Preservationists fighting to stop the construction of retail shops in the courtyard of a historic church on the Lincoln Road Mall won a key ruling Friday that keeps alive their appeal of the project.
The Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) has fought for months to block Tristar Capital from erecting a two-story building on the lawn of the Miami Beach Community Church. After losing twice before the city’s Historic Preservation Board, the organization won the right Friday from a Miami Beach hearing officer for a reconsideration of a petition for rehearing of the project’s approval.
The group’s appeal focuses in large part on the appropriateness of a $500,000 payment from the developer to the church.
Leaders of the church, built in 1920 by Beach pioneer Carl Fisher, are adamant that the money was a standard rent payment as part of a 50-year, $100 million lease agreement with TriStar, money crucial for a cash-strapped church. Preservationists, however, say the “donation” appears to have been used to sway a congregation vote on the project’s design, and should have been disclosed to the city in May when the developer and church sought approval for the project.
Special Master Warren Bittner partially agreed with MDPL Friday and ordered the Historic Preservation Board to reconsider the petition for a rehearing of the project and ponder the issue of whether the “donation” should have been disclosed.
He rejected the church’s explanation that the money was part of an upfront rent payment. He also criticized the board’s handling of the previous appeal proceedings, saying it appeared the board’s chairman and attorney were pressuring board members into voting against the appeal by requiring them to explain their reasoning.
“In this particular case, the church was given a donation of $500K that was predicated on receiving an approval of a majority of their congregation members approving this design,” said Daniel Ciraldo of MDPL. “This donation was not your typical lessee-lessor donation. It was something given as a non refundable gift in order to obtain the approval for this very controversial 40 foot building in the courtyard.”
The ruling was a blow to TriStar and the church, which approved the project almost a year ago. Rev. Harold “Hunter” Thompson said Friday night that the church’s board is dismayed by the ruling but will push on. He disputed Bittner’s conclusion about the “donation,” saying the special master misunderstood the facts.
Regardless, he said the law requiring disclosure of payments wouldn’t apply either way to a contractual agreement.
“We think we have a strong application. A strong case. The Bittner ruling was a bit of a setback,” said Thompson. “But we’ll be glad to go back to the Historic Preservation Board and make our case.”
While Bittner’s decision doesn’t ensure a victory for preservationists, it does guarantee that the fight over the project will continue to be hashed out at Miami Beach City Hall and Tristar’s project will at the least be further delayed.
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, and expand its membership, Thompson said.
Preservationists argued the building would not only block views of the church, but would be built in a courtyard that Fisher stipulated in a 1920 deed restriction should remain open. Thompson counters that church leaders are doing everything they can to save the church, and that the fight has grown beyond preservation into something personal.
“We’ve done everything that’s been asked of us and still we’re questioned. And I’m beginning to wonder, at what point did this stop being about preservation?” said Thompson. “We’re here to save a church, a beautiful campus, and continue to be a ministry for the next 100 years. That’s what this deal is about. It’s an end to a means.”
Ciraldo said there are other options, like building the project on a lot behind the church, where MDPL once held its offices.
“We do have roots and we care about the church,” said Ciraldo. “But there’s some real serious questions going on here.”