Miami-Dade County

Babylon Apartments live on as preservation board blocks demolition

The Babylon Apartments, designed by Arquitectonica
The Babylon Apartments, designed by Arquitectonica

Miami’s preservation board staved off the impending demolition of the Babylon Apartments, the first building designed by the famed homegrown firm Arquitectonica, unanimously voting to consider designating the structure a protected historic landmark.

The vote on Tuesday evening buys time for the Babylon, whose owner got the city to condemn it as an unsafe structure, by imposing a moratorium on issuance of a demolition permit by the city building department. But it doesn’t settle the question of the building’s survival long term.

Few dispute the architectural originality of the small Brickell apartment building, distinguished by its vivid red, ziggurat-shaped face, its key role in shaping the redevelopment of Brickell as an urban residential district in the 1980s, or its role in gaining a worldwide rep for the young Arquitectonica.

But the Babylon, designed in 1979 and completed in 1982, falls well short of the normal eligibility standard of 50 years of age for designation. That means the city’s preservation office must research whether it meets a higher bar of “exceptional importance” in order for it to be designated.

The board gave city preservation officer Megan Cross Schmitt until July to make that determination amid concerns aired by A. Vicky Leiva, the owner’s attorney. Leiva cited a structural analysis that concluded the building was poorly built and badly deteriorated, and could send debris flying into the surrounding neighborhood during a tropical storm.

Still, the vote represents a victory for preservationists.

Testimony in Tuesday’s hearing outlined a last-ditch effort to block demolition just as owner Francisco “Paco” Martinez Celeiro was about to obtain a demolition permit from the city. Martinez Celeiro has been trying for two years to demolish the five-story building and get the sliver of property it sits on rezoned for a much taller structure. He contends the building’s low-scale zoning was an error made during the drafting of the city’s Miami 21 code, and persuaded the city planning department to support the upzoning.

But the rezoning proposal stalled after provoking an uproar from neighboring residents, architects and preservationists and opposition from Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado. The city’s former planning director and Miami 21’s chief consultant also both said the low zoning for the Babylon was deliberate, an effort to keep the same development rights the property enjoyed under the old code, and not an error.

That imbroglio set the stage for a request on April 5 by historic preservation board member Lynn Lewis, with the support of historian Arva Moore Parks, for a report from city staff on whether there could be a case for designation for the Babylon. Parks has called the Babylon “truly an iconic building.”

That set in motion a 120-day moratorium on demolition a day before Martinez Celeiro was to get a permit to take the building down.

A subsequent report by Schmitt’s office concluded that the building deserves further study, but cautioned that several questions need to be addressed. Those include whether it’s truly Arquitectonica’s first building. Though the Babylon was designed at the same time as the larger Palace condo, the latter was finished first. The report also says more thought needs to be given to how the building fits in with Arquitectonica’s early work and the firm’s quick rise to fame, and how it compares with other buildings designated before they turned 50.

“Staff is not saying today that this property is eligible for designation,” Lewis said during Tuesday’s hearing. “I think there is enough there to warrant affording staff additional time to answer the questions it posed.”

Leiva argued that the condemnation by the city’s unsafe structures board — which gave Martinez Celeiro a deadline to repair or demolish the building — trumps the preservation board’s authority. But assistant city attorney Rafael Suarez-Rivas told the board it could proceed with a designation study.

Amilcar Fuentes, a real-estate broker who works in Brickell, urged the board to do so.

“The neighborhood needs more character, not less character,” he said. “The building has been a landmark for Brickell for years.”