Miami Beach

Lennar CEO seeking demolition of Star Island historic home

Another historic mansion on Miami Beach’s ultra-exclusive Star Island could meet the wrecking ball to clear the way for a lush, new residence.

City staffers are reviewing preliminary plans to demolish the 83-year-old, 8,000 square-foot residence at 22 Star Island that was once home to the island’s yacht club built by legendary Miami Beach developer Carl Fisher. The homeowner — Stuart Miller, CEO of Miami-based homebuilding giant Lennar Corporation — wants to erect a 22,000-square-foot mansion in its place.

Preservationists are incensed with the proposal that comes six months after the end of the 42 Star Island saga. After a protracted battle, the City Commission decided in January not to declare the 1925 home historic, and in March the home’s owners, Real Housewives of Miami cast member Lisa Hochstein and her plastic surgeon husband Leonard Hochstein, bulldozed it to build a 20,000-square-foot house. Walter DeGarmo, Florida’s first registered architect, had designed the landmark home.

The recently submitted plans for 22 Star are under initial review by the city’s planning department, and the item has not been placed on any agenda yet, but an online petition has already gathered nearly 450 signatures to stop the plans. Activist group Save Miami Beach has organized the petition called “Save 22 Star Island from Demolition.”

Marshall Ames, a Lennar vice president, declined to comment for this story.

The outrage from the community is nothing new. Apart from the other Star Island home, the preservation community more recently decried plans to build a two-story retail development on one of Lincoln Road’s last remaining green spaces, the courtyard of the Miami Beach Community Church. Fisher built the 1920 church, the Beach’s oldest. Those plans will go forward after the city’s Historic Preservation Board chose not to rehear that case last week.

The City Commission revised development regulations earlier this year. The changes were intended to give homeowners incentives to keep their old houses and regulate the sizes of new homes.

Preservationists insist it wasn’t enough.

“We’re going to continue to see spectacular homes demolished,” said Daniel Ciraldo, chairman of the public policy committee of the Miami Design Preservation League.

There were 52 applications to demolish architecturally significant homes filed with the city from 2012 through 2013 — more than the previous seven years combined. The Beach’s prime location and high real estate values have led to the increase.

The City Commission’s Land Use & Development Committee will c onsider more tweaks to the city’s development code Wednesday afternoon, including increasing the range of homes considered for extra review by the city’s Design Review Board.

Preservationists, however, want more. They ultimately want all homes seeking a demolition permit to undergo review by the city’s historic preservation board, similar to what’s done in Coral Gables.

The idea has not found much support from the current City Commission.

Commissioner Deede Weithorn said a Gables-style approach is too broad of a step.

Even though the city may end up there over time, she said, she favors considering smaller tweaks to make sure that new homes don’t hurt the character of their surroundings.

“I’m afraid the people are trying to take giant steps instead of baby steps,” she said.

“In an effort to not lose something, the preservation community says, ‘Let’s save everything.’ ”

Mayor Philip Levine said the city should focus on creating incentives that would encourage homeowners to preserve their homes, including tax breaks, lowering costs and fast-tracking renovations by homeowners. He said he plans to broach the topic with the commission at a future meeting.

“I think the way we do it is we give such incredible incentives to renovate the home,” he said.

“That requires the city putting its money where its mouth is. I’d be willing to listen to the staff to hear great ideas.”

From yacht club

to decadence

Older single-family homes across the Beach have a vocal community supporting their preservation because of histories like the one held within the walls of 22 Star Island, the home Miller is seeking to tear down.

Built in 1931 by Miami Beach pioneer Carl Fisher and designed by renowned architect Martin Hampton, 22 Star started out as one third of a complex that made up the island’s yacht club. Fisher later sold the club to Col. Ned Green, the one-legged son of wealthy Wall Street financier and noted miser Henrietta “Hetty” Green. Her personality earned her the nickname “The Witch of Wall Street.”

Col. Green brought his fortune and excesses to the island, always keeping several young women around the mansion and amassing a large collection of pornography, according to stories passed down by homeowners. On occasion, he’d bring the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to his front lawn.

Preservationists argue that homes with colorful stories and significant architecture add character to their neighborhoods, which is why local groups like the MDPL and Miami Beach United have pushed for more stringent preservation laws.

Changes the city commission made to development rules earlier this year were meant to provide incentives for owners to preserve single-family homes.

Under the old laws, homeowners who tore down a pre-1942 house would be limited in the size of the new home, depending on the size of the lot. Approval from the Design Review Board would have been required to exceed the standard of a home occupying between 15 and 30 percent of the lot.

Now, all homeowners simply get 30 percent lot coverage regardless of the lot size. Critics say the new law actually widens development rights by removing a process typically required for larger lot coverage. Supporters say it evens out the playing field.

Jane Gross, a member of the Historic Preservation Board, said the current rules don’t have enough teeth to discourage owners of old homes from tearing them down.

“Our city is one of very few in the country where all the homes were built by architects for individual residents,” she said. “There are no planned communities or cookie cutter homes. That is really something we need to celebrate and honor.”

She thinks while the City Commission easily backs preserving commercial historic districts, it isn’t ready to take a hard line on private homes.

“I think this commission is totally dedicated to the preservation of our commercial historic districts (we have 11), but I do not think there is the political will at this time to regulate private property rights for residents' private homes, historic or not,” she said.

Pushing for more preservation

On Wednesday afternoon, the city’s Land Use & Development Committee will consider a few measures that would further strengthen the single-family home zoning code.

The threshold for homes that would be considered “architecturally significant” would move from homes built before 1942 to homes built before 1966. This would trigger a public review process by the Design Review Board for a larger range of homes before demolition. Neighbors would be notified of any proposed changes to the homes.

Also, all new homes created after a lot split would need approval from the Design Review Board or Historic Preservation Board. Again, neighbors would get a chance to sound off on the plans. The code currently calls for DRB or HPB review only if one of the lots has a pre-1942 home on it.

Preservationists support the proposals, which could slow down the tide of demolition permits that have been requested in recent years.

As for 22 Star, the plans remain under staff review and could be placed on an agenda later in the fall. Levine said he will personally appeal to Miller to try and convince him to preserve the home.

“Maybe I can change his mind,” he said. “But he’s within his legal right. All I can do is try to convince him.”

Jo Manning, a Historic Preservation Board member, said she’s found that average residents do care about the historic preservation when the topic is presented to them.

“When the situation is explained to residents, they are very willing to sign pro-preservation petitions, and few residents like to see ‘McMansions’ sprouting next door to them.”

If you go

What: Land Use and Development Committee Meeting

When: 3 p.m. Wednesday

Where: City Commission Chambers in City Hall, 1700 Convention Center Drive