Activists and residents trying to save a slew of architecturally and historically significant buildings from an onslaught of development scored another win Wednesday, when Miami-Dade County’s preservation board enacted protections for a Miami Modern apartment house in Bay Harbor Islands after a contentious hearing.
The landmark designation for the Bay Harbor Continental, a 35-unit co-op on the northern tip of the town’s East Island, marks the first time any building in the small town has been officially declared historic.
Bay Harbor officials had previously stymied efforts over several years by county preservation officials and preservationists to protect a trove of MiMo buildings on its East Island by some of the most noted architects working in the style, characteristic of South Florida development in the 1950s and ’60s.
City officials and developers have speeded up demolitions of MiMo buildings on the East Island, a hot new area for luxury waterfront condo redevelopment, while the county considered action. Bay Harbor preservationists say the tally of potentially significant buildings lost to demolition now exceeds 30.
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The 5-0 vote by the county board came a week after Miami’s preservation board designated as historic a 1920 Mediterranean villa in Coconut Grove that a developer wanted to demolish, as well as a small historic district in East Little Havana that sits in a zone under consideration for extensive upzoning by the city. Both unanimous votes also set the stage for broader designations in both neighborhoods.
But it’s unclear what Wednesday’s board action means for the future of Bay Harbor’s MiMo buildings, which once covered the entire East Island as part of town founder Shepard Broad’s vision. Preservationists and historians say it remains one of the most cohesive collections of the increasingly popular architectural style in existence.
Neisen Kasdin, attorney for the co-op board and a developer who has a deal to buy the Continental with plans to replace it with a luxury condo, said they would likely appeal the board decision to the Miami-Dade County Commission. Several co-op residents and shareholders, however, vocally support designation of the building and petitioned the county board to act to protect it.
Three residents who asked the board for designation say they have been sued by attorneys for the developer. Kasdin argues that the three have no legal standing to petition the board because they are not technically “owners” as required by county ordinance, but shareholders.
The county commissioner representing the district that includes Bay Harbor Islands, Sally Heyman, has been sharply critical of county efforts to designate buildings in the area, though she has failed to rally support from other commissioners to allow Bay Harbor and other municipalities to “opt out” of the county preservation program. Towns without their own historic preservation programs fall under county jurisdiction.
On Wednesday, meanwhile, the board postponed for six months consideration of designation for the Continental’s famous neighbor, the Bay Harbor Club, featured in the cable TV series Dexter as the lead character’s home. The deferral was requested by the co-op board president and Morris Broad, who owns the land under the building and is Shepard Broad’s son.
Both buildings were designed by Charles McKirahan, a noted Fort Lauderdale architect whose career was cut short at age 44 by a car accident — and whose buildings are consequently relatively rare and prized. County preservation officials have concluded that both buildings are architecturally distinguished and worth preserving as exemplars of the historic development of Bay Harbor.
The board also had to put off until next month a discussion that could lead to designation of a historic district on the East Island after losing quorum because two members had to leave. The board was to have gotten a first look at an updated county survey of the island indicating how many buildings on it might qualify for designation as historically or architecturally significant.
The designation petition for the Continental came several years after the county board withdrew an initial plan to protect the building amid opposition from town leaders and some residents. Because it also followed an agreement to sell the building, the revived effort has sharply divided residents. At a heated February meeting in which the board instructed county staff to reconsider designation of the Continental, an angry opponent of designation grabbed a preservation advocate, briefly disrupting the meeting.
On Wednesday, several members of the county’s sergeant-at-arms team stood vigilantly by, earpieces in place, to avoid a repeat. The quasi-juidicial hearing was frequently interrupted by applause from both sides and, at times, shouting from opponents of designation, prompting warnings from the dais but necessitating no further action.
Kasdin argued that designating the building was procedurally improper and unfair to the majority of residents who wanted to sell, several of whom are elderly, ill or in financial straits. He said the building is deteriorating, would be unaffordable to maintain for its residents, and that Bay Harbor zoning rules in any case are so stringent as to make a rehab fiscally impossible.
“This is a heartless action in a case of real economic distress,” Kasdin said after the hearing.
Resident Kathleen Weinstein, recently widowed and contending that she is unable to afford her unit upkeep, tore into the advocates for preservation in the building, alleging that they were acting out of greed and accusing them of attempting to “extort” the developer for more money.
But other building residents said a forced sale would impose economic hardship because the proceeds would not allow them to find another equivalent home. One, Morris Kirksey, called it “classic gentrification.”
Testifying for developer P3, Arquitectonica principal Laurinda Spear and Miami architect Robert Chisholm both downplayed the quality and significance of the building, a V-shaped structure defined by open exterior walkways shaded by a concrete-block screen that’s punctuated by brightly colored glass blocks.
But other residents and neighbors lavished praise on the building and urged the county board to save it.
“It’s the most beautifully unique retro building on the island,” said neighbor Joan Carney.
Board members expressed concern over the potential economic hardship on some residents, but concluded that on balance the merits of preserving the building outweighed that.