Rehabilitating the Peter Miller Hotel has not been easy.
Inside the 1936 Art Deco building in South Beach, 163 concrete beams that ran across the ceilings and held up the structure had deteriorated and badly needed replacement. It was work that the developer, Sandor Scher, hadn’t anticipated when he originally proposed upgrading the building, which sits in a local historic district that protects it against total demolition.
“Going through and surgically repairing a structure is a tremendous amount of work,” said Scher, who has done other rehabs where entire foundations have needed replacing and, in one case, an old pool that had been filled in with concrete was discovered under grass. “If it’s a large project, it can take tens of millions of dollars.”
The expenses can pile up, particularly when a city board has the power to deny a style of window, exterior trim or a large addition because it doesn’t fit in with its historic neighbors. So it isn’t magic. It takes time and money. But that investment, along with the limited property rights, can pay off in big a way, like it did for South Beach’s renowned Art Deco district. The city owes much of its recent fortune to the 1980s preservationists who fought to create historic districts that saved the neighborhood from developers’ wrecking balls.
A similar conversation is now happening in North Beach. In the hopes of jumpstarting redevelopment, the city is considering creating two new districts to save a collection of mid-century architectural multi-family buildings. Planners have made an initial recommendation to carve out historic districts in two areas full of low-slung, Mid-Century Modern apartment buildings.
Preservationists have longed for designation to preserve the neighborhood’s charm and architectural value. They say taking extra time and money can lead to beautiful, popular hotels and apartment buildings that attract tourists and residents, bumping up property values and adding an allure to the neighborhood.
Planners are recommending local historic designation for many apartment buildings in the Normandy Isles and North Shore National Register districts.
Not everybody loves historic preservation. Developers and property owners might be less enthused about the possibility and argue that strict rules in historic areas could stifle growth or impinge on private property rights. And there’s concern it could even stymie proper planning for impending sea level rise.
In North Beach, builders who might see an opportunity to tear down historic buildings in favor of larger modern buildings that would yield a bigger profit would be precluded from demolishing a building in a historic district.
“The negative goes to developers who want to build bigger and maximize their development rights to get a return on their investment,” said Rick Kendle, who owns a historic building on Normandy Isle. He supports designation, saying owners like him with no plans to redevelop would see property values increase. “The rest of us end up making more money.”
Historic districts don’t have specific guidelines that dictate what you can and can’t do. Generally, local historic designation prevents property owners from demolishing or substantially changing building facades but leaves specific details to a Historic Preservation Board.
So changing windows or stripping the exposed bricks of a 1950s MiMo building wouldn’t fly. Interior renovations are not really affected. But the facade and overall size of any additions have to be approved by the board, which is supposed to make sure buildings that are modified still fit within the context of the neighborhood’s look and feel.
Historical rehabs are very difficult.
Developer Russell Galbut, who has worked in Miami Beach’s historic districts
On top of historic designations, urban planners are recommending other adjacent sections for a less stringent designation that would allow demolition and prescribe design and size guidelines for new construction, called conservation districts. The details, such as where the final boundaries are drawn, will have to be hashed out at City Hall. The elected officials have the final say.
Scher says he enjoys working in historic districts because he can bring new life to old buildings that make the Beach a unique place while maintaining a healthy bottom line.
“If we want to save more buildings, we have to focus on how can we incentivize more development on properties that are compatible with the historic character but still are financially viable,” he said.
The hope is a historic North Beach will replicate South Beach’s success at mixing the preservation of history with lucrative redevelopment.
SAVING SOUTH BEACH
In front of a motley crew of residents, activists, delinquents, prostitutes and news crews, the 68-year-old woman made her last stand on the terrace of a beloved Art Deco relic that was just one hour away from meeting the wrecking ball and becoming a martyr for a movement
Dressed in a black caftan, she clutched a display of photographs that showed the glory days of the old hotel at 1201 Collins Ave., the Senator. As police escorted her from the building before the demolition began that day, Oct. 13 1988, she passed by a column that had been spray-painted with two words:
“You guys have to admit we put up a great fight, and it’s not over yet,” said Barbara Capitman, the tenacious defender of Art Deco and founder of the Miami Design Preservation League. She left before the Senator was dismantled, unable to bear the sight.
And for what was this jewel of a building razed? A parking lot.
Capitman and the League led the charge to get South Beach’s historic areas listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 — at the time, a groundbreaking designation. No small feat for a ragtag group of civic activists, artists and designers who were working against the will of City Hall and developers.
“It was the first National Register district that consisted solely of 20th-century architecture,” said Tom Mooney, Miami Beach’s planning director.
That national designation was seminal for bringing worldwide recognition and federal tax relief, but not enough to prevent demolition of historic buildings like the Senator.
That’s why preservationists continued to press for a local historic district that would have more teeth, while developers with eyes on lucrative redevelopment didn’t want to see more restrictions on property rights.
Eventually, the city created a Historic Preservation Board and gave it the power to prevent demolition in this local district.
Planners in North Beach have suggested creating two local historic districts within the areas that already have national designation — one on the east end of Normandy Isle and another in the North Shore area that forms the north edge of the city.
We have Art Deco, we have MiMo, and we have transitional structures.
Kirk Paskal, preservationist and North Beach resident
In South Beach during the 1980s, three adjacent districts were created that make up the whole historic architectural area in South Beach. Now when a property owner within those boundaries wants to make significant changes to her property, she has to go through the Historic Preservation Board first.
“The process lends itself to proper design,” said Daniel Ciraldo, a preservation officer with the Preservation League. “It’s not that there can’t be change. It’s that the change has to be well thought out.”
The process yielded controlled development and lots of rehabilitation in the neighborhood, which — thanks in part to 1980s TV show Miami Vice — is now known for a pastel gallery of low-rise Art Deco treasures that gives South Beach its signature look.
South Beach went from old and tired to sexy and beautiful. With the rejuvenated atmosphere came an economic revival that has made the Beach a hot tourist destination.
THE NORTH REMEMBERS
Some people want to see North Beach get the same love. This section of the city is known for its diverse, more working-class citizens, as well as an ambiance several notches more mellow than its high-octane counterpart to the south.
The more relaxed vibe matches its cache of uniquely-styled apartment buildings, from late-era Deco structures to a formidable concentration of Miami Modern (MiMo) architecture. The style, with garden-style apartment buildings that have open-air hallways, mosaic tile elements and futuristic-looking columns, flourished in the 1950s and ’60s and can also be found across Biscayne Bay, in burgeoning neighborhoods and kitschy motels along the Biscayne Boulevard corridor.
To proceed, officials will have to contend with a few new wrinkles. Now, sea level rise is top of mind for the city, and officials still need to figure out to dovetail preservation with resiliency.
Those rising tides add a new caveat to the debate. Flood insurance rates have skyrocketed, and property owners could bristle at the thought that they would have to jump through more hoops to safeguard their buildings against flood water.
“The standard property owner is just trying to survive. said Daniel Veitia, a resident of Normandy Isle and president of Urban Resource, a North Beach-based real estate and property management company. “They’re just trying to invest in their building so it can be viable on the market.”
Planners also want to use the development rights from historic districts to liven up North Beach’s main drag on 71st Street with taller, mixed-use buildings.
Community leaders have discussed using the sale of certain development rights to encourage owners of historic buildings to reinvest in their properties while opening the door for taller mixed use development along 71st Street. In theory, those owners of historic properties could sell their “air rights” to developers along 71st so long as they spend the proceeds on renovations.
This device was successfully used to fuel a resurgence in the MiMo/Biscayne Boulevard Historic District, where redevelopment has created a hip new stretch of restaurants and hotels bordered by gentrifying neighborhoods. Air rights were sold to developers who wanted more square footage for building in areas further south, like Brickell and Edgewater. This historic district did come with some opposition from property owners.
Miami Beach doesn’t have a program for transferring air rights, so it would have to develop a system to ensure that profits are reinvested in the renovation of historic properties and not diverted elsewhere. That system would require voter approval.
The urban planners at Coral Gables-based Dover, Kohl & Partners have recommended approximate boundaries for the districts in their first draft of a master plan for North Beach. Elected officials will see a final draft of the plan in the fall, then decide whether to start the process.
Kirk Paskal, a resident who owns a fourplex along one of the canals that flows through North Beach, sits on a committee guiding the master planning process. A preservationist who has longed for a local designation, he’s optimistic the new districts will be realized.
“We all want to see North Beach thrive,” he said.
Miami Herald reporter Andres Viglucci contributed to this report.