Miami-Dade County

Preservationists’ victory in Bay Harbor Islands, Surfside, unleashes political battle

Bay Harbor Continental
Bay Harbor Continental ANGELO SEMERARO / FOR THE MIAMI

The Bay Harbor Continental, a 1948 waterfront co-op, is a unique piece of architecture: A low-slung, wedge-shaped building anchored by a pylon-like staircase, with long open-air corridors shaded by a weblike concrete screen that’s punctuated by brightly colored glass block, it’s long been a favorite of fans of the increasingly popular Miami Modern period.

Now it’s become the poster child in an increasingly fierce battle over the fate of a trove of buildings from the last century, pitting a small but exasperated cadre of preservationists against well-financed developers while putting residents at each others’ throats — almost literally.

The preservationists and some building residents have scored an unexpected string of victories in a series of heated public hearings before Miami-Dade County’s historic preservation board, winning legal protection for the Continental, which sits in the small Broad Causeway town of Bay Harbor Islands, as well as a handful of other mid-Century and Art Deco buildings in nearby Surfside.

They’ve also managed to press the county’s preservation office into reviving a long-stalled study into the possibility of enacting broad protections for Bay Harbor’s East Island, an unrivaled collection of mostly modest yet distinctive MiMo structures that have been rapidly falling to the wrecking ball as upscale condo developers extend their reach in search of waterfront property. Next month, the preservation board will discuss a new county survey that concludes that more than 130 of the surviving buildings on the island may qualify for historic designation, either as individual structures or as part of a historic district.

But the preservation push has now also prompted a spate of legal challenges and political pushback of a kind probably not seen since the height of battles to save South Beach’s Art Deco District 30 years ago, not to mention shouting matches during public hearings and at least a couple of instances in which a preservation opponent briefly grabbed or struck a proponent. At one preservation board hearing last month, the county’s sergeant-at-arms team ringed an auditorium at the Main Library downtown to keep the peace. Developers who want to buy and tear down the Continental, meanwhile, have sued three building residents who requested historic designation.

Last week, in a rare move, the Miami-Dade Commission narrowly overturned the preservation board’s recent unanimous designation of Surfside’s Seaside Terrace, a small 1948 beachfront condo. The condo’s president applied for the designation to safeguard the building’s future, but another unit owner appealed to the commission, contending that preserving it would hamper his ability to sell for a high price — a contention preservationists sharply dispute and which, they say, could set poor precedents for future decisions. It’s believed to be the first appeal of a county preservation board decision in years.

But it’s not the only one. Developers with big financial stakes and residents wanting the chance to cash out appear increasingly willing to challenge decisions by Miami-Dade’s preservation board, which under the county’s zoning ordinance can grant legal protection for buildings and places deemed architecturally or historically significant in unincorporated areas and municipalities lacking a local preservation program.

“There is so much development pressure, and the waterfront is the most prized asset for these big investors, and that’s where some of the most important historical buildings are,” said Daniel Ciraldo, preservation officer for the Miami Design Preservation League, the nonprofit group that successfully fought to save the South Beach Art Deco District. “And so you have this clash between people who want to maintain what they have, and investment groups and some owners who want to capitalize on it.”

Bay Harbor Mayor Jordan Leonard, who has been critical of the way the county preservation office and board have pursued designations, says the worst part of it is watching building residents feud.

“Seeing neighbor pitted against neighbor is painful,” Leonard said. “Watching them almost fighting each other is disturbing.”

One condo-unit owner filed an appeal of the hotly contested, recent designation of Surfside’s Seaway Villas, a low-scale 1930s Mediterranean beachfront condo on Collins Avenue which developers of the massive Surf Club renovation and expansion project nearby were trying to buy at a premium priceto redevelop. That owner dropped the appeal after the Surf Club group reached a compromise with other owners opposing the sale who had requested the historic designation.

The deal means the developers will purchase the Seaway, renovate it and build an addition — a plan that preservationists note will revitalize the historic property while paying off for owners in a demonstration of what they say is preservation done right.

Another contentious case, involving a small Streamline Moderne Art Deco apartment building across Collins Avenue, was also resolved through a compromise engineered by county preservation chief Kathleen Slesnick Kauffman, though one some preservationists found less satisfying. The county preservation board reluctantly gave its OK to the demolish all but the building’s Deco front after developer Chateau Group, which intends to build a mid-rise addition behind it, promised to restore the facade and install a small exhibition on the building and Surfside history in the lobby.

But P3 Investments, the group with a contract to buy out the Bay Harbor Continental, a co-op in which residents have shares in a corporation that owns the building, has been adamant in saying it’s not interested in saving or adding onto the historic building. Their attorney, former Miami Beach mayor Neisen Kasdin, is appealing last month’s designation of the building, designed by noted MiMo architect Charles McKirahan. The county commission is expected to hear that appeal in June.

All but one of the contested designations are complicated by the fact that they’re condos or co-ops in which a majority of owners can force a sale on unwilling residents, as well as by provisions in the county preservation ordinance. Although the ordinance requires the preservation board to consider financial hardship on owners, it also explicitly bars designation decisions from being made on the basis of owner consent. That’s because few historic buildings would ever be designated if owner consent was required.

Ciraldo and other preservationists say last week’s appeal decision by the commission seemed to run afoul of the consent rule, as commissioners were openly counting pro and con letters from building residents.

The Continental’s, meanwhile, was the first historic designation ever in the small town of Bay Harbor, where elected leaders have helped stymie previous efforts to protect East Island buildings — including the Continental. Four years ago, the county’s small preservation office withdrew a designation nomination for the 35-unit co-op, as well as an adjacent building also designed by McKirahan and featured in the Cable TV series Dexter, after running into strenuous objections from the town and some residents. The preservation office had been inventorying the island as its buildings turned 50, the age at which structures qualify for designation as historic.

But as East Island buildings increasingly met the wrecking ball, the county last year successfully nominated the island, all of which was originally built in the MiMo style in the 1940s and ‘50s, for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of 11 most endangered historic places in the nation. The resulting publicity provoked a furious reaction from town leaders who said they felt ambushed by the county.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman, responding to town complaints, lashed out at the county preservation office and demanded a moratorium on new designations in her district. She also twice tried to amend the preservation ordinance to allow towns to “opt out” of county jurisdiction and to require a majority vote of a condo before anyone can apply for designation, though both measures died in committee.

Heyman’s intervention, however, then led to a counter-move by frustrated members of the preservation board who, though picked by county commissioners, act independently, and by residents of buildings targeted by developers and under threat of demolition.

Board chairman Mitch Novick, a Beach hotel owner who previously led that city’s preservation board, pushed the body to order Kauffman to revive the stalled nominations for the Continental and the Dexter building, which is pending, and to update the broader East Island study. And when some residents of the Seaway, Seaside and Continental buildings asked for designation — as is allowed under the county ordinance — the board instructed Kauffman to review the applications. The board then approved all three designations after staff concluded they met legal criteria for architectural or historic importance.

Though the board and staff appear to have met legal requirements for notifications of pending actions, the about-face on the Continental and Dexter designations and the rapid pace of decisions provoked complaints from some developers, residents and municipal officials that the board did not provide them fair advance warning or sufficient chance to be heard, or steamrolled through their objections without fully considering them.

Novick said he believes staff and board members have acted properly amid pressing circumstances.

“We’ve been moving as best as we can, and I think we have done a commendable job,” he said.

Bay Harbor officials and preservationists agree on one complaint: They’re frustrated because the board has at least twice postponed scheduled discussion of broader designations in the East Island after losing quorum. In the meantime, amid the uncertainty, some East Island property owners have rushed to vacate and demolish buildings to beat possible designations.

The county survey shows a heavy toll. It says 18 buildings have been demolished recently, with approved demolitions for 19 other buildings, 16 of them significant enough to merit review for designation. Leonard, the town mayor, blames the county.

“It’s unfortunate the county board and staff have put the town in the position where people don’t know what’s going to happen,” Leonard said. “They keep pushing the agenda off. It’s a disservice to the community. As the result of this cloud over the town, people have lost their homes. They can blame the town, but the town has no power here.”

Some Continental owners, in particular, are furious that the designation came months after a majority of residents agreed to sell the property for $16.5 million, endangering the deal. Kasdin said they had reasonably assumed the county would not pursue designation. Those residents and Kasdin also contend the building is deteriorated and requires as much as $8 million in repairs, citing a report by engineers they hired to inspect the Continental. Because many residents are retired or living on fixed incomes, and several need money from the sale of their units to care for ailing relatives, designation places an undue economic hardship on them, Kasdin said.

“There needs to be a balancing of the architecture with the actual needs and hardship of owners and the greater public interest,” Kasdin said. “You have a unique set of circumstances with a lot of people who need the ability to sell the building. This provides them an opportunity to cash out. This is not a situation like South Beach hotels or apartment buildings that could be redeveloped.”

Kasdin also says the Continental designation was “flawed” from the start because the residents who applied for it could not so legally do so, since they’re not strictly unit owners but shareholders. And he suggested the dissenters are motivated by greed and are simply looking to extort a better deal from the developers.

But those residents say Kasdin’s arguments are balderdash. Carlos de la Torre, who was board president when he and two others applied for designation, says the promised sale is in trouble because of heavy corporate tax liabilities related to the building’s cooperative ownership. The tax would wipe out a big portion of sellers’ profits and has caused numerous residents to change their minds.

De la Torre, among the residents who has been sued by P3, also says the purported $8 million repair bill is preposterous and, like other dissenting residents, he insists the building is in solid shape, with no outstanding code violations. They also note designation doesn’t stop owners from selling at current market rates, which De la Torre contends would be significantly higher than the average unit price of around $242,000 offered by the developers a year ago.

“We’re not getting the deal we were promised, and, the fact is, it’s a historical building,” De La Torre said. “You will never be able to replace it.”

The dissenting residents also argue that being forced out of their homes at a price that would not get them equivalent places to live in today’s overheated market places an economic hardship on them as well.

“It’s not the money, it’s the life I live here,” said Salomon Nehmad, a 20-year Continental resident who says he has cancer and rescinded his vote in favor of the sale. “Where else am I going to find this peace and tranquility, with these views of the water? There’s no other place like this.”

In another unsual turn of events, Kauffman last week proposed that the board allow the developers to tear down the Continental, saving only the brise-soleil screen and installing it in front of a new, much larger contemporary building that its architects claimed would pay “homage” to the original’s MiMo design. The developers would also agree to seed a preservation fund for Bay Harbor.

But the board narrowly rejected the plan. Some members warned that rejecting it risks leaving nothing if the county commission overturns the designation. But others preferred to take their chances, arguing Kauffman’s proposal saved too little while the developers’ big new building would overwhelm its modestly scaled MiMo neighbors.

“The board is doing its job to the best of its ability, and what happens beyond that is a toss of the dice,” Novick said after Wednesday’s vote.

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