Nestled in a quiet corner of North Beach, the Tatum Waterway is home to a cluster of buildings that showcase the bold, optimistic postwar architecture known as "Miami Modern" or "MiMo" — overhanging eaves, external staircases and poles shooting out of the ground like light beams.
But the waterfront neighborhood is also one of the lowest lying in Miami Beach. During king tide, the sea laps onto properties. When storms hit, the streets fill with water.
As the city moves ahead with plans to designate the Tatum Waterway a historic district, some property owners worry that could make it harder for them to prepare for the impacts of climate change.
It's an issue that is bound to come up again and again as Miami Beach grapples with how to engineer itself up and away from the rising seas while keeping the historical character of the island intact. South Florida is predicted to see one to two feet of sea level rise by 2060, according to a projection from the Southeast Florida Climate Compact.
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When a panel of experts completed a long-awaited outside review of Miami Beach's sea level rise solutions last month, preservation was one of the key concerns they addressed. The compromise between adaptation to sea level rise and historic preservation is a common concern for many cities internationally, said Jeff Hebert, one of the Urban Land Institute panelists, and it's a discussion he "firmly believes" Miami Beach could lead. But he warned that the city will have to be more selective with its historic choices as sea level rises.
"Everything may not be able to be saved," said Hebert, the vice president for adaptation and resiliency at The Water Institute of the Gulf in New Orleans. "We have to really think about what are the most important and pressing options for preservation in Miami Beach."
Tatum is the latest battleground between these competing interests: preserving the charming Art Deco and MiMo buildings that characterize Miami Beach versus building a futuristic city where top-of-the-line engineering solutions allow residents to live in a region nature is determined to reclaim.
That's because historic districts protect buildings from demolition and require property owners to get permission from the city's Historic Preservation Board for major renovations. While projects are evaluated on a case by case basis, and the board is supposed to consider the impacts of climate change when making a decision, the historic designation typically sets a higher bar for demolition. Some property owners worry this means they'll be stuck with crumbling buildings, which they argue aren't historic gems, instead of being allowed to build newer, more resilient structures.
"We have the technology today, we have the zoning," to prepare for sea level rise, said Pierre Elmaleh, the owner of several properties along the Tatum Waterway. "What is hindering us is people who think that this building is for the next 100 years."
"I don't want the city to be Atlantis," he added.
But for preservationists, protecting the buildings along the Tatum Waterway is worth the effort. The neighborhood, spanning both sides of the waterway between 77th and 87th streets, is listed on the National Register District of Historic Places, a federal designation that does not provide any local protections.
Of the 105 buildings in the area, nearly 70 have been designated by the city as contributing to the historic character of the neighborhood. Preservationist say it's unusual to find such a large concentration of MiMo buildings on the waterfront.
"It's been this little hidden treasure for a long time," said Kirk Paskal, a Tatum Waterway property owner and a member of the city's Historic Preservation Board.
The Tatum Waterway was initially going to be included in the North Shore historic district, which was approved earlier this year, but was removed from the proposal after property owners raised concerns about flooding.
When preservationists later agreed to support a referendum to allow more dense development for another area of North Beach, however, commissioners agreed to protect two stretches of buildings along the waterway.
Below flood level
Elmaleh bought a waterfront apartment building at 7925 Crespi Blvd. last year in hopes of demolishing it and building a new structure with MiMo characteristics. The floor recently collapsed in one apartment, which Elmaleh said an engineer determined was the result of years of water damage.
Elmaleh doesn't agree with the city's designation of the building as "contributing" to the historic character of the neighborhood. He said it was built quickly and cheaply over a three-month period in the late 1940s and described it as a "manufactured home" of the time. He said designating the whole area historic could take away his rights as a property owner, including the right to demolish the building.
"I think the preservationists are trying to preserve everything without any distinctions," he said. "We should pay homage to the DNA of MiMo and not be held hostage to the past."
Elmaleh isn't alone. Although some of his neighbors, like Paskal, support the historic designation, other property owners have raised concerns. "It's worrisome and I don't want to have the thought that in the coming years I'll have to sue the Historic Preservation Board, the city, whatever, in order to improve my property and make it liveable," one property owner said at a recent commission meeting.
Eduardo Pardo-Fernandez, an architect working with Elmaleh to design a new building at the 7925 Crespi site, sees the issue as more than just a question of property owners' rights. He believes it's also a safety concern.
Many of the buildings in the neighborhood are likely below FEMA base flood elevation — the height the agency recommends buildings be at or above to stay dry — because they were built before FEMA started making and distributing flood maps.
"They are condemning people to live below base elevation," Pardo-Fernandez said. "It's irresponsible."
Instead, he believes the city should preserve the buildings that are "historical jewels" and define the design elements that characterize the neighborhood so new buildings can adhere to that style.
But Daniel Ciraldo, the executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League, is wary of trusting developers to preserve the character of the neighborhood.
"A lot of property owners look at it like land that they can flip," he said. "This isn't SimCity" — an urban planning computer game — "where we're just erasing neighborhoods and building something new."
Ciraldo also doesn't think preservation and resiliency necessarily have to be competing interests.
The Miami Design Preservation League has hosted workshops on how to make historical buildings more resilient and has a Center for Resiliency and Sustainability to study the issue. So far, solutions proposed by members of the historic preservation community in the Beach center around elevating the property's foundation — an expensive and laborious solution, but one that keeps the building intact.
"We've got some time and we've got some solutions if we work with all of the stakeholders to extend the life of the buildings and the neighborhoods," Ciraldo said.
The city is also looking for solutions that balance preservation and resiliency.
Last year, the Miami Beach City Commission added climate change and resiliency to the criteria the Historic Preservation Board and the Design Review Board, which reviews projects outside historic districts, have to take into account when they consider proposals.
"There's an intersection between historic preservation and resiliency and sometimes there's a palpable tension," said Mayor Dan Gelber. "We have to navigate it thoughtfully, not letting one overwhelm the other artificially."
City staff considered sea level rise when they recommended the commission designate the Tatum Waterway as part of the North Shore historic district, said Debbie Tackett, the city's chief of historic preservation.
Many resiliency measures, like flood-proofing buildings or installing impact windows, likely wouldn't require approval from the Historic Preservation Board, Tackett said. The historic designation also wouldn't necessarily make it harder for property owners to get permission for major renovations, she added; buildings outside historic districts still have to get approval from a city board.
"It’s hard to say whether it would be more difficult or not," she said. "Either way any major redevelopment, new buildings, construction, has to go through a public process."
A delicate balance
Ultimately, designating the area would put more responsibility on the shoulders of the preservation board to walk the tightrope of approving changes that keep the neighborhood dry without compromising its character.
Jesse Keenan, a professor at Harvard’s School of Design leading a student analysis of climate change's impact in the greater Miami area, said boards need to consider what they're trying to save: cultural identity or a specific structure.
"Historic preservation communities are so focused on material authenticity they're missing the bigger picture — these buildings are facing an existential threat," he said.
In some cities, the concern about historical preservation can throw a wrench in a city's climate plan, Keenan said, something historic preservation boards could avoid by coming up with a science-based toolkit for property owners looking to adapt to rising seas.
"Without that guidance there's too much uncertainty that people can exploit," he said.
If the commission approves the historic designation for Tatum Waterway at its May 16 meeting, the neighborhood could become a test case as the board weighs the competing interests in deciding whether to approve demolitions and major renovations.
Matis Cohen, a developer and resident, called it a "tremendous opportunity" for the board to take a leadership role in coming up with creative solutions.
"If they would stop thinking about how do we restrict and instead think how do we liberalize the interpretation of historic preservation," he said. "The minute that changes we will find there's an influx of investment."
For preservation board member Paskal, who has lovingly preserved his MiMo property — and managed to live with the water, planting a salt-tolerant garden with native plants undisturbed by the sea — it's about finding a "holistic approach." The goal, he said, is to "salvage where you can and respect what makes the neighborhood so special."
"Really there's no other place like this," he added.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to correct a statement about flooding concerns when Tatum Waterway was previously considered for the North Shore historic district. It was property owners, not residents, who raised concerns about flooding.