Sacred Ground

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DEVELOPMENT ON CHURCH PROPERTY OUTRAGES MANY CONGREGANTS, RESIDENTS.

Word that the Miami Beach Community Church on Lincoln Road, quickly and quietly, is entering into plans with a developer to lease an open courtyard space to craft a commercial building already agitated hundreds of congregants, activists, preservationists and rank and file citizens around Miami Beach.

However, when the Miami Beach City Commission unanimously voted to reverse the position they had taken just days earlier to send the item back to the Historic Preservation Board (HPB), which all but cemented City acquiescence to the development, critics and numerous congregants stepped up their criticism and are making issues of numerous aspects of the plans, the church, its finances, leadership, tactics and other points of contention.

Commissioner Joy Malakoff, who had previously requested the item be heard again by Miami Beach’s HPB, rescinded her request and her colleagues supported her. (Officially, the city commission would instruct the city manager to direct the re-hearing.)

“The church consists of truly historic buildings, important to Miami Beach, and they are part of the local historic district,” Malakoff told SunPost. “I asked for the re-hearing because I didn’t think the [HPB] considered enough the physical preservation of the buildings.”

Malakoff said that subsequent to her initial request, she met with the development team, advocates, city staff and other experts affiliated either with the city, church or developer, and that they agreed to – at their expense – address both that issue and other points of concern she had.

“The developers, South Beach Tristar, LLC and the Miami Beach Community Church made a voluntary proffer to meet these concerns,” Malakoff wrote in an email to SunPost. “These are now conditions of the building permit to be imposed by the Planning Department for the new construction on the church property.

“The main point is that the developer will use augur piles, a seismic meter to monitor vibrations, submit a structural report on the Sanctuary, which will be reviewed by the City’s Building Department, and if needed, the developer agreed to shore and stabilize the historic sanctuary from the beginning of construction until CO,” Malakoff continued in her email. “In addition, the developer will modify the second floor to the immediate east of the sanctuary by approximately one window bay, creating a greater visual space between the two buildings. And once the HPB order becomes final and non appealable, and escrow prepaid base rent under the ground lease with South Beach Tristar, LLC is released to Miami Beach Community Church, the Church shall immediately set aside $2.5 million in an escrow account to be used exclusively for the structural protection, repair and restoration of the historic sanctuary.  The escrow agreement will be negotiated and executed between the City and the church, and will include audit, reporting and/or monitoring reports to ensure the funds are used for restoration and repair. This agreement will be completed prior to the issuance of any certificate of occupancy for the new construction. The developer will pay the ground lease rent to the Community Church for 49 years, with 1/3 of the funds segregated and used for restoration, repair and renovation of the entire church complex including the Russell Pancoast building.”

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 4.47.44 PMMalakoff said that with those concerns addressed, she was comfortable rescinding her request.

However, even preservationists who praise Malakoff for her efforts and concerns for the integrity of the church structures believe the changes proffered were not necessarily significant.

“The design changes are so minor that they do not even require HPB approval,” said Daniel Ciraldo, director of Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL), the estimable preservation organization linked to countless efforts to preserve local historic architecture. “I credit Joy for getting proper updates in terms of the historic preservation [of the church structures], but this isn’t enough.”

In fact, Ciraldo said that Malakoff asked MDPL to put together new or overlooked data following her initial request for a re-hearing at the HPB and that could potentially influence the outcome of HPB deliberations. Additional/overlooked data is also required for another avenue currently being explored by MDPL.

“Certain groups have standing to request a re-hearing, including Dade Heritage Trust, MDPL and a neighbor,” Ciraldo said.

Three criteria are necessary for those entities to act. A neighbor could employ the Bert Harris Act and cite that the proposed development adversely affected his own property’s value.

For MDPL, the applicable criteria are the presentation of new evidence or erroneous evidence, according to Ciraldo.

Ciraldo and MDPL compiled a document citing new evidence – in this case, data missing from the City of Miami Beach staff report presented to the HPB in order for the Board to deliberate on an item. Ciraldo said that MDPL must make its official request by Thursday, June 7.

Ciraldo explained that the staff report submitted to the HPB was formatted differently than staff reports used to be under previous administrations.

“Staff reports used to include each criteria that the HPS is to consider, but a few months ago, staff reports changed and only include criteria that the staff indicates was not met,” he said. Criteria determined to be met are not defined, just cited as being met with no definition or explanation.

“With a relatively new administration and with HPB having two relatively new members, the situation is that not all information needed to make decisions is presented to them,” Ciraldo said. “The staff needs to include all criteria for the public to review as well.”

Ciraldo acknowledged that the change in staff reports is “in the interest of efficiency,” but added, “This (complete data) is really important for the [HPB, Commission and the public] to have access to.”

Acting Planning Director Tom Mooney confirmed that the change in approach to staff report structure is a matter of efficiency.

“We had included all criteria in previous staff reports and we would list each criteria and mark it as being satisfied, not satisfied or not applicable,” Mooney said.

Now only items that aren’t satisfied are included. Mooney said drawings and renderings provided the information not included on the “satisfied” list relative to the church site development.

“We did this for brevity’s sake the past few months, but substantially the reports are the same,” Mooney said.

Mooney added that he has not had a chance at the new/overlooked data as of SunPost press time.

P7y9zDaEven with the city’s vaunted MDPL making the request, there are roadblocks. If the City observes the organization’s standing and determines that there is new information to be considered, it would eventually require a 5/7 vote of the HPB to decide to re-hear the item and a second supermajority vote of 5/7 to reverse the decision.

HPB Chair Herb Sosa said he believes that all criteria for the proposed development were met. Sosa attends the church but told SunPost that he is neither a member nor does he sit on the board. He added that if new information is presented, he believes the HPB would listen.

“We are the HPB,” he said. “Everyone who sits on the Board is a die-hard preservationist,” Sosa said. “If it comes up on the agenda and staff presents to us to reconsider, we absolutely would, just as we would for any application.”

Sosa said he feels for both sides of the issue. “No matter what ultimately happens, there will be people unhappy.”

Interestingly, Sosa floated the idea that one other potential option to spare the last green space on Lincoln Road would be for the City to purchase the property.

Several congregants questioned whether Sosa should recuse himself from any vote related to the church because he attends services there. One congregant even claimed that Sosa is close to relatively new Rev. Harold Thompson.

“I attend MBCC regularly, and have for some time now,” Sosa said. “As of today, I am not a recorded member of the church, on any committees or board of directors – simply attend services there.

“The first thing I did in advance of our last HPB meeting, and at the beginning of (on the record/video), was go on the record with our city attorney, Gary Held, as to whether I have a conflict. He stated the opinion that I do not have a conflict and could proceed with my duties as the HPB chair. If it comes back to us, I will once again ask the question on the record for all to hear.

“Do I have a friendship with the Rev.?” Sosa finished. “Well, yes, the expected relationship/friendship any congregant can/should have with his pastor. I have also met with the whole development/design team (including the Rev., Michael Larkin, their attorney, etc) onsite to review the plans. So have (I believe) almost every other H.P. Board member.”

Issue and Purpose?

If there is one thing that supporters and critics of the proposed construction of a commercial development on the front lawn of a property dating back to – and with distinct historic connection to – Miami Beach’s founder, it is that the alleged purpose is to reinvigorate the church financially at a time when it is allegedly facing financial difficulty.

The issue of wanting to preserve the historic church is also not a point of contention. No one has spoken out in favor of the church becoming a vacant building on a road with too many vacant, and overpriced according to multiple sources, commercial spaces. From the MBCC to preservationists, historians and good government opponents of the plan, no one wants to see the church devastated.

Mayor Philip Levine is among the multitudes that are supportive of the church’s continuity.

“The Miami Beach Community Church has been a mainstay in our community for decades and has partnered with organizations throughout the years to host [more than] 60 HIV testing days in partnership with Care Resources and SOBE AIDS Project, has served over 28,000 meals to the hungry, hosts community groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and has participated in every Miami Beach Gay Pride celebration,” Levine said. “The Community Church is a model community partner and in order to provide these services, the church must be financially for generations to come.”

 The mayor’s sentiment was echoed by both sides of the issue – perhaps ironically even by critics of development.

The issue, for the uninitiated, is the planned development on current open space at the MBCC property on Lincoln and Drexel, officially addressed as 1620 Drexel Ave.

Its history, according to the church’s own website is significant, to say the least:

“The Congregational denomination was responsible for the formation of the Miami Beach Community Church in 1920,” according to the website. “The original name was ‘Miami Beach Congregational Church’; however, to make people from all denominations feel welcome, the name was changed within the first year to ‘Miami Beach Community Church.’ No other denominations had any churches in Miami Beach at the time. Miami Beach developer Carl G. Fisher contributed the land for the church, at the encouragement of his wife, Jane. In 1957, the Congregational denomination became ‘The United Church of Christ.’ The Sanctuary was ready for occupancy on the second Sunday in January of 1921. The church organized with 27 charter members on February 7, 1921, and the building was dedicated on Palm Sunday, March 20, 1921.”

MBCC has been at the center of spiritual and civic life in Miami Beach ever since. Most notably, under a previous spiritual leader, the congregation was a champion for diversity, gay rights and progressive values.

Until 1951, Miami Beach respected its founder’s wishes for the space to be preserved. Then, long before current historic preservation laws and the influence of preservation champions such as MDPL, courts ruled the property could be further developer.

Unfortunately, like most other religious institutions in Western Civilization in recent years, it has struggled to attract a strong congregation, or a wealthy one required by many institutions to support and endow them.

In order to keep the church viable, its leadership decided recently to enter into negotiations for what is at least rumored to be worth some $100 million for commercial development on the small open space serving as the church lawn and having served as a congregational and community meeting space for decades (see diagrams. Note: diagrams might not reflect minor changes agreed to by the developer most recently).

Asserted by church leadership, according to presentations to the HPB and city commission, the church is in dire financial condition; and a few shops on two floors cloaking the church property, all but eliminating an east-west view corridor (according to multiple preservationists) as well as eliminating the last open green space on Lincoln Road is the only solution to said dire financials.

Financial Questions, And Others

If there is a problem with the vision of another Starbucks or Gap or other commercial operation – or scores of them – on the lawn of the MBCC, it is that demonstrating actual financial need with a full explanation and evidence is neither on the record anywhere accessible, nor has it been presented to any city entity with explanations.

“I haven’t seen any financials,” said congregant and HPB Chair Sosa. “I am not a member; I am not on the Board of Directors and the books are not under our purview. I knew from what I heard in the community and read in the Miami Herald that they were having financial difficulties.”

One congregant, who did not wish to be identified for fear of persecution from the church’s pulpit and lay leadership, said, “The budget went from $6,000 a week to $9,000 a week. Only board members have any access to what the church budget actually is.”

Those statements echoed two concerns expressed by numerous other congregants. One is that the church’s financials seem to be… rather secretive.

“It used to be that the finances were open to the congregation and not just the board,” said Stephen Sauls, a congregant from the early 1990s until around 2005, former board member and who is honored on a placque on-site for his support of the church’s 75th anniversary.

It is unclear is that placque will be visible when the commercial property is constructed.

“Supposedly,” Sauls continued, “there was some bad financial management. I wonder if the prime purpose of the church isn’t what is being mismanaged.”

Sauls made it clear he did not want to be harsh. His tone, rather, is sincere hope.

“It just seems that in Miami Beach history, you can pretty much buy what you want,” he said. “Ten years ago, we weren’t talking anticipating any ultimate demise. If membership and support is down, what is the reason for this?”

Several congregants provided emails to SunPost in which their requests for access to the “community” church’s books were stalled, limited for view to the entire congregation at once over one or two meetings and otherwise restricted. The question of whether members can have hard copy or digital copies of the church’s recent budgets and expenditure projections remain – like many questions – unanswered as of print time.

However, SunPost was able to acquire MBCC’s 2013 budget, its 2014 budget and working notes on the current budget. The authenticity of the documents was not challenged when SunPost later questioned the church’s appointed representative on specifics.

In brief, the documents reveal a church that, were it a business, had a healthy 2013, has increased its 2014 budget exponentially in terms of new staff, high salaries, long-term infrastructure development, additional staff benefits. Furthermore, the documents revealed a massive drop-off in revenue from leasing space in the church’s existing structures and a hand-deleted reference to revenue from what appears to be a development group.

Additionally, SunPost provided the same budget documents to Miami Beach Commissioner Deede Weithorn, a CPA and audit expert for review, and Weithorn responded with her observations.

On paper, Weithorn said there were obvious problems with the church.

“Essentially, it looks to me like last year, they were running on barebones,” Weithorn said. “There’s is not a healthy balance sheet for a church.”

But certain items within the church’s financials were also curious to the veteran commissioner and budget hawk: the massive drop from 2013 to 2014 in usage fees; a sales tax payable line item of more than $32,000 for a tax-exempt entity; the increase in budget for new employees not historically part of the budget; and the hand-deleted line item income from an entity identified as “Urban Development Group.” No explanation was offered in subsequent follow-up questions addressed to the church from SunPost.

Importantly, Weithorn said she didn’t see anything “crazy” – only “curious” on the church’s financials; and she said she saw nothing to negate the claim by the church leadership that it was experiencing financial hard times.

Dubious Process

Several people who attend or are members of the MBCC spoke to SunPost and expressed considerable concern about both the alleged financials and the process by which the development project was “railroaded” through the congregation.

Among the complaints repeated by more than one congregant: any criticism of the planned project or alternate solutions proffered were dismissed and often brought on criticism, including from the pulpit; members were presented with scant details on the project before being instructed to vote on it; opponents were singled out for criticism and represented as being “evil” or even “racist”; and that the process of presenting the proposal to congregants resembled a maneuver in South Korea.

“When there was a meeting for the developer [and representatives] to present the project, they had ‘minders,’ like something in North Korea,” said James Yonan, who joined the congregation in 2008 and supported the project initially. “They brought you in five or six at a time to show you some drawings or something, while someone stood next to you, ‘minding’ you.”

Yonan said that if this was the only solution to the church’s problems, then he would still support the project. But other alternatives weren’t permitted to be discussed, no bidding was made, nor did congregants have adequate time to evaluate the potential development.

Arguably most important, besides multiple accusations of harassment from even clergy at the church, MBCC doesn’t appear to want to answer any questions about its profit plans.

This week, SunPost contacted MBCC and was instructed to leave a message for Rev. Harold Thompson about media coverage of the project. An outside publicist/communications professional returned the call to SunPost and volunteered to be a conduit for questions directed at development and at budget issues. SunPost subsequently provided a question list that included the following, verbatim with only grammatical changes:

“1. What is your response to the unhappiness over this project from members of the congregation? I currently have some 200 complainants to the project overall who are members and former members of the congregation?

2. I currently have multiple sources who attest to the same incidents in which congregants critical of the development have been intimidated and/or insulted from the pulpit. What is the reaction to that?

3. I have multiple sources on the record who claim that congregants were taken into a room with the developer and their lobbyists in small groups of five or six, to be pitched the project, while under the supervision of “watchers,” with two referencing “North Korean” tactics.

4. What other options were explored before this development plan? Congregants have told me that anyone who offered other options were demeaned and dismissed.

5. Several congregants are on the record saying they are afraid to speak up because they have been intimidated and feel they will be “ex-communicated” or humiliated — from the pulpit.

6. Why was it necessary to give congregants only days to consider this issue and votes?

7. How many, if any, proxy votes were sent to the Church and its board with no vote made, leaving the decision and (presumably) to be filled out by others?

8. Is the Church’s official position that opponents of this development are “racists” because the Church provides services to the homeless; and is it racist to assert that homeless programs intrinsically affect only people of color?

Financial questions:

1. Did the Church or affiliate receive payment from the developer or developer rep just for entering into negotiations? What is the justification, where is the money and what is it slated for use for?

2. Why did the Church feel it necessary to significantly increase its budget from 2013 to 2014?

3. Was the Church approached with other options, such as purchase by the Catholic Church (entity)?

4. Congregants complain that the Church finances have been less than available on request, despite this being a community church and have provided emails where roadblocks are presented. Why?

5. Why did the income from Church usage fees drop so dramatically from ’13 to proposed ’14?

6. What is the explanation for the 32k in “sales tax payable” according to Church documents? Is the Church concerned that this might cast a shadow on its non-profit tax designation?

7. Who or what is Urban Development Group and why did it initially show as providing considerable income to the Church, only to be handwritten out on the working document?”

While SunPost’s deadline was tight, MBCC’s communications representative supplied responses well ahead of the noted deadline. While not a single question was answered or addressed, a pleasant press release was MBCC’s official response to said questions.

The response, in its entirety follows:

“Established in 1921 as our City’s first church, the Miami Beach Community Church is an enduring physical and spiritual presence on Lincoln Road. For 93 years, our privately-run Church has seen its share of boom and bust, and has adapted and persevered

despite major changes to Miami Beach’s demographic, physical and spiritual landscape.

Today, our Church’s sustainability is threatened like never before. While its milestones

and legacies are numerous, over the last four decades we have experienced a slow

decline in membership, donations, and financial resources while operating and

maintenance costs have risen. As a result, our very survival is at risk.

Currently, the Church is running at an operating deficit that will allow it to survive no

longer than three years, at which point we could be forced to sell our entire campus and

close altogether.

At this time of great need, a solution has been identified by the Church’s congregational

board that will enable us to keep our land, restore our historic sanctuary and other

campus buildings, and preserve our ability to serve and support the community for

decades to come.

Through an innovative public/private partnership, the Church will not sell, but lease our

private lawn space in the northeast corner of the property for the development of a

responsibly designed two-story commercial building with a rooftop garden that will

preserve green space and remain accessible to the congregation and general public.

The building structure has also been designed well under permissible height and

density limits to appropriately align with and respect the sightlines to the iconic Church

sanctuary building.

Using our congregational model, a lengthy process of research, review, and discussion

of viable solutions was undertaken, with our board ultimately recommending this plan to

our congregation. Their support was overwhelming, with a remarkable consensus of

almost 90% of voters approving the plan on December 22, 2013. The Miami Beach

Historic Preservation Board (HPB) has also enthusiastically supported the plan, voting

unanimously 7-0 on May 13, 2014 to approve it.

While we acknowledge that not everyone agrees with this innovative approach, we have

worked tirelessly to keep our congregation informed and provided every member an

equal voice in the process. And while we are a privately run enterprise, we maintain

complete financial transparency with members of the congregation by reporting our financial status every Sunday. Detailed reporting is available to the congregation upon

request and at scheduled board meetings.

We have also taken great care to make sure the proposed structure fully complies with

the criteria set forth by the Miami Beach Historical Preservation Board, which is based

on the design intent and features of the proposed structure. The thoroughness and

thoughtfulness utilized by the professional team of designers working on this project to

plan a structure that respects the history of our property while appropriately fitting in and

preserving its green space is a model of responsible development.

We are confident that once this project is fully executed, it will provide financial stability

for church operations, make available desperately needed revenue to restore

and maintain our historic campus, and generate funds to expand our mission and

ministry in Miami Beach. In fact, considerable financial resources will be dedicated to

the historic preservation of our campus.

Ultimately, this project will preserve our Church as both an iconic physical structure and

a living congregation for the Miami Beach community.”

No other explanation for why SunPost’s questions went unaddressed was offered.

Commissioner Weithorn, informed just prior via email that MBCC hadn’t specifically responded to the questions previously discussed with SunPost was not impressed from the church’s mildly adapted website copy submitted to the press.

“If they won’t answer questions I have serious concerns,” Weithorn wrote SunPost in an email at press time. “That item is unusual and does require an explanation. I think we should demand it even threatening to ask HPB to reconsider until they explain.”

Weithorn could not be reached before press time to delineate which item she specifically was referencing or any other response to the response from MBCC.

About Michael W Sasser

Comments

  1. 1330West says:

    Dear Sun Post, It’s very unfortunate that you are so misinformed on the facts. First there are not 200 members or former members who are opposed to this project. MBCC currently doesn’t even have 200 members so where did that number really come from? Secondly as a long time member of MBCC the financials of the church have always been made avaialable to any member who was interested enough to come to the Annual General Meetings held each year when the church finances are discussed and a budget voted on by the members of the church who are present. Also regarding the finances relating to this project their have been numerous meetings where the finances have been explained so if someone who is a member of the church is telling you that the finances of this project have not been explained then maybe they don’t remember because they chose not to attend any of the meetings. While there are many mistatements in your article the one other one that i will comment on is the accusation of people being bullied from the pulpit. I attend the Church services almost every Sunday and the statement that there was bullying from the pulpit is an outright untruth (lie) and if someone really made that accusation then shame on them.

  2. Victor Gimenez says:

    This comment is to address certian items from this article. In the case of cfull disclosure my name is Victor Gimenez, I am a member of Miami Beach Community Church (MBCC), was present at the Congregation reviews and votes for the development project, and voted “Yes”.

    1. “Only board members have any access to what the church budget actually is.” I have attended every General Annual Meeting (AGM) since 2006. At every AGM a budget was presented for review and approval, and that budget was given to the congregants to take with them. Also, the proposed budget was made available for advance review at the Church office a minimum of two weeks before the AGM. In advance of the last AGM from January 2014, not only was a copy available for review at the Church office, there was also an addiitonal meeting before the AGM to present the proposed budget for discusion and comments.

    2. “It used to be that the finances were open to the congregation and not just the board.” – same response as above.

    3. “the documents reveal a church that, were it a business, had a healthy 2013,” – This is not correct. A healthy instution would not have to use endowment principal to maintian operations, which the Church was required to do in 2013 as the budget you have a copy of shows.

    4. “opponents were singled out for criticism and represented as being ‘evil’ or even ‘racist’” – I was present at the Congregational vote meeting, as well as all informational meetings, and at no time was anyone represented as “evil” or “racist.” Words such as “evil” and “racist” are slanderous and when used in this context should be identified from a source and not thrown-out unsubstaniated.

    In general, it is important to remember that the Church and its property are private. The “last green space on Lincoln Road” is not on Lincoln Road but on private property abuditting Lincoln Road.

    The main purpose of the development project is to allow the Church to become financial stable in order remain open, restore/maintain the existing Church structures, and expand its ministries (inclussive its Homeless Outreach programs).

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