News: Unanimous Decision


Miami Beach’s Historic Preservation Board (HPB) became the latest City entity to advise against the expansion of a synagogue-affiliated school into the historic Palm View residential neighborhood – and the HPB did so with a unanimous vote.

Last week, the HPB issued a collective thumbs-down to a proposal to alter the city’s zoning map to expand limited commercial use to a single family home owned by the Cuban Hebrew Congregation – Beth Shmuel, within the Palm View historic and single family home-zoned neighborhood.

“In a nutshell, it’s a residential neighborhood that has been designated as historic and it is almost completely made up of single family homes,” said HPB Chair Herb Sosa. “Several years ago, when it was designated as historic, the intention was to preserve the integrity of the neighborhood. Encroaching on that neighborhood is not good for the neighborhood or for historical districts; it would only benefit the applicant pursuing their own goals.”

If ever approved by the Miami Beach City Commission, the proposed zoning change would extend a multi-family class of zoning to include a synagogue-owned single family home owned by Beth Shmuel and which has been previously categorized in the single family zoning designation. The zoning change would then permit Beth Shmuel to seek a conditional use permit for expanded use of the property as part of a Montessori School component of the shul. Both sides agree the use is to expand the potential student base of the school.

The contentious plan has both supporters and opponents, with a group of residents retaining Miami Beach attorney Kent Harrison Robbins to attempt to scuttle the re-zoning attempt, which has been ongoing for three years.

Such zoning shifts are not common in Miami Beach, a city that years ago put in place measures to protect the integrity of single family neighborhoods; and which ostensibly takes historic preservation seriously.

“It’s not common to see single family rezoned to multi-family,” Acting Planning Director Thomas Mooney told SunPost last month.

Among the arguments critics put forward at a Planning Board meeting at which the item was discussed, was the possibility of such zoning changes being cited as precedent for additional encroachment into residential neighborhoods. At the time, Mooney agreed that was a risk.

“Any time you change the boundaries of the zoning map, which is what the request before us is, there is always potential to set precedent that others might latch onto for their purposes,” Mooney said. “That’s always a concern.”

Sosa said he believes the neighborhood faces numerous threats. “That neighborhood is being attacked by all angles,” he said. “We want the city to have development but not at the expense of historic single family neighborhoods.”

Beth Shmuel President Becky Cohen has told SunPost that use of the home is essential to the school’s growth and its commitment to serving the entire community. She furthermore has said that the proposed zoning change would not result in any exterior changes to the home; but rather only interior changes.

Sosa made clear that neither he nor the HPB are opposed to the shul’s desire to expand capacity and serve the community. “We respect their right to do that, but I think they have plenty of other opportunities to expand the school,” he said. “They want to use the single family home for additional classrooms, but that’s not something to do.

“We want to stress that we are in support of the school and the temple and we want to see them grow and flourish, but not at the expense of a historic,” Sosa continued. “They haven’t been the best of neighbors, according to testimony. Hopefully, they will work together with the community. They can find solutions on their campus. It’s a massive building. It’s not our job to tell them how to do that, but they might want to ask if they are using the space as best they can.”

Sosa said that the HPB even floated the idea of selling the residential property, which is quite valuable, and then to upgrade existing facilities.

Miami Beach’s HPB is just the latest City entity with a negative recommendation in regard to the proposed zoning change. A February 25th staff report from Mooney to the Planning Board was hardly an endorsement for the proposed extension of the multi-family zoning designation into the currently single family home zoned neighborhood.

The report stated that of 13 review criteria considerations, the proposal was not consistent in nine, partially consistent in three and consistent in just one category – that the proposed change would not substantially reduce light and air to the area. Otherwise, the report was not generally supportive of the change.

Of the criteria the proposal didn’t meet in the staff report, the most impactful might well be the first – whether or not the proposed change was consistent and compatible with the comprehensive plan and with and any applicable neighborhood or redevelopment plans.

In response, Mooney asserted the proposal not consistent. “The proposed future land use map change and zoning map change would only be consistent if the proposed amendment of the Comprehensive Plan is approved,” according to Mooney. “Additionally, the property is located within the Palm View Local Historic District, which was established in 1999, with the purpose of protecting and preserving the district’s stock of ‘contributing’ buildings, which includes the subject property, while also allowing for appropriate infill development to occur. Additionally, the proposed re-zoning would modify the symmetrical boundaries of the RS zoned lots.”

However, ultimately the fate of the proposed change will rest in the hands of the city commission. It’s possible there is support at that level, since the City of Miami Beach was the official “applicant” for the change – a measure Mooney says most commonly follows an entity or party gauging commission support.

But to date, City support does not appear strong.

“Really, the next step is up to the administration,” Sosa said.

HPB member Dominique Bailleul told SunPost she did not want to issue additional comment, since the Planning Board is set to hear the item on March 25.

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