For 70 years, the soaring steeple of the massive old Shenandoah Presbyterian Church has dominated a prominent corner on Calle Ocho in Little Havana, an architectural landmark on a famous street largely devoid of them.
So when neighbors and members of a congregation who had been renting the church found out earlier this year it had been sold to a developer who planned to demolish it and build apartments on the two-acre site at Southwest 22nd Avenue, they launched a last-ditch effort to save it.
The group collected more than 2,000 signatures on an online petition on change.org in favor of preserving the 1949 church, and commissioned a report from a noted firm that concluded it deserved designation as a historic building for its architectural quality. The neighbors thought they had won a reprieve when Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, in an unusual move, asked the city’s historic preservation office to study whether the church deserved protection as a designated landmark, effectively putting a hold on demolition.
But in another unusual twist, Suarez then rescinded his request in a second letter on Sept. 24, two months after the first. That lifted the hold and reopened the door to demolition before the city’s preservation board, which makes designation decisions, had a chance to consider it.
Within a day of the second letter, crews began tearing down the church — even as the residents’ consultants and attorneys and a prominent architect working for the developer, all apparently unaware that demolition had already begun, were making presentations to the board of Dade Heritage Trust. The trust, Miami-Dade’s leading preservation group, was considering whether to back the effort to save the church.
On Friday, 10 days after backhoes began tearing away at the church complex, about all that remained standing was the 115-foot steeple and the sanctuary’s grand neo-Classical facade with its tall Corinthian columns.
The abrupt change of fortune shocked the neighbors and preservationists, who are raising questions about the city’s handling of the church case and calling for reforms in the way its preservation program identifies and designates historic landmarks in need of legal protection.
The unusual Little Havana case comes as a wave of redevelopment and demolitions has claimed numerous familiar and even cherished landmarks across Miami and put many others at risk, often to the consternation of longtime residents and preservationists who complain the city seems unable or unwilling to stem the tide.
“No one thought even remotely that they were going to demolish it,” said a distraught Joy Boleda, a Shenandoah homeowner and real estate agent who helped lead the campaign to protect the Little Havana church. “No one thought Francis was going to lift his hold.”
In an interview Friday, Suarez said he had acted in good faith.
He said he asked the city preservation office to review the church at the request of the residents and congregation members, but said he did not realize that would freeze an application for a demolition permit by the developer, Altman Companies of Boca Raton, which had already received city approval to build 224 market-rate rental apartments on the site. Suarez said he then asked city preservation chief Warren Adams to expedite the review.
Suarez said he sent Adams the second letter only after reading three reports on the merits of the designation case, including the favorable one by the neighbors’ consultants, former city preservation chief Megan McLaughlin. Suarez said he also met with Dade Heritage representatives and with McLaughlin, a partner in Plusurbia, an award-winning planning firm that has developed plans to preserve Wynwood and Little Havana.
She concluded, in an extensively researched 90-page report, that the church was an outstanding design by Robert Fitch Smith, a leading Miami architect from the 1930s to the 1960s, and recommended designation. Fitch also designed other prominent churches in the post-World War II period, including University Baptist (now Christ Journey Church) and Granada Presbyterian in Coral Gables, as well as a number of other distinctive works of architecture, including the Java Head estate in Coral Gables, the MacArthur Dairy building and Miami’s first auto-oriented shopping mall on the corner of Biscayne Boulevard and 79th Street.
The two other reports on Fitch’s Little Havana church, one prepared as part of the developers’ due diligence in early 2018 by prominent Coral Gables preservation architect Richard Heisenbottle, and another by current city preservation officer Adams, agreed in concluding that the church lacked sufficient architectural distinction to merit designation. Suarez also met with attorneys for the developer from Miami’s Bilzin Sumberg, a spokesman for the firm said.
Suarez said he concluded it wasn’t worth pursuing the designation further. Because he was technically the applicant for designation under city law, he also had the right to end the process by withdrawing his request. His intervention, he noted, meant the church received a review it otherwise would not have gotten.
“I just thought it was the right thing to do,” Suarez said of his initial request. “Because I initiated the process, I have the right to review the findings as to whether I want to go forward or not. But for my letter, the church would have been demolished a couple of months ago.”
Suarez said he “deferred” to Adams’ report. That report carried a routine disclaimer that it was a preliminary evaluation that could change with further research. Typically, that evaluation then goes to the city’s preservation board for a public hearing. After hearing testimony, the board, which has regulatory power to protect properties of high architectural or historic significance, can then order the preservation officer to conduct that further research, or drop the matter.
That debate never happened, however. The hearing on the church was scheduled for Sept. 2, but was postponed because of approaching Hurricane Dorian. Even before then, supporters of designation say, the item was taken off the agenda for unexplained reasons. The Sept. 2 meeting was reset for Sept. 27, but the church item was not included.
The fact they never got a hearing rankles supporters of the effort to save the church, who say they believe the developer managed to bypass the system, which is supposed to act as a safeguard for irreplaceable historic buildings.
“It never even reached the board,” Boleda angrily complained.
The timing of Suarez’s second letter also led to a discomfiting Sept. 25 meeting hosted by Dade Heritage Trust. Boleda said the Little Havana and Shenandoah neighbors’ group asked the trust to intervene as co-applicant with Suarez for historic designation. The trust had sent a letter to the city preservation office supporting Suarez’s initial request for a review, executive director Christine Rupp said.
The group invited McLaughlin, the group supporting designation for the church and representatives of the developer, including architect Heisenbottle, to make their cases. But as the meeting opened, Boleda’s group did not know Suarez had rescinded his request the day before. Neither did Dade Heritage Trust, Rupp said.
Through a spokesman, the developers’ attorneys at the meeting, Javier Aviñó and Vickey Leiva of Bilzin Sumberg, said they informed the trust that the city had issued a demolition permit earlier in the day. But they were unaware that demolition work had begun, the spokesman said. Heisenbottle, who made a presentation, referred a request for comment to Aviñó. Heisenbottle later shared with the Miami Herald an email to someone else in which he said he, too, was unaware demolition had started at the time of the meeting.
Rupp said the trust’s board ended up not taking a vote, and members were frustrated to learn later that demolition had begun even before they heard the presentations from both sides, and before the city preservation had a chance to weigh in.
“In a perfect world, this should have gone to the board. That is their job,” Rupp said.
But Suarez said preservationists began the process of review too late, after the developers had purchased the property and were well on their way to building.
“All I can say on that, if they want to designate properties, they should not wait until the last minute,” Suarez said.
But Rupp and others like Plusurbia’s McLaughlin and founding partner Juan Mullerat say the church case highlights the need for reform, especially as the current wave of redevelopment extends further into neighborhoods such as Little Havana, which has hundreds of historic buildings likely worthy of designation but lacking any protection or even the chance to receive a review.
What often happens, they say, is that preservationists can react only after learning a building is at risk for demolition. Given the flood of building applications the city receives, and the scant resources that both groups like Dade Heritage Trust or short-staffed municipal preservation offices have, there is currently no way to track those, they say.
One action Miami could take would be to conduct a survey of properties to identify those that might be eligible for designation and begin a gradual review process — a common tool used in other cities. Miami has not done such a review since the 1980s, McLaughlin said.
Another possible reform, preservationists say, would be to adopt a rule similar to measures in Coral Gables and other cities that require a review by the preservation office of demolition permits for buildings older than 50 years, the standard age at which structures qualify for historic designation. That might prove an onerous task in a big city like Miami, but the list of properties that qualify for review could be narrowed down through additional criteria, they said.
“There are buildings all over the city that are 50 years or older that are not going through a cursory review because there is no ordinance,” Rupp said. “The fact the [historic preservation] office doesn’t review every building over 50 years old is a significant issue.”
That’s an idea Suarez said he could support. Such a review program, he said, would also ensure fairness for developers and property owners because they would know in advance that older properties are subject to a historic review, and not be surprised when neighbors or preservationists attempt to get it designated. The mayor said he has scheduled a meeting with Mullerat and McLaughlin to discuss how to improve that process.
“I think that is a wonderful idea,” Suarez said. “Designation shouldn’t be a last-minute crisis thing. It’s also notice to the buyer. I like the concept, maybe with one or two additional criteria to narrow it down.”
Rupp noted that any reform will come way too late for Shenandoah Presbyterian. Though Boleda and others want the city to require the developers to rebuild the church, that’s a drastic measure rarely undertaken and unlikely to occur in this case, Mullerat said.
But, Rupp added: “Whatever happened here should not happen again.”