Battle to save Miami Beach’s old homes may not be over

Sometimes, preservationists say, it takes a martyr: A lovely but old building has to fall to the wrecking ball before cities move to save historically significant structures.

Preservationists will soon have another martyr.

The white mansion that sits at the tip of Miami Beach’s Star Island and designed by Walter deGarmo, Florida’s first registered architect, faces imminent demolition.

Its owners — a plastic surgeon who calls himself the “boob god” and his wife, a star of The Real Housewives of Miami — recently won a bitter, protracted legal battle to tear down their 1925 home to make way for a 20,000-square-foot estate. It will include six bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a home theater, game room, wine cellar, five-car garage and guest house.

Just as the demolition of the Art Deco Senator Hotel in 1988 led to legislation aimed at protecting important buildings, a push to save the manse at 42 Star Island has forced Miami Beach to reexamine how it protects its historic resources.

The home, which Leonard and Lisa Hochstein purchased in a foreclosure sale, has become a symbol of what preservationists say is a rush to tear down the Beach’s historic homes and build massive new mansions on their ruins.

With 42 Star held up as an example, Miami Beach officials engaged real estate agents, developers, homeowners and the historic preservation community in more than a year of meetings about the city’s preservation laws.

As a result, the city recently changed its building regulations to encourage homeowners to retain historically significant properties and to protect neighborhood character by restricting what kind of homes can be built in the first place. Beach commissioners approved the changes in February.

But some homeowners and preservationists say the new laws don’t go far enough, and might even have the opposite effect. The Miami Design Preservation League, which led the crusade to preserve 42 Star Island, is asking elected officials to reconsider — especially because the changes were introduced shortly before the second public vote to approve the new rules.

In city government, new laws usually require two public hearings and votes before becoming final. The league says the most controversial changes were not discussed publicly before the final vote, though it is not unusual for changes to be proposed between the first and second readings of the laws.

“It just shows how pathetic it is that we cannot have the vision . . . to try to protect these homes a little bit better,” said Nancy Liebman, a former city commissioner who now heads Miami Beach United, a citywide homeowners organization.

Liebman and others say that despite the new rules, older homes will continue to be knocked down, and hulking structures that push from property line to property line will stand in their places.

One such home cropped up next door to Robert Gonzalez and Craig Garmendia, who live on Sunset Island 4 in a restored 1939 home. Now, whenever Garmendia or his partner step out their front door, they see a white wall that towers over their 20-foot ficus hedges. A rooftop deck on the home next door peers onto Garmendia and Gonzalez’s pool deck. No more than eight feet away from their living room, a pool pump will be installed to run a waterfall.

“Now we’re like, ‘Great, now we’re not going to have quiet on our side,’ ” Garmendia said.

Garmendia said he was not notified by the city of any changes to the property.

“It’s a little disturbing, especially because it’s so big. You would have thought the city would protect you from that sort of thing,” he said.

Though Miami Beach has gained a reputation for being preservation-minded, compared to cities like Coral Gables it affords few protections to homes outside historic districts or that are not already historically protected.

Miami Beach passed laws in 2002 in one of its first real pushes to protect private homes. Previous preservation efforts had focused on commercial properties in South Beach’s now-famed Art Deco district.

Coral Gables requires every building to be reviewed by the city for its historical significance before demolition approval is granted. And the city notifies neighbors of any significant proposed changes to properties.

In Miami Beach, there is nothing the city can do to prevent an owner from tearing down a home that isn’t already designated a historic landmark or within one of the city’s historic districts. The new home would have to comply only with the Beach’s development guidelines.

There is an extra layer of protection for homes built before 1942, a cutoff date chosen because homes from that period were thought to be more distinctive because they were built before homes were mass produced after World War II.

The city has to review demolition permits to decide whether a home built before 1942 is “architecturally significant” under a set of criteria. If it is, the city’s Design Review Board must approve plans for a replacement home before demolition is approved.

But the extra step of going to the Design Review Board has not been a deterrent to homeowners who want to replace their architecturally significant homes. The board cannot deny demolition applications. There were 52 applications to tear down such homes from 2012 through 2013. That was more than during the previous seven years combined, when there were only 21 demolition applications.

The reason for the dramatic increase can perhaps be attributed to two factors: the Beach’s geography and its high real estate values.

In low-lying Miami Beach, a typical reason for tearing down old homes is that they lie well below the federal flood plain, meaning sky-high insurance rates and potential flooding problems.

Then there’s this: Home sale prices in Miami Beach have risen almost 14 percent in the past five years, with an average listing price of more than $1.5 million, according to real estate website Trulia. In many cases, the land value far exceeds the value of the homes.

That was the case with 42 Star Island. The Hochsteins paid less than $8 million in late 2012 for their eight-bedroom, seven-bathroom home in one of the Beach’s most visible neighborhoods. The home is valued at $1.2 million, while the land is worth $8.3 million, according to Miami-Dade County property records.

The Hochsteins almost immediately applied for demolition permits because they said the home was structurally unsound.

“I’m not trying to make this home a museum,” Leonard Hochstein told the Miami Herald in December 2012. “I’m trying to make a home for my family.”

At that point, the Miami Design Preservation League and Miami Beach United had already begun to meet with the city staff to come up with ways to hold back the tide of demolitions and intrusive rebuilds. And then they learned of what was happening with 42 Star.

“That, of all houses, was the most prominent and the most significant one that came along,” said Charles Urstadt, chairman of the preservation league.

The home and its 48,000-square-foot lot stands on one of the most prominent parcels of land on the Beach. It is visible to the thousands of cars that zoom across the MacArthur Causeway. Given its location and history, the league asked to have the home historically designated — against the Hochsteins’ wishes and after the couple had requested permission to knock the home down.

Lawsuits were filed. Dueling recommendations were made by city administrators, board and committee members and average residents. Eventually, the Hochsteins received approval to tear down the home, and city commissioners rejected the league’s application for historic designation.

Nonetheless, a movement had been launched.

The league called for a Coral Gables-style ordinance that would require all buildings to be screened for historical significance before being toppled. They asked for a survey of all the homes in Miami Beach that could be historically designated. They pushed for — and got — a moratorium on demolitions until all sides could come together to change the city’s development rules.

After months of meetings, the issue came before the City Commission on Feb. 12. Commissioners unanimously passed two laws — giving property owners incentives to keep their old homes and to regulate the size of new homes.

The most disputed regulations are those that are supposed to serve as an incentive to preserve single-family homes.

Under the old rules, if a homeowner knocked down a pre-1942 home, the size of their new home was limited, depending on the size of the lot. The bigger the lot, the smaller the percentage of the lot that could be built upon.

If the owner wanted to build a home bigger than the standard, which was between 15 and 30 percent of the lot, he or she would have to go to the city’s Design Review Board for approval. The board could approve a home with lot coverage of up to 35 percent.

The new rules eliminate the sliding scale and allow a flat 30 percent coverage regardless of lot size. Whereas owners of the largest lots previously could build a replacement home with only 15 percent lot coverage, they now get 30 percent immediately.

Proponents for the change call it a fairness issue. They say homeowners shouldn’t be bound by more-restrictive regulations than say, a home built in 1943 that sits on a smaller lot. Homeowner Jon Marden, who lives on Hibiscus Island, called the old rules “discriminatory.”

“I would definitely suggest that we all be treated equally,” Marden told the City Commission recently.

Opponents say the change effectively expands development rights, making it more enticing to knock down the very homes that preservationists want to protect. It also eliminates the costly and sometimes contentious process of going before a city board for the larger lot coverage, which can serve as a disincentive for demolition.

Plus, not everyone got approval for bigger homes under the old system. Since 2005, only 31 percent of applicants have been allowed by the Design Review Board to build bigger than the standard, according to city figures.

“It’s basically a giveaway for developers now to knock down the older homes that we were trying to save in the first place,” said Daniel Ciraldo, chair of the preservation league’s public policy committee.

The other incentives adopted by the commissioners allow for bigger development if an architecturally significant home is retained with add-ons.

The preservation league wants Miami Beach to reconsider the changes, and is considering legal action if it does not.

“We’re a small town and we have our symbols. And when certain symbols are lost, it kind of gets a community together and makes us think, ‘What can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?’ ” Ciraldo said. “Somebody’s got to do it. It’s important to the city.”

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