Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade commissioner’s drive would weaken historic preservation, activists say

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman Miami Herald staff

As Miami-Dade County’s historic preservation office struggled to protect a trove of distinctive Miami Modern and Art Deco buildings in Bay Harbor Islands and Surfside amid opposition from local officials and developers, staffers found themselves stymied by an unexpected foe: One of their own bosses, County Commissioner Sally Heyman.

The commissioner has undertaken an unusually public campaign to prevent Miami-Dade’s preservation board and office, which have jurisdiction over municipalities without preservation programs of their own, from designating buildings in both small towns — which are in her district — as historic.

She has also sponsored a pair of amendments to the county preservation ordinance that preservationists contend would not only end any hope of significant preservation in either town, but also weaken protection of historic and architectural buildings and places countywide.

Heyman said she’s frustrated because she believes the preservation office developed designation plans in both towns without fully informing her office or town residents and officials, and said her goal is to foster improved communication and more involvement in preservation decisions by the locals.

Heyman’s drive has raised concerns statewide. It comes as the county’s small preservation staff has sought to identify and safeguard significant, primarily mid-20th century buildings erected in the boom years after World War II as they reach 50 years of age, making them eligible for protection. But a new condo boom is threatening many of those properties.

One of Heyman’s proposals, to permit Bay Harbor and other towns to “opt out” of the county’s preservation jurisdiction and establish their own preservation programs, prompted an unusual letter of concern to Miami-Dade Commission Chair Rebeca Sosa from the Florida Department of State, which oversees local programs. The letter calls the county’s preservation program “a model.”

The Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, the state’s leading private preservation group, meanwhile sent county commissioners a letter opposing Heyman’s measure, calling it “radical.”

Heyman said she wants towns to have the chance at “self-determination” in preservation. “I just want everyone to take a step back and look at it as a whole, listen to their constituents and weigh it out,” she said. “It’s too important to piecemeal.”

But preservationists say that turning over the task of preservation to towns with long records of opposition to it effectively gives them a green light to do nothing. The Surfside council, for instance, recently voted to urge the county not to designate buildings under consideration for protection. In Bay Harbor, which has no building designated as historic, officials have called designation of private properties “un-American” and labeled a leading preservation activist a “jihadist” in emails and public meetings.

Preservationists note that with county efforts to identify and designate MiMo buildings in Bay Harbor at a standstill, the result has been a rash of demolitions and approvals for new development in the town’s East Island, recognized as a unique collection of tropical mid-Century Modern buildings by some of the leading architects of the era, including Morris Lapidus.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the island one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the country, prompting an angry reaction from some town leaders who say there is little worth saving there.

“It’s really a mechanism to opt out of preservation entirely,” Daniel Ciraldo, preservation officer at the Miami Design Preservation League, said of Heyman’s opt-out plan. “It does make you wonder, exactly what is driving this?”

Town officials say the perception they’re anti-preservation is unfair.

“I believe that if municipalities like Bay Harbor Islands had the opportunity to create their own Historic Board, we would be more successful as a community in finding that medium between preserving historic locations and preserving the rights of our citizens,” said Bay Harbor vice mayor Jordan Leonard, a leading proponent of the opt-out idea, in an email. “Many people believe that the County has acted as a reactionary arm of a small, but passionate, segment of individuals against the limited and restricted development allowed in our small Town.”

Matters could come to a head this week. The county’s cultural affairs committee will consider Heyman’s opt-out amendment on Wednesday.

Then, on Thursday, the historic preservation board will weigh historic designation for three Surfside buildings, two of which have been under threat of demolition — including Seaway Villas, a small 1920s beachfront condo where some unit owners say the board and a developer have tried to force them to sell against their will by exploiting a loophole in state law.

Surfside town officials, citing a demand by Heyman that the county preservation office halt all designation activities in the town for six months, have repeatedly and fruitlessly asked the independent preservation board not to proceed. The board had previously acceded to Heyman’s demand, freezing pending studies and designations temporarily.

But two of the proposed Surfside designations, of Seaway Villas and a neighboring co-op, came about not because the county preservation office initiated them, but because individual owners in both buildings approached the board and asked for it — their right under the county ordinance.

That prompted a second proposed amendment by Heyman: to require a vote of 75 percent of a condo or co-op before residents can request designation. That proposal passed the county commission on first reading.

The third Surfside building, a 1940 Streamline Moderne apartment house that the preservation office had nominated for designation before the Heyman freeze, will be heard Thursday at the request of a developer who purchased the property and may seek to save a portion as part of a larger redevelopment.

That building, and a nearby collection of buildings that the county office had proposed for designation as a historic district, were the subject of a broadside by Heyman and Surfside vice mayor Eli Tourgeman at a council meeting in September.

Heyman ridiculed the county’s effort to designate the buildings, joking that she’s older than most of them, while Tourgeman dismissed them as “dumps.” Heyman also claimed, without offering evidence, that the preservation office and board “violated” the county ordinance requirements on notification.

She also vowed to stop any designations in her district, which includes 13 cities, until her concerns were satisfied. Though the preservation board makes independent decisions on designations, appeals go to the county commission. “I will not allow anything. I will defer it. I will protest it. I will keep it in the ozone if I have to,” she said.

Deputy mayor Jack Osterholt, who oversees the historic preservation office, says he’s to blame for not keeping Heyman’s office up to date on initiatives in her district. But said he knew of no improprieties in the program.

“Everything I know of the office, and what it’s been doing, is that it’s been according to their responsibilities,” Osterholt said. “I would not be sitting here acting as if everything was OK if I knew of any illegal activity.”

County preservation board chairman Mitch Novick, a former chair of Miami Beach’s preservation board, praised the professionalism of county preservation chief Kathleen Slesnick Kauffman and her staff. Novick said he found Heyman’s intervention “misguided.”

“I’ve never seen a commissioner, whether in Miami Beach or in the county, taking such an aggressive stance,” he said. “I’m disappointed with Sally for trying to unravel the very successful preservation efforts that have been in place since the ’70s. It’s those incessant pressures of development by billionaire developers that are swaying Sally to take such an aggressive anti-preservation stance.”

Novick said Sunny Isles Beach illustrates the pitfalls of allowing cities to opt out of county jurisdiction. The town was allowed to opt out in 2003, the last time municipalities were given a window to assume responsibility for preservation. Since then, the town has allowed virtually all of its extensive stock of MiMo motels to be wiped out and replaced by towering condos. Meanwhile, perennially troubled Opa-locka, which elected to opt out when the county ordinance was passed in 1981, has no board and no active program.

Heyman lamented the loss of those Sunny Isles motels in an interview. But she blamed the county preservation board for failing to protect them even though the town has been running its own program for 11 years.

“Where the hell, in all due respect, where was anybody in Sunny Isles Beach?” she said, referring to county preservation officials. “They allowed all the old hotels to be knocked down. It had real value, from the Castaways on down.”