trend.

Daniel began an on-line petition on Change.org and contacted MDPL for support in his efforts to save the house.

An Unusual Step

Given the importance of the DeGarmo mansion, MDPL’s executive committee decided to take the unusual step of applying to the city to designate the 42 Star Island Drive property as a historic site. The law allowing for individual site designation has been on the books for over 25 years and has been used sparingly. There being no other mechanism to save such a historic home threatened by the wrecking ball, MDPL decided the application was the only hope to save the DeGarmo mansion.

At this point, the application has cleared two important hurdles of the city’s Historic Preservation Board by unanimous votes.

In the meantime, the demolition request by the owners of the property has been traveling on a separate track at the Design Review Board. That board is powerless to stop a demolition request if a design for the replacement structure meets the board’s design standards.

Judging from the comments at their meeting, the DRB members were very unhappy with the pace of and extent of the demolition of historic homes. With clear reluctance, the DRB approved a new plan from the owner of 42 Star Island Drive and the historic house’s demolition was approved in March.

As of this writing, the structurally sound DeGarmo Mansion has not yet been torn down – although there is great concern that it is being allowed to deteriorate. Rest assured, MDPL will continue to do its best to preserve the house. Attorney Kent Harrison Robbins has agreed to represent MDPL and is pursuing all available remedies.

This fight is not over.

The Big Picture: Long-Term Solutions

In the meantime, MDPL has been working to prevent further destruction of other architecturally significant historic homes. At the urging of residents and MDPL, members of the City Commission have directed the city’s Planning Department staff to draft a proposed ordinance to address the historic homes demolition epidemic.

The city’s staff has now released its suggested ordinance and it should be discussed at the Commission’s Land Use and Development Committee next month.

Many parts of the proposed ordinance may be helpful in mitigating the permanent alteration of our residential neighborhoods.

Offering incentives to save the original structure is a positive step that we strongly support. The proposed incentives include increased unit size and height when a historic structure is retained. Also suggested is the elimination of minimum courtyard requirements and certain fees. These are sensible measures to help save historic homes and MDPL urges the City Commission to adopt them.

We also support the proposal to limit the percentage of lot coverage by new structures that replace the old – although the staff’s suggested percentages are still too high to contain the construction over-sized McMansions that will dominate neighborhoods.

The Coral Gables Model

Unfortunately, the proposed ordinance falls short of the model process that Coral Gables has so successfully implemented.

There, the city’s historic preservation board reviews requests to demolish older houses – usually within a week of the request. Obviously, not all homes are worthy of saving simply because they are old and demolition requests are routinely granted. Alterations and additions to existing structures are also regularly approved.

Coral Gables, Palm Beach and several other Florida communities have found that their strong requirements to preserve historic homes have added tremendous value to their city’s properties and tax base. These cities stand out as special places and the market recognizes that.

Miami Beach enjoys a similar reputation as a top-tier community that cares about design and scale. Sadly, that advantage will be lost if this demolition epidemic continues. It is imperative that the Coral Gables model ordinance be adopted.

MDPL members should urge the Miami Beach City Commission to adopt the Coral Gables historic homes ordinance.

We will keep our membership abreast of the progress of the proposed ordinance in further updates. As always, MDPL appreciates the support of its membership as we continue to work to help improve Miami Beach and preserve the special character of its neighborhoods.

For more information on the Miami Design Preservation League go to their website here.

Speak Your Mind