A controversial plan to turn the courtyard of a historic Miami Beach church — one of the last green spaces on Lincoln Road — into a glitzy, glass retail space will go forward after the city’s Historic Preservation Board denied a request Tuesday to revisit the matter.
The Board voted 4-3 to turn down the Miami Design Preservation League’s request to consider alternative locations to the proposed two-story complex abutting Miami Beach Community Church’s property at the corner of Lincoln Road and Drexel Avenue. The church, the Beach’s oldest at nearly a century old, was built by Miami Beach pioneer Carl Fisher for his wife, Jane. It was designed by Florida’s first registered architect, Walter DeGarmo.
Tuesday’s decision paves the way for developer Tristar Capital to construct the retail complex with a garden on the roof, much to the dismay of preservationists and some parishioners. Critics have said that the building would block views of the church, take away an important green space and hurt the historic character of the property. The church was built in 1920.
Mindy Wright, a church member who attended Tuesday’s hearing, said that other alternatives could have been explored.
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“There are other ways to do this without destroying that open space,” she said. “I feel like the board didn’t take the time to hear any other ideas.”
But church leadership has maintained that Tristar’s 50-year lease for $100 million will provide a much-needed cash infusion for a congregation that is struggling financially. The congregation has about 170 members.
After Tuesday’s decision, the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Harold “Hunter” Thompson, said the congregation can now move on.
“This decision allows us to move forward with a project that has been responsibly designed, strongly supported by our congregation and unanimously approved by the Historic Preservation Board,” he said.
Daniel Ciraldo, a member of the Miami Design Preservation League, said that his group is considering appealing the decision, which could halt any development for a year.
“It’s no one’s best option,” he said. “But we believe that we would be successful in that appeal.”
The debate over the courtyard has raged since December, when church leadership announced the plan, saying it would shore up the church’s finances, which were running at a deficit of $30,000 a month. A long-term lease would give the church money to continue its programs, including feeding the homeless four days a week and hosting recovery sessions. Thompson also said the money would allow the congregation to grow its membership, and members would be asked to approve a long-term spending plan for the profits.
In May, the Historic Preservation Board unanimously approved the plan. In June, MDPL requested a rehearing to look at alternative sites.
The church is a member of the United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination. Each UCC congregation selects its own pastor and manages its own budget.
An online petition seeking to block the move has drawn 375 supporters — and many have written letters to board members. Jerry Fisher, one of Carl Fisher’s last living relatives, wrote a letter disapproving of the plans.
“It fills in a garden that was used for community services, reflection, and spirituality from the beginning of Miami Beach to today,” he wrote, adding that a planned rooftop garden does not make up for the loss of the courtyard.
Media reports and social media activity swirled Monday with accusations that Tristar principal David Edelstein had sought to sway members by donating $500,000 to the church a day before the congregation had voted 79-9 in December to support the 50-year lease.
Thompson told the Miami Herald that the money was part of a $3.5 million initial rent payment, $3 million of which was placed in an escrow account and not to be paid until final approval from the Historic Preservation Board. He called the accusations a distraction, and said church leadership has been forthcoming with members who’ve asked about the deal.
“People simply lost sight of our true desires,” he said.
In a statement, developer Edelstein said that the money was not a donation but a taxable rent payment that is standard real estate practice.
“The simple fact is, Tristar made a legitimate, non-refundable $500,00 rental payment,” he said. “This was included in the lease and the church paid Florida state sales tax on it.”
Members of the Historic Preservation Board did not broach the topic of the church’s finances on Tuesday except to criticize the accusations. David Wieder, a member of the city panel, said he supported a rehearing on the basis that it was not clear in May whether a church parking lot could be an alternative site for the retail complex, but he wasn’t interested in hearing about money issues in the event of a rehearing. “It’s not something we have time for,” he said. “It’s not something that should be used in testimony today.”