Miami’s historic preservation board on Monday narrowly decided against designation of The Miami Herald building as a protected landmark, in a daylong public hearing marked by acrimony and outbursts by consultants working for the property’s owner, Malaysian casino operator Genting.
The board voted 5-3 to turn down a designation report by the city preservation’s officer, who concluded that the building merited landmark status under four of the historic and architectural criteria required by city ordinance. Only one criterion need be met for a building to qualify for designation. Two board members, including Chairman William Hopper, were absent.
A majority of board members, however, said they were unpersuaded that the building’s history, the role played by the newspaper’s owners, editors and executives in city and newspaper history, and the structure’s distinctive but popularly unloved mid-20th Century Miami Modern design, were factors weighty enough to save the building.
“It doesn’t stand out as remarkable,’’ said member Hugh Ryan, a contractor.
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Board members in the minority vehemently disagreed. Architect Jorge Kuperman said designation was not about the building’s beauty, but about preserving the history associated with a significant landmark, as well as its characteristic design.
“It’s important. That’s why we’re talking about it today,’’ Kuperman said.
Genting, which bought the building and its surrounding parking lots for $236 million last year, has said it intends to demolish the 50-year-old building, at 1 Herald Plaza north of downtown. But it’s not known what will replace it because Genting’s effort to legalize gambling in the state has stalled.
Genting architect Bernardo Fort-Brescia, co-principal of Arquitectonica, said after the hearing he will go back to finalizing a plan for a scaled-down version of a gargantuan project the casino giant originally presented last year. The new development, focused on the Herald building site, is likely to include luxury condominiums, a luxury hotel, restaurants and retail shops, plus a baywalk.
Genting’s attorney, Vicky Garcia-Toledo, said her client was “extremely grateful to the historic preservation board for their thorough review of the issue.’’
The board decision can be appealed to the city commission, but preservationists who applied for designation said they’re unlikely to do so.
Architects, historians, preservationists and other experts who testified in support of designation lamented the vote as a lost opportunity to integrate the building into Genting’s plans. An architect who reviews applications for the National Register of Historic Places and helped put on preservationists’ case, Rick Gonzalez, said the Herald building would likely have qualified for the federal list.
Gonzalez was one of five recognized experts, including Morris Hylton III, director of the University of Florida’s historic preservation program, who testified that the building was both architecturally and historically significant and could be expanded and adapted to multiple uses.
“We’re dreadfully disappointed, but we put up a good fight. We proved our case that the building has architectural and historic merit,’’ said Becky Roper Matkov, executive director of Dade Heritage Trust.
Miami Beach preservation director William Cary said Genting split preservationists by hiring some respected veterans of the local movement as consultants to contest the designation.
“This was very sad,’’ Cary said. “They made an intentional effort to divide preservationists, and were successful.’’
The vote tally was greeted with a whoop by Genting’s numerous supporters, who packed Miami City Hall chambers and frequently interrupted the hearing — a quasi-judicial proceeding — with applause and catcalls despite board acting Chairman Gerald Marston’s pleas for quiet.
Genting’s experts, preservation architect Richard Heisenbottle and architectural historian Ivan Rodriguez, used unusually pointed language and tone to dismiss Dade Heritage Trust’s petition and city preservation officer Megan McLaughlin’s detailed 70-page report on the building, which significantly bolstered the case for designation.
4Heisenbottle attacked it as “biased’’ while Rodriguez called the report “creative writing’’ and “purple prose.’’
Things got heated when Genting’s architect, Bernardo Fort-Brescia of Arquitectonica, began arguing loudly with a lawyer for the Trust, Scott Silver, who was trying to ask him a question on cross-examination. Marston cut off Fort-Brescia’s microphone and asked him to respond.
Shortly afterward, during a break, a red-faced Fort-Brescia approached Matkov and began jabbing his finger in her face while shouting at her and Florida International University architecture professor Sandra Suarez. Fort-Brescia said he was “offended’’ that Suarez had used a quote “out of context’’ from an article by his wife, Arquitectonica co-principal Laurinda Spear, about the pressing need to save MiMo architecture. Other Genting consultants had to pull Fort-Brescia away.
Fort-Brescia said he thought they were incorrectly implying his wife supported designation of The Herald.
Spear’s article is the preface to a book on MiMo that extolls the Herald building’s architectural qualities.Later, during her summation of Genting’s case against designation, lawyer Garcia-Toledo alleged that Trust officials, whom she did not name, attempted to twice shake down her clients initially for $5 million and later $10 million in exchange for dropping the petition. She offered no proof, and stood by the claims during an interview after the hearing.
The money was to be used for historic preservation activities in the area surrounding The Herald, Garcia-Toledo alleged.
“We were told that … if we offered a $10 million contribution, they would take it to the board and they could almost guarantee acceptance,’’ Garcia-Toledo said. “I don’t know if I was offended more on behalf of my client or as a resident of Miami to know that history has a price.’’
The preservation board did not address Garcia-Toledo’s allegations, which were tangential to the debate on the building’s historic merits. Genting consultants had been whispering about the allegations to reporters for months, but did not respond to requests from The Miami Herald to provide evidence of their claims.
But Matkov and Trust supporters were infuriated, accusing Garcia-Toledo of attempting to smear them to discredit their case. Matkov said the matter came up once in a hallway conversation after a public meeting, when Garcia-Toledo asked what Genting could do to soften the impact of its development in the Omni area, which includes several historic buildings as well as the Arsht Center.
Matkov said she suggested establishing a fund at the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency for renovation of historic buildings in the area. But she said it “was never quid-pro-quo’’ and did not involve DHT’s dropping the petition. The idea went nowhere, she said.
“The DHT board never solicited nor accepted any money, period,’’ Matkov said.