Owner wants to demolish apartment, but city board says at 34, it’s historic

The Babylon Apartments
The Babylon Apartments Arquitectonica

The building on Brickell’s waterfront known by some as the “little red building” and by others as the iconic first building designed by Miami’s Arquitectonica was designated historic Tuesday by a city board, a key approval that prevents it from being demolished.

All six members of Miami’s historic preservation board who were present Tuesday voted to designate the Babylon, a 34-year-old building with a vivid red ziggurat-shaped facade that launched Arquitectonica to international recognition when its design won the firm a major award in 1978, four years before it was even built.

The designation was approved over the objections of the property owner, Francisco “Paco” Martinez-Celeiro, who is expected to appeal the designation to the City Commission. The building is so badly deteriorated that Martinez-Celeiro says it’s not financially feasible to renovate it, and the city has ordered it be demolished.

A few dozen supporters ranging from neighbors to architects came to support saving the Babylon, which is nestled among a swath of condo towers that dwarf its six-story height.

“Everyone in Brickell knows the little red building,” said Amilcar Fuentes, a real estate broker who works in Brickell. “It does add character and it should be preserved.”

While the Babylon falls well short of the 50-year threshold that would easily make it eligible for historic designation, board members determined the building meets other criteria that qualify it as historic. The city’s preservation staff did not provide a conclusive recommendation on whether or not to designate the Babylon, but it did determine the building meets three historic and architectural criteria for designation.

“I think we have received a great deal of evidence that the Babylon constitutes an exceptional piece of architecture, notwithstanding its relatively young nature,” said board member Lynn Lewis.

The debate is likely not over.

Martinez-Celeiro maintains the Babylon, which opened 1982, has fallen into such bad shape that it is beyond repair. He commissioned an engineering report that identified structural issues that stem from bad construction, making it financially unfeasible to rehabilitate the building.

A. Vicky Leiva, the owner’s attorney, said Tuesday’s outpouring of support for designation can be attributed to neighbors’ desires to stop any development that could block their views of the water. Earlier this year, the city almost considered increasing the zoning capacity for Martinez-Celeiro’s lot. Soon after, the historic preservation board voted to study designation, which put a moratorium on demolition.

“This is one more typical Miami reaction to using historic preservation as an anti-development approach,” Leiva said.

There is also a pending lawsuit to consider. Martinez-Celeiro sued the city in May to get the demolition moratorium lifted. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Migna Sanchez-Llorens said she couldn’t act until after Tuesday’s hearing.

Even if the fight continues, Tuesday’s vote marked a victory for preservationists.

“I think this building is wild. It’s crazy. It’s whimsical,” said board member David A. Freedman. “It stirs a lot of emotions, pro and con. You could say that same thing, each of those descriptions, about the city of Miami itself. I think this an exceptional city, and this is an exceptional building.”