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Miami preservation board votes to consider The Miami Herald’s building for historic landmark status

Miami’s historic preservation board voted Monday to consider The Miami Herald’s iconic bayfront building for historic designation, setting the stage for what’s sure to be an intense debate over the nearly 50-year-old structure’s historic significance, the quality of its mid-20th Century tropical-modern architecture, and even the influence of the newspaper’s owners and leaders in shaping city history.

But the close 6-4 vote, and reservations expressed by some members of the majority, suggests that Dade Heritage Trust, the preservation group spearheading the effort to save the building from demolition, could face an uphill battle in persuading a permanent majority that it’s worth preserving.

The application will come back for a final vote before the board after city planning staffers conduct an in-depth analysis. No date has been set for that hearing, but a 90-day temporary ban on demolition is running while the case is heard. Though the board’s decision is final, it can be appealed to the city commission, and observers believe the building’s new owner, gambling casino operator Genting, would challenge any grant of historic designation.

If Monday’s four-hour preliminary hearing is any indication, that debate could get contentious. Preservationists, historians and architects lined up to advocate for the building’s preservation as a significant landmark, both for its Miami Modern architecture and the role in shaping modern Miami played by its onetime owners, brothers John S. and James L. Knight, and longtime newspaper executive Alvah Chapman, who was an integral part of the city’s power structure for decades.

They also spent time attempting to dispel a common misconception: that preservation would stop development of the site by Genting, a Malaysian casino giant that hopes to build a massive resort on the 10-acre site of the building and its surrounding parking lots.

Preservation would require preservation of the building’s exterior, but conversions and additions like towers and new wings would be allowed, and so would substantial construction on the parking lots. Genting was unsuccessful this year in getting casinos legalized in Florida and has filed no development applications.

“It’s an excellent candidate for adaptive re-use,’’ Miami Beach preservation director William Cary told the board. He was not speaking in an official role but noted his city has overseen countless, economically successful conversions of historic buildings once thought obsolete, like South Beach’s once-derided Art Deco district. “We know it can be done.’’

On the other side were equally numerous representatives of business and commercial interests, and a sprinkling of neighborhood residents, urging the board, sometimes in stark terms, to reject the case. One resident called the idea of designating the building, which is featured in several recently published architecture books, as “laughable.’’ Another called preservationists “socialists’’ and “questionable historians.’’

More-serious objections came from Genting’s architect, Arquitectonica principal Bernardo Fort-Brescia, who said the building’s design is unremarkable and represents a “dark age’’ in U.S. urban planning, when industrial buildings walled off waterfronts and cut off public access to them. Genting’s consulting architect, former DHT president Richard Heisenbottle, cautioned the board against repeating an architectural mistake by preserving it forever.

“We’re making a decision to save a building in perpetuity, so we better do it right,’’ Heisenbottle said.

After the close of public testimony, and before board members had a chance to discuss the proposal, board member David Freedman jumped in to offer a motion to reject the application.

“It’s not a MiMo work of art,’’ he said, dismissing the Herald building as a “duplication’’ of the old Chicago Sun-Times building done by the same architect, Sigurd Naess, though in a markedly different, stripped-down architectural approach known as the International Style.

After sometimes heated debate, though, the view that designation merited careful consideration prevailed.

“This is a very emotional and charged discussion today, and I am not willing at this point to cut off debate,’’ board member Gerald Marston said.

Genting bought The Herald’s property last year for $236 million. Under the sales contract, the newspaper, which is building a new plant in Doral, can remain in the bayfront building rent-free until April.