Miami-Dade County

Preservation board votes down pursuing designation for Bal Harbour church

The 70-year-old Church by the Sea in Bal Harbour on 96th Street, November 6, 2015.
The 70-year-old Church by the Sea in Bal Harbour on 96th Street, November 6, 2015. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

A majority of Miami-Dade’s historic preservation board reluctantly voted Wednesday not to pursue designation of Bal Harbour’s beleaguered Church by the Sea as a protected landmark, likely putting an end to a months-long effort by activists and some church members to save the wealthy resort town’s oldest standing building from demolition to make way for a shopping-mall expansion.

The Congregational church, which has an agreement to sell its property to neighboring Bal Harbour Shops, has been enveloped in controversy for a couple of weeks as it rushed to demolish its 1940s building, apparently to circumvent possible action by the preservation board. The congregation abruptly moved out — with no plan in place for a new home — and removed the building’s stained-glass windows, initially without permits. It also sued Bal Harbour to force it to grant demolition permits, which are pending and should be issued soon.

Bal Harbour Shops’ owners, the Whitman family, meanwhile caused jaws to drop this week by posting an “alert” on their website virtually accusing their luxury-retail competitors, Aventura Mall and the Miami Design District, of stoking the opposition to the church demolition as a way of blocking their planned expansion.

Apparently that was all much ado about nothing.

The board’s 6-3 vote not to proceed came with an unexpected legal twist that appeared to mystify and miff some board members, including its outspoken chairman, Miami Beach preservationist and hotelier Mitch Novick. County preservation chief Kathleen Kauffman cited strict special preservation criteria that apply to churches and concluded that Church by the Sea did not meet those, and Assistant County Attorney Ed Kirtley told the board they could not take any further action without her positive recommendation.

Those criteria mean that churches can be designated historic only if they have unusual architectural merit, she said. And Church by the Sea, though the work of two prominent Miami architects, is a melange that doesn’t stand out sufficiently, Kauffman concluded.

John Shubin, an attorney for both the church and Bal Harbour Shops, praised Kirtley and Kauffman for reaching what he said was the correct legal conclusion and did not raise a legal argument himself.

Novick and other board members, expressing puzzlement and noting that boards often overrule staff recommendations, nonetheless pushed for the board to ask Kauffman to prepare a study of the church. But other members said they did not want to act in contravention of Kirtley’s advice.

“Painful, but no,” said board member Lourdes Solera, who said she believes the church merits designation, as she cast a vote against proceeding.

A group of church members who had testified against designating the building, noting that the congregation majority approved the sale, applauded the vote, which disappointed an equally numerous number of preservationists, activists, residents and dissenting church members.

The vote and staff recommendations drew swift condemnation from the Bal Harbour Neighbors Alliance, a new group that is opposing the mall’s expansion because of its impact on traffic and that has supported the church designation. The Whitmans suggested in their posting that the Alliance is a phantom group supported by Aventura Mall’s Soffer family and the Design District’s Craig Robins, who has roundly denied the claim.

One of the alliance’s officers, Surfside resident Alexandra Cruz, testified Wednesday in favor of proceeding with designation. After the vote, the group — whose registered agent, attorney and former state legislator J.C. Planas, unsuccessfully sued last week to block demolition of the church — issued a statement accusing county staff of “misleading’’ the board and called their legal interpretation “unheard of.”

The vote came at the conclusion of a three-plus hour meeting in Bay Harbor Islands’ town hall that also touched on another local hot-button issue: the potential preservation of the small town’s trove of Miami Modern buildings, which has been met with opposition by town leaders and some residents. Kauffman gave the board an update on an ongoing study that has identified 48 buildings that are eligible for historic designation. But she said the study is incomplete and asked for more time to continue ongoing meetings with some individual building residents.

Here too Novick pushed for immediate action, noting that a few dozen potentially historic buildings have already met the wrecking ball in Bay Harbor as developers rush ahead of board action. But the rest of the board voted to accede to Kauffman’s request.

At least one preservationist in attendance challenged board members, suggesting that aggressive opposition by Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman, who has vowed to block all designations in her districts, has cowed staff and board alike.

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