Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade protects two historic Surfside buildings, puts Bay Harbor Islands in its sights

Stephen Norris, a 20-year owner and resident of a condominium at The Seaway Villas in Surfside, stands in the courtyard of the condiminium on Thursday Oct. 16, 2014, and talks about the architectural gem of the 29-unit building.
Stephen Norris, a 20-year owner and resident of a condominium at The Seaway Villas in Surfside, stands in the courtyard of the condiminium on Thursday Oct. 16, 2014, and talks about the architectural gem of the 29-unit building. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Seaway Villas, a Mediterranean-inspired 1936 residential building in Surfside that was under threat of demolition amid a fracas among its residents over whether to sell the condo to a developer, will likely be around for a few more generations.

In a closely watched vote, the Miami-Dade preservation board on Thursday unanimously elected to designate the building, the first beachfront apartment house in Surfside, as historic — a legal label that bars demolition or exterior alterations.

The nine-member board, overriding a request from Surfside officials that it hold off on designating any properties in the town, also granted historic status to the front piece of an architecturally distinctive Streamline Moderne apartment house on the west side of Collins Avenue a couple of blocks north of the Seaway.

The Art Deco front of the Bougainvillea Apartments, which contains the building’s most significant architectural features and would house a museum on the history of Surfside, is to be integrated into a contemplated mixed-use development that could fill the 9300 block of Collins all the way to Harding Avenue.

Both designations came with the acquiescence of developers who had initially sought to demolish the buildings to make way for larger projects. The Bougainvillea designation was the result of an unusual compromise proposal negotiated by county preservation chief Kathleen Slesnick Kauffman and the developer, Chateau Group, which is building the large Fendi Chateau condo on the beach across Collins Avenue.

The lack of objections from developers seems to have lowered the temperature in a hearing that came as Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman, acting in part at the behest of town officials in Surfside and nearby Bay Harbor Islands, has tried to prevent the county preservation office and board from going forward with designations in either of the towns, which are undergoing a wave of condo redevelopment. The county preservation office has jurisdiction over municipalities without their own programs.

But board members, clearly frustrated by Heyman’s unusual intervention and efforts by town officials to block preservation of some significant buildings, voted to hold a discussion in January on how to proceed with new designations in Bay Harbor.

The county has been trying for five years to protect a trove of Miami Modern buildings in the town’s East Island, but has been stymied by objections from town officials and, more recently, Heyman. The standstill has led to a rash of demolitions on the island, including of some significant MiMo buildings by well known architects of the era. Activists say the town has allowed demolition of seven buildings in the past month alone.

Preservationists were coming off a fresh victory Wednesday. A county commission committee tabled a proposal by Heyman that would have allowed municipalities like Surfside and Bay Harbor Islands to opt out of county preservation jurisdiction, effectively killing the measure for now. A second proposal by Heyman, designed to make it harder for individual condo owners to request designation — as happened at Seaway Villas — was approved by the commission on first reading.

“What has occurred is unacceptable,’’ board chairman Mitch Novick said, urging his colleagues to take prompt action. “Our charge is preservation, and we need to get some protection in Bay Harbor. The community has been decimated.”

In Thursday’s hearing, there were moments of heat when three Seaway Villas unit owners argued strenuously against designation of their building, which they said was too deteriorated to save — “a dump’’ one of them called it. But board members were clearly unpersuaded, with some noting the building had just undergone extensive repairs as part of a legally required re-certification.

The Seaway designation was a David-and-Goliath win for three unit owners who had refused to sell to Fort Capital, a deep-pocketed developer that contracted to buy a majority of the condos in the small, two-story building. In alliance with the condo board, the developers tried using a loophole in state condo law to force the three holdouts to sell. The board went so far as to obtain a demolition permit from town building officials, even though the Seaway had not been sold.

The holdouts, including Bal Harbour vice-mayor Patricia Cohen, then approached the county board to request designation of their building.

Fort Capital officials have said they’re working on a compromise deal but have provided no details.

Also on Thursday, the county preservation office presented the board a designation report for another beachfront Surfside building, Seaside Terrace, that concludes it qualifies for historic status. Residents of the building, which is not facing purchase or redevelopment, requested designation from the board last month. The board will vote on designation of Seaside Terrace next month.

At Heyman’s request, the preservation board imposed a six-month moratorium earlier this year on new designation proposals by the county staff. But the board concluded the moratorium, which expires in March, did not apply to the Seaway or the Seaside buildings because they were requested by owners, which is permitted by the county preservation ordinance.

The Chateau Group, meanwhile, asked that a decision be made on the Bougainvillea because they have pending deals on the land around it.

The designation proposal presented by Slesnick would have allowed the developers to move the protected building front elsewhere on the block. But board chairman Mitch Novick objected, and attorneys for the developer agreed the piece could stay where it is.

The idea, Slesnick said, is to preserve the historic view of the building front from Collins Avenue. Had the 1940 building already been designated historic, Slesnick said, she likely would not have endorsed a similar plan. But she said it allows preservation of the building’s nearly intact streamline facade, which includes the rounded corners, portholes and window “eyebrows’’ typical of the late-Deco style.

“It’s not a perfect situation for them, and it’s not a perfect situation for us,’’ she told the board.

But some Surfside residents complained that the compromise means the two-story building would lose its graceful side garden and a pair of exterior arched staircases.

“It’s a shame to lose those beautiful staircases,’’ said Surfside resident Tina Paul.