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In Miami Beach, homes face teardown frenzy or preservationist zeal

In South Florida’s suddenly resurrected real estate market, Miami Beach has plenty to offer buyers in search of a dream home.

Stocked with miles of bayfront land and picturesque waterways, the Million Dollar Sandbar boasts scores of pricey waterfront properties. And, for better or worse, many lots come standard with pre-WWII homes designed by some of Miami’s most famous early architects.

To some buyers, these homes are collectors’ items to be restored. To others, their presence is increasingly incidental and hopefully temporary.

In the past year, city planners say, 20 such houses have been approved for demolition in Miami Beach as buyers and owners choose not to laboriously restore or renovate and expand what exists but instead construct custom, modern homes. Compare that to just 13 the previous five years.

The trend has been called an “epidemic” by the city’s preservation-minded mayor. And it has caught the attention of activists, who this past week announced that they will begin scouring neighborhoods outside historic districts to protect notable homes from being demolished — even if it means battling couples and families.

“We hadn’t considered that owners would want to demolish such important structures, or fail to see their merit,” said Mike Kinerk, a leading member of the Miami Design Preservation League. “We will be moving to designate all important houses in the city.”

The new battle between preservation and property rights officially began Wednesday when Kinerk signed an application to designate an iconic whitewashed house on the southeast corner of super-exclusive Star Island a protected landmark in order to keep it from being torn down by Leonard Hochstein and his wife, Lisa Hochstein, a cast member of Bravo’s Real Housewives of Miami.

The 1925 home, designed by Walter DeGarmo, who designed some of South Florida’s most historic homes, is to be replaced by a 20,000-square-foot Neo-Classical estate. The proposal has evoked a strong reaction from critics, including the league’s chairman, Charles Urstadt, who called the plans “immoral” during a public hearing.

The Hochsteins have taken the criticism personally. In an interview Thursday, Leonard Hochstein called the attempt to designate his home historic a “despicable” publicity stunt. He said the long but thin home is beyond salvageable, citing electrical fires, structural flaws, a foundation that sits below a federal flood plain, an illegal third-floor addition and plumbing that doesn’t extend above the first floor.

“I’m not trying to make this home a museum,” he said. “I’m trying to make a home for my family.”

He is doing so within the confines of Miami Beach’s laws.

About a dozen years ago, the last time residential redevelopment outside the city’s protected historic districts became a hot political issue, the Miami Beach commission passed a law intended to maintain flexibility for property owners, but also encourage them to renovate older homes. They drew a line in the sand at the year 1942, and required that any proposal to raze “architecturally significant” homes built before that date receive approval from the city’s Design Review Board.

While proposals for large replacement homes require proof that there is “good cause” to demolish an existing, pre-1942 house, tearing down such homes often requires little more than approval for a new design unless the home is designated historic. And many homeowners have taken advantage this year, often building bigger houses on prime property.

“A year or so ago, you had an occasional game of softball,” William Cary, Miami Beach’s preservation director, said during a November hearing in which eight homes were approved for demolition. “Now it seems as if every application is hardball as more and more money comes into the city and more and more of these pre-’42 properties are purchased. More and more are becoming the subject of complete demolition.”

Despite claims by preservationists that the new homes are the work of speculative developers buying up homes and razing them to sell new “McMansion,” many asking for permission to tear down and start fresh are actually couples and families.

Among them:

• Are Traasdahl, a businessman who, after trying to designate his 1933 Mediterranean Revival home historic, now wants to build an Asian-themed home on Rivo Alto Island.

• Wayne Boich, a wealthy coal mogul from Ohio who recently demolished three homes — two of which were abandoned and badly dilapidated — to make way for a North Bay Road estate on more than an acre of land.

• Cindy Melk, a Chicago skincare executive who wants to take down what she calls a “bastardized” 1938 home on Di Lido Island to create a larger backyard for her kids.

• Abraham Schaulson, who wants to build a Pine Tree Drive estate with nine bedrooms, separate meat and dairy kitchens, and an atrium to protect a sukkah, a hut used during the weeklong Jewish festival of Sukkot, for his wife and nine kids.

Like the Hochsteins, most homeowners who have chosen to tear down their old homes argue that problematic additions stripped the structures of their historic value or that deterioration and age have rendered their properties dangerous or beyond repair.

“Just to restore and bring back the importance of what was there before would be a crazy burden,” Schaulson said during a hearing.

But there are some who would rather restore old homes, like Susan Richard and her husband, Dennis.

The couple has owned a 1936 colonial home on a sprawling lot on the northwest corner of Sunset Island III since the 1980s. They have painstakingly restored the two-story, L-shaped home, which has walls coated in greenery and a living room that is just 22 feet deep.

Down Bay Avenue, a neighbor, is tearing down his home to build anew. Across the water, on the corner of Sunset Island II, a new home has replaced an old Howard Hughes estate.

Richard said she understands the desire to start from scratch. She says the choice is personal and should belong to property owners only.

“You have to really love the home,” she said.

There remains a strong, albeit niche market for those who feel as Richard does, said Ron Shuffield, president of Esslinger-Wooten Maxwell Realtors.

Shuffield said that since January, a little more than 10 percent of Miami Beach homes sales have been single-family homes. That’s 243 dwellings, out of which 119 were built before 1945.

Shuffield said the buyers who purchased those are often Europeans interested in second homes. He said speculators are once again looking at homes, but few are purchasing right now.

“Single-family homes on the Beach have become collector’s items because there are just so few of them now,” he said, doubting that stronger preservation laws would have any impact on the market.

But with nearly 2,500 pre-1942 homes left on Miami Beach, that leaves a lot of room for friction with homeowners if the Miami Design Preservation League aggressively pursues its new agenda.

Kinerk, the league official, said one of founder Barbara Baer Capitman’s last directives before dying in 1990 was that the league should focus on preserving single-family homes. He said that while cities like Coral Gables have crafted laws to do so, so far Miami Beach has failed.

“We have failed Barbara’s directive so far,” he said. “It’s embarrassing.”

Kinerk said the league will act quickly to try and designate residential homes historic in order to try and avoid after-the-fact fights like the ongoing battle with the Hochsteins. He said an important home worth saving should be protected regardless.

“When should we act?” he asked. “When they’re all gone?”