Second Look?

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HPB MAY HEAR LINCOLN ROAD DEVELOPMENT ITEM AGAIN.

Miami Beach’s Historic Preservation Board (HPB) might have the opportunity to vote on August 12 to reconsider at a subsequent meeting its decision to permit development on the front lawn of Lincoln Road’s historic Miami Beach Community Church.

Might is apparently the operative word.

Last week, the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) submitted a petition to the City of Miami Beach presenting new and “overlooked” information that MDPL believes the HPB should consider, given the highly controversial aspect of developing such a historic site and also the last open green space on Lincoln Road.

MDPL is among a handful of institutions with standing with the City of Miami Beach to request such re-hearings.

“We had to submit a petition and 15 copies to the Planning Department and also had to pay for the process, one-half of the fee initially paid by the applicant, or about $1,200,” said Daniel Ciraldo, Historic Preservation Officer at MDPL. “Then it is up to [the HPB] to vote on whether to re-hear the item or not at their meeting on August 12.”

The City’s lengthy process requires a supermajority vote of HPB (5/7th vote) just to re-hear the item; and should they vote to do so, it would then take the same supermajority vote to change the original decision.

At issue is the Church’s desire to enter into a deal for the development of its historic lawn. According to an email issued from a communications consultant representing the Church, to SunPost last week: “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.”

However the potential development of the space agitated numerous entities. Historic preservation advocates, green space advocates, opponents of unbridled development and even many current and former members of the congregation, vehemently oppose the plan.

Furthermore, the Church has not been forthcoming with demonstrating financial need for such development. Most agree the Church, like many religious institutions today, faces financial troubles. However, it made a “profit” last year, SunPost acquired its 2013 financial documents and 2014 budgets and there were numerous discrepancies.

Miami Beach Community Church has yet to respond to a single question asked by SunPost about financials that show everything from a massive increase in its budget from 2013 to 2014, impressive salary increases, unexplained drop in revenue and even a line item in regard to an unknown development-related entity in its financials. SunPost’s questions included several that this newspaper was prompted to ask by Miami Beach City Commissioner Deede Weithorn, an expert in accounting and auditing.

Congregation members have shared with SunPost email exchanges demonstrating the Church’s unwillingness to share its financial documents with its own congregants; although it appears a small group capable of fitting into the Church’s tiny library might get a glimpse, if not copies. Approximately a half-dozen members of the congregation have also shared their stories of intimidation on the part of the Church leadership and accused the Church of making veiled threats and even insulting critics of the proposed development from the altar.

The Church also refused to answer the question about how much money was paid – and to whom – just to consider the development.

So, while even critics feel the Church could be in financial distress, there is no solid, cross-examined that it is.

Among other criticisms of the project are that it will destroy the east-west view corridor, rendering the Church’s stained-glass windows effectively useless and that alternate possibilities were not considered. Congregants have said anyone who attempted to offer alternate plans to reinvigorate the Church were insulted and humiliated.

Off the record, a number of senior officials within city hall have told SunPost they are nervous about the Church’s refusal to answer questions and its dubious tactics.

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Despite plenty of ethical questions about what is happening with the proposed development, it is MDPL’s petition that presents the best opportunity for an amicable solution.

“We have had nothing but positive responses,” Ciraldo said. “A lot of people who didn’t even know this process have said now they see a chance to see if there is a better plan than that previously approved.”

Besides two supermajority votes, there may be additional roadblocks.

Among other things, MDPL’s petition cites and spells out alternatives to the proposed development based on, among other things: that the Church might have no parking space requirement based on being grandfathered in under the regulations that existed at the time of its development – making its parking lot open for potential development; and also that the developer of the proposed project on the Church’s lawn also owns an adjacent property, allowing for a reasonable alternative (see diagrams provided by MDPL and included in their petition).

However, alternate possibilities for development might or might not fall under the purview of HPB, and no one seems quite sure – arguably a frightening thought considering how much time Miami Beach spends on working with development interests.

According to a senior Miami Beach official, “I would say that ‘alternative development options’ are within the scope of what the HPB can consider, but in this case they are not the request of the applicant, and the Board is not obligated to consider them. Particularly if they involve property that is not part of the application before the Board.”

However, Ciraldo said that in the initial presentation from the developer, immediately following the informational stage, HPB Chair Herb Sosa asked if alternate positioning had been considered.

“The architect said that developing the parking lot would force retail customers to [traverse] the Church grounds to get to [Lincoln Road], but that isn’t the case when the same developer owns the adjacent property. We do not believe the Church is required to maintain those parking spaces because that was not the requirement when it was built.”

At that initial presentation, this information was not presented into evidence but it is included in the new MDPL petition.

“It’s a game-changer,” Ciraldo said. “The community was scratching its head wondering why the development couldn’t be placed elsewhere on the property and the assertion that the parking lot could not be developer, we feel, is erroneous. Access would be available and it wouldn’t impact the [natural] lighting in the church.”

This is just one new or overlooked pieces of evidence that MDPL feels the HPB should be able to examine if the efforts for a re-hearing are successful.

Among other items cited in MDPL’s petition:

“Along with a massing study for the alternative building location, MDPL will provide Expert Testimony on the total estimated costs for restoration and maintenance of the two contributing structures on the property. This financial information was not made available at the time of the hearing. We believe this evidence is critical for the Board’s review, especially since the Board was concerned about ensuring enough funds were available for restoration. Without a proper estimate of cost, it is difficult to know what funds are required to meet both the Church and community’s objectives for retention and renovation of this very historical site.

In addition, the Board should consider the following new or overlooked evidence (details to be provided):

Jane Fisher’s personal account of the church’s birth and its role in the community

The lawn’s central role in the history of the church and the community

The importance of the east façade and view corridors towards it

Walter DeGarmo’s original plan which called for an open patio on the east lawn

Carl Fisher’s deed against any commercial building on the site

Plaque to Carl & Jane Fisher which should be relocated if outer wall is demolished

Sunlight patterns for new church in relation to the proposed design

Options for reactivating the existing at-grade green space (e.g., rental to city, removal of wall, re-landscaping, introducing a marketplace for small local vendors to operate from the lawn, etc).

We ask the Board to consider granting our Request for Rehearing in order to allow us time to introduce this new or overlooked evidence into the record, including Expert Testimony from leading preservation and cultural landscape entities. It is our hope that by taking another look at this property, we can come to a solution that helps the church sustain itself while preserving and improving the community’s interaction with this landmark site.”

Unfortunately, perhaps, for MDPL and other critics, the City apparently has a mechanism to scuttle re-hearings, even when requested by the city’s most respected preservation organization.

Critics of the proposed development believe that a City staff report was incomplete in providing adequate information to the HPB. Apparently, another staff report may be in the works.

According to the senior City official: “I believe there will be a new staff report, which addresses whether the petition satisfies the tests in the City Code for rehearing.”

SunPost inquired if that meant that city staff could stop the petition for a re-rearing in its tracks. Miami Beach officials did not respond to the question, even when Sosa referred followup questions to the City.

 “I think the Staff could find that our petition doesn’t meet the criteria of new evidence,” Ciraldo said. “They did this today on another item and the Board voted not to open the rehearing (6-1 against). However I think we do have some significant evidence (both new and overlooked) and my hope is that the Board would hear us.”

Sosa had expressed to SunPost his belief that the HPB would re-hear the item if it was sent to them, but it appears a staff report could prevent that from happening.

 Again, according to the City: “The petition for rehearing must demonstrate to the board that:

a. There is newly discovered evidence which is likely to be relevant to the decision of the board; [or]

b. The board has overlooked or failed to consider something which renders the decision issued erroneous.

  If the Board’s answer is no, that the Petition did not satisfy the above criteria, then a rehearing is not conducted.”

It appears that whether the HPB can even consider the item again depends on city staff.

Still, Ciraldo is optimistic. “We were told that staff would not be providing an updated report,” he said. “We feel that if the [HPB] is left on its own, they will have a lot of information to consider that they did not have before, and I trust HPB. It could be a huge win for the community.”

Still, with allegations of strong-arm techniques by Church leadership and emails shared with SunPost in which critical congregants have been insulted – some alleging subtle threats – the question is can a developer-friendly Miami Beach conduct processes such as these with any sense of integrity.

“If they won’t answer questions I have serious concerns,” Weithorn wrote SunPost in an email at press time last week. “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.”

To date, explanations for irregularities in the Church’s financials have not been offered.

However, Weithorn has also not responded to inquiries about which items she cited to SunPost worry her the most in the absence of an explanation, and others members of the commission have refused comment on the project, demonstrating, some say, the grip development interests have always had and continue to have on elected representatives.

“It just seems that in Miami Beach history, you can pretty much buy what you want,” said Stephen Sauls, a congregant from the early 1990s until around 2005 and former board member said. “Ten years ago, we weren’t talking anticipating any ultimate demise. If membership and support is down, what is the reason for this?”

To date, the Miami Beach Community Church has not addressed that, or any other questions, when it comes to its zeal to develop the last open green space on Lincoln Road and alleged refusal to even consider other options.

Correction: Last week, SunPost incorrectly identified Daniel Ciraldo as director of MDPL. There is no current MDPL director. MDPL’s Chairman is architect Steve Pynes.

About Michael W Sasser

Comments

  1. Victor Gimenez says:

    My name is Victor Gimenez, member of Miami Beach Community Church (MBCC) and a “Yes” vote for the Development Project at the Congregational Meeting. I was also present at the Historic Preservation Board (HPB) meeting where the Board unanimously approved this project, as well as spoke on record for the project and why during the citizens open invitation to the microphone. Below are my comments to the article above:

    1. “agitated numerous entities. Historic preservation advocates, green space advocates, opponents of unbridled development” – the funds for the Church from the development project will guarantee the Church will have the finacial capabalities to restore and maintain the historic structures on the properties that include not only the DeGarmo Sanctuary, but also the Pancoast additions. As for green space, the Church is acting as a responsible private citizen by insisting the rooftop of the new development be green, as well as having said green space open to the public as the current green space is available to the public. The existing green space is not a public park, but is open to the public when Church staff is present as will be the rooftop garden. As for “unbridled development”, a two-story buidling that is purposley kept lower than the highest point of the Church facade is not “unbridled development”. A twenty-story condominum tower next to a one-story single family home is.

    2. “it appears a small group capable of fitting into the Church’s tiny library might get a glimpse, if not copies.” of the financials – This is a totally inaccurate statement. The yearly Church budget is present and approved by the congregates at the Annual General Meeting (AGM). Copies of the budget are distributed at the AGM, and attending members can keep the copies. A copy of the budget is available at the Church offices to members of the Church. The meeting in the library referenced in the article was one of the Development Information meetings in which the proposed Project Drawings and renderings were initialy presented to the congregates.

    3. “east-west view corridor, rendering the Church’s stained-glass windows effectively useless” – Currently there is a building immediately West of the Church blocking the West-East corridor that has not rendered the Church;s stained-glass windows useless. The proposed two-story developmennt project has been situated to allow for greater space between the proposeded building and Church then what currently exists between the Church and the existing buidling.

    4. “why the development couldn’t be placed elsewhere on the property…Access would be available,” – There are only two locations available for development on the Church campus without removing exisitng structures, the courtyard at the corner of Drexel & Lincoln and the parking lot behind the Sanctuary at the end of the alley. The develpment project works financial both for the Church and the developer with a property on Lincoln Road with Licnoln Road rental rates, not off-Lincoln Road rates. Access to this off-Lincoln Road site would either be through the West from narrow walk-way mentioned in Item 3 above, or East from the open courtyard through Church grounds. No matter how attractive you make the narrow walk-way, human nature will have peole go through the open courtyard instead of the claustrophobic walk-way.

    5. “MDPL will provide Expert Testimony on the total estimated costs for restoration and maintenance of the two contributing structures on the property” – the Church is currently awardingt the contract for the Historic Propertied Managhement Plan (HPMP) required by the HPB to determine that exact same thing. But what the MDPL does not say is how and who will pay for this if the Church does not have the funds from the development deal.

    6. “The importance of the east facade and view corridors,” – The East and West facade of the Church are the same. And yet the West property was allowed to be developed by Carl Fisher when he eventually sold or developed that property.

    7. Carl Fisher’s deed against any commercial building on the site.” – The same deed also states “8. For a period of ten (10) years from date oif this deed the property herein convey shall be devoted exclusively to Church purposes,” the date of the deed is May 20th, 1919.

    As stated above, I was present and spoke at the HPB when this project was unanimously (7-0) approved. The majority of those present at the meeting in the audience where supporters of the Church project. The overwhelming majority of those that spoke during the citizens microphone portion were Church members. To the best of my memory, only three ot four people spoke against the project.

    I will paraphrase now what I said then, so you want a living thing or a dying thing. Until 2007 the Church was the second oldest structuree on the Beach. In 2007, a dying thing was allowed to die and a demolition permit was issued for the Coral Rock house because it was not econimically viable. In the 1950s, Beach leaders had to determine whether they wanted a livning thing or dying thing. Keep Lincoln Road as Carl Fisher intended with vehicles, or make it a pedestrian mall using the architecture of the time that would become Miami Modern. They chose a living thing,. A living thing is not a burden; it can take care of itself. A dying thing becomes a dead husk, derelict, and decayed.

    The HPB that day and the Congregation before it chose a living thing.

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