Will Arquitectonica’s Babylon Apartments be razed or declared landmark?

The Babylon Apartments
The Babylon Apartments

Even after all these years, the six-story red ziggurat of the Babylon Apartments — the trendsetting first building designed by Miami’s renowned Arquitectonica — remains a head-turner, a startling, idiosyncratic presence on the humdrum Brickell waterfront.

Now, amid a churning battle over the Babylon’s future, the city of Miami will have to wrestle with a hard question: Should it stay or should it go?

The city’s historic preservation board, which in May halted the 34-year-old building’s impending demolition, will begin untangling the conundrum on Tuesday, when it considers whether the Babylon merits designation as a historic and architectural landmark. Leading preservationists and the Babylon’s neighbors have joined forces to support the designation.

Even if a board majority votes in the affirmative, though, the question likely won’t be settled, and there’s a good chance the tussle over the Babylon’s fate could turn into the most high-profile preservation fracas in Miami since the bitterly contested, unsuccessful attempt to save the Miami Herald’s bayside headquarters in 2012.

Like the fight over the Herald building, the Babylon debate is likely to touch on one of the hottest topics in preservation — how to handle Modern buildings erected such a short time ago that many people find it hard to think of them as “historic,” but that may nonetheless be familiar, even significant, pieces of the cityscape threatened by a relentless wave of development.

For historian Arva Moore Parks, saving the Babylon is akin to preserving Frank Lloyd Wright’s early buildings in Oak Park, Illinois, where the famed American architect got his start. Knocking it down, she argues, would be a cultural travesty.

“It’s like tearing down a Frank Lloyd Wright building in Oak Park. You just don’t do that,” Parks said. “This would make Miami look really bad nationally.

“There has never been a firm out of Miami that’s become as internationally famous as Arquitectonica. Never. And this basically is their first commercial building. This launched their career. It’s singular.”

In the Babylon’s case, however, the demolish-versus-preserve debate typical of many preservation efforts is complicated by some unusual factors.

For one thing, there’s a standing city order requiring Babylon owner Francisco “Paco” Martinez Celorio to demolish the building, which is badly deteriorated. Martinez Celorio applied for a demolition permit, claiming the building is crippled by structural issues stemming from poor construction that make it financially unfeasible to renovate, but was blocked when the preservation board decided to consider designation in March.

For another, the Babylon, which opened in 1982, falls well short of the usual 50-year threshhold for a building to be a candidate for historic designation by the city. The board can still designate, but only if advocates muster enough evidence to show the building possesses “exceptional” architectural and historic importance.

Martinez Celorio’s attorney, A. Vicky Leiva, says the city’s own conclusion that the Babylon represents a hazard should trump any action by the preservation board. The firm of John Pepper, a prominent structural engineer hired to study the building, concluded it didn’t even meet code when it was finished, and persistent water leaks since then have only made matters worse.

One arresting finding: that sliding glass doors along the elongated side of the building are anchored with wood, not concrete. Other issues include significant corrosion in the steel decking on balconies and structural steel and extensive concrete spalling, the report by Pepper’s PE Group says.

“It was obvious the building was way beyond the possibility of repair,” Leiva said. “This man is as good as it gets. He said a wind event of not even hurricane proportions can send projectiles throughout the area.”

Pepper’s report, however, also suggests the building was poorly maintained, citing instances of slapdash patching covering cracks in stucco and concrete instead of real repairs. And it notes the apartments, which Martinez Celorio recently vacated, have now been trashed, with missing appliances and cabinets, missing copper wiring and holes punched in walls and pipes.

Preservationists are skeptical. They note old buildings up for designation are commonly in bad shape, especially if owners have not kept them up, and that poor maintenance or reversible deterioration should not serve as an excuse for allowing a significant building to be destroyed. Like many old buildings also, they say, it could be secured sufficiently so that it’s safe while it is restored.

“It is repairable,” Parks said. “You go to Europe, and they have buildings hundreds of years old that they manage to fix up, and we can’t repair a 35-year-old building? That’s just ridiculous.”

Parks and other preservationists say the Babylon has both architectural and historic merit in spades. They contend its design is not only distinct and architecturally innovative, but also marked a critical turning point in Miami’s urban transformation from paradise lost to city of the future.

Arquitectonica was an unknown partnership of five young architects with one credit to its name — the prize-winning Pink House in Miami Shores — when it was commissioned to design a small apartment building on a skinny, elongated lot that had formerly been an estate. Before it was even built, the firm’s design for the Babylon won a major award, a 1978 Progressive Architecture citation, from a jury that included the renowned architect Richard Meier. The design was also featured in the magazine of the same name, bringing the young firm instant international attention.

The Babylon set the design template for a trio of subsequent, larger Brickell condos — including the Atlantis, the tower with a square hole and a palm tree in the middle that was featured in the opening titles of Miami Vice — that were credited with helping revive Miami’s image and launch its urban revival after the economic, crime and immigrant crises of the late 1970s and early ’80s. Arquitectonica, based in Coconut Grove, has since become an international presence, with offices in New York, Los Angeles, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and South America.

The city preservation office’s extensive report on the Babylon reaches no conclusion about whether the building clears the “exceptional” merit bar, but does say it meets three historic and architectural criteria for designation — ordinarily more than enough to justify landmark status.

The report does note that the 50-year standard is not universal. New York City, for instance, has a 30-year threshhold, and Miami Beach has none. The report also notes that Miami has at least twice designated structures that were less than 50 years old at the time, including the Miami Marine Stadium and the Bacardi headquarters on Biscayne Boulevard.

Preservationists also stress that at the time of the creation of the Art Deco Historic District that launched the revival of South Beach many of the buildings within it were less than 50 years old.

Some of the Babylon’s neighbors say the building is simply unique and irreplaceable.

“It has a very strong impact,” said Irina Leibowitz, who has organized an informal group of residents supporting designation. “It’s adorable, and it’s important. It’s a neighborhood character, it’s lived here all its life and it deserves to stay.”

Even if the city preservation board grants historic designation for the Babylon, however, the question seems likely to end up in the city commission’s lap. Consultants for Martinez Celorio say he would appeal a historic designation to the commission.

The designation could also clash legally with the city’s own “repair-or-demolish order.” The city’s independent Unsafe Structures Board could still order the Babylon’s demolition if it judges the building so unsafe as to constitute an immediate hazard, putting city officials in a quandary.

Such a move would be rare but not unprecedented. In 2002, the city preservation board reluctantly okayed the demolition of one of the last standing historically designated buildings from Overtown’s heyday, the 1925 Cola-Nip soda factory, after city engineers classified it as a hazardous structure. By then, however, the building had already partially collapsed.

In 2008, the preservation board rejected an application from the city’s code enforcement chief to demolish the designated East Coast Fisheries building on the Miami River, also declared a hazard, but was overruled by the city commission. The neglected building had been reduced to a shell eight years after the restaurant for which it was known had closed.

The demolition threat hanging over the Babylon first came to light earlier this year, just before the city commission was scheduled to consider an unusual application by the planning department that would have dramatically increased the zoning capacity for Martinez Celorio’s lot. Leiva and city planners contended that a “scrivener’s” error when the city’s new Miami 21 zoning code was drafted erroneously capped construction on the lot at eight stories, when it should have been increased to 48 stories.

But the city planning director at the time and the lead consultant on the Miami 21 code — by coincidence, former Arquitectonica founding member Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk — told the Miami Herald there had been no such error. The upzoning request, twice continued by the commission, is still pending, Leiva said Friday.

Martinez-Celorio sued the city in May to try to get the preservation board’s moratorium on his demolition permit lifted, but Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Migna Sanchez-Llorens said she couldn’t act until after Tuesday’s hearing.