Biscayne Boulevard’s grand Christian Science church came one big step closer to getting saved on Tuesday, when Miami’s historic preservation board endorsed a significantly tweaked proposal to suspend a parking garage for a new condo next door over the historic building.
A month after balking at a previous version of the blueprint, which preservationists complained seemed to “crush” the 1925 church, the board unanimously approved a new conceptual design that would slim down the garage and set it back significantly more from the front and side of the historic building than before.
The garage also grew one story to nine decks, but will be elevated more than previously proposed over the church roof. The increased spacing was intended to clearly separate the two structures.
In the new plan, board members said, the garage no longer appears to squat on top of the graceful, neo-Classical church building, designed by leading 1920s Miami architect August Geiger.
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“I appreciate what you’ve done,” said board member Todd Tragash, an architect. “You’ve made tremendous, substantive change that’s respectful of the historic building.”
At the same time, the developers who purchased the church building late last year agreed to have it designated as historic so long as the board approves a formal plan, possibly as early as next month.
In an unusual legal twist, the city cannot now designate the church building without the new owners’ consent, something not normally required. That’s because the city commission, at the Christian Science Church’s request, voted against designation of the building in the 1980s, when it still made such decisions, which now fall to the preservation board.
The church, which had been rarely used in recent years, sold the building two years ago, but the city is still legally bound by the old commission decision, the city attorney’s office concluded.
Given that restriction, board members said the garage-over-church plan was a reasonable compromise to save the historic building, which would otherwise be vulnerable to demolition. The church building is considered a Geiger masterwork and is on the National Register of Historic Places, as are several other Miami and Miami Beach buildings by the architect.
The revised scheme, developed by architects ADD Inc./Stantec and Richard Heisenbottle, an expert on historic preservation, also reduces the number of columns that would penetrate the church building to hold up the garage. These would go from six to four, sparing the sanctuary’s dome.
The tweaked plan would double the garage setbacks at the front and north façade of the church building to 33 feet and 22 feet, respectively, and elevate the underside of the garage to 14.5 feet over the church roof. The columns and garage underside would be finished with quality materials and would not expose any pipes or infrastructure, the architects said.
The new plan, Heisenbottle said, “substantially reduces the impact of the garage on the historic building.”
The garage would be attached to a rounded residential tower that would rise on a sliver of land next to and partially over the historic building. That would require demolition of a later addition that housed the church’s reading room, which is not architecturally significant.
Because the church building occupies most of the property, developer 15 Group and its architects say, there was no other way to accommodate the parking required to meet city rules and make the project economically viable.
The developer plans to fully restore the church building’s exterior, except for a portion of the rear that would be used for loading. The magnificent domed sanctuary would also be preserved and converted into a grocery store or other retail use.