Tucked away off Collins Avenue on Miami Beach’s North Shore, the two beachside blocks of Ocean Terrace could have been the neighborhood’s answer to Ocean Drive, only in miniature.
Ocean Terrace — the heart of a tiny historic district — boasts a trio of Art Deco hotels supplemented by a handful of modest Miami Modern buildings fronting a broad beachfront promenade. But that’s where the resemblance to its more-illustrious South Beach counterpart ends.
Ocean Terrace is half-dead. All but one of its four MiMo buildings are sealed up, and most of the southern block is occupied by the massively banal, mostly vacant retail base of a 270-foot condo tower, approved before the historic district was created in 1996, that juts up like an angry middle finger over the low-scale neighborhood around it.
Now, to save the historic district, a developer would destroy most of it. Claro Development’s Sandor Scher, a veteran of such notable South Beach restoration efforts as the Raleigh and the Thompson Miami Beach, wants to demolish 11 of the 13 legally protected historic buildings on the north block, including the full row of shops on Collins that back up to Ocean Terrace’s buildings, while saving its two acknowledged late-Deco gems — the Ocean Surf Hotel and the former Ocean Terrace Hotel, now a tired Days Inn.
In their place, Scher and his principal investor, Alex Blavatnik, would erect a large-scale complex consisting of a 250-foot condo tower and a 125-foot-tall rear addition to the Ocean Terrace Hotel, underground and above-ground parking decks, and a row of upscale shopfronts on Collins.
But first they have to win over voters in Miami Beach, a city that owes its booming fortunes in large part to its protected historic buildings and where some residents have grown wary of what they see as the oversized influence of developers and lobbyists at City Hall.
To build, Scher needs a big increase in the allowable square footage, and Beach voters must approve it in a referendum under a city ordinance that’s never been used before. The proposal, which would increase the residential floor-area ratio — FAR, a number that determines the maximum size of development — by 50 percent for large lots on the two blocks between Ocean Terrace and Collins, is on the Nov. 3 Beach ballot. The city commission voted 6-1 to place it on the ballot.
The Ocean Terrace measure has become a featured issue in the mayoral and commission elections. Mayor Philip Levine, whose close political advisor, David Custin, is also the registered lobbyist for Scher’s group, voted to put it on the ballot, saying he’s on the fence even as he promises “improvements” in North Beach. Custin is also advising three commission candidates widely seen as a Levine “slate.” All three — Ricky Arriola, Betsy Perez and John Elizabeth Aleman — support Scher’s proposal.
Levine’s opponent, David Wieder, outgoing chairman of the city historic preservation board, says he’s “100 percent” against the proposal.
Critics of the Ocean Terrace plan have also sought to link Scher to a political committee run by term-limited comissioner Jonah Wolfson, recently shut down amid widespread controversy, that raised money from developers and lobbyists and made ads featuring Levine boasting of his accomplishments. They note Alex Blavatnik's brother is multi-billionaire Len Blavatnik, the investor behind the massive Faena District redevelopment project on Collins in mid-Beach, whose controlling corporation contributed $100,000 to Wolfson’s committee.
Scher says he does not make contributions to candidates or political committees, and that Alex Blavatnik is participating in the Ocean Terrace project independently of the partnership he runs with his brother Len.
Scher’s measure poses a tough choice for voters: Say yes, and radically change the character of a historic district but get an infusion of new, high-class development to resuscitate Ocean Terrace. Say no, and risk getting stuck with a moribund district and perhaps even further deterioration.
Scher, who said he and his partner have spent around $75 million to buy most of the block, said he has no Plan B if the referendum question fails. But he said numerous developers had looked at the area in previous years and passed on it because the current zoning and the closely packed layout of the block, plus the narrow, mostly nondescript buildings in place, make the kind of renovations, expansions and adaptive reuse that revived Ocean Drive unfeasible on Ocean Terrace.
“It’s part of the huge risk we’ve taken,” Scher said. “What this area needs is a quality mixed-use project that keeps the best of what’s there. You need the FAR to strike that balance.”
Even if voters approve the additional FAR, Scher’s plans would still have to clear some big hurdles, including review by the city’s historic preservation board, which could block or limit the demolitions he intends to seek. Scher has not submitted plans for construction to the city, and acknowledges that images released through his For a Better North Beach political committee are conceptual. He did win city commission approval of a zoning “overlay” that would sharply increase allowable building heights, though it would also decrease overall residential density from what’s now permitted because he plans to build larger condo units and hotel rooms. Commercial FAR would remain unchanged.
Preservationists and activists fighting the proposal, though, contend it would set a dangerous precedent by greenlighting what they say is the obliteration of a historic district and the modest scale that defines it. They also worry Scher’s project would foster gentrification of surrounding North Shore, a working-class and immigrant enclave within the larger North Beach area, as deep-pocketed developers look northwards from saturated South Beach.
“This is almost annihilation and total replacement,” Daniel Ciraldo, a preservationist with the Miami Design Preservation League, said of Scher’s plan. “It’s like, ‘Bam, it’s done.’ It’s symptomatic of what’s going on in our city right now.”
And though Scher notes his plans would take out a liquor store and massage parlor on Collins that he calls community nuisances, his opponents point out it would also take out numerous shops that serve the community and replace them with retail many of its members can’t afford to patronize.
“It will change the flavor of the neighborhood,” said Jorge Stekelorum, a North Beach resident from Argentina who for 23 years has made pasta at his Mr. Pasta shop on Collins Avenue, on the southern block of the historic district. Though Stekelorum’s block would not be directly affected by Scher’s plan, he hung fliers inside his doorway from a local group fighting the FAR hike. He said he doesn’t think the project would help the neighborhood.
“These developers sell to buyers who don't live here,” Stekelorum said. “It's about money.”
To be sure, the prospect of better shops and dining options on Collins along with a resuscitated Ocean Terrace is an enticing one for some North Beach residents, who complain their neighborhood has stagnated economically because it’s long been overlooked by city officials and investors. Scher's proposal has won the endorsement of several North Beach homeowners' associations, though several groups representing renters and multi-family buildings or areas oppose it.
“We’ve had two big real estate booms, and Ocean Terrace has remained abandoned and completely neglected,” said Margueritte Ramos, president of the Normandy Sud homeowners association on nearby Normandy Isle, and a member of a blue-ribbon committee named by Beach Mayor Philip Levine to oversee a North Beach study that’s soon to get underway. “It needs total revitalization. That could be our jewel. We don’t have anything nice like that.”
Some North Shore residents say the choice should not be between all of Scher’s proposal or nothing at all. William Vitale, a co-founder of Save Ocean Terrace, a group opposing the FAR increase, lives in the St. Tropez Ocean tower on the street, but says what he and his neighbors treasure is what the historic district was meant to protect and enhance — the scale, look and feel of the surrounding neighborhood.
The report that led to designation of the district, formally know as the Harding Townsite/South Altos del Mar Historic District, based its historic significance on its cohesiveness, noting that its buildings and their architecture reflect the history of the neighborhood’s development, from single-family homes to Collins shopfronts and the hotels and apartment buildings on Ocean Terrace. The report notes that any additions “should respect the original scale and proportions.”
“We’re not against upgrading and refurbishing,” Vitale said. “They could build eight to 10 stories, and I would not be thrilled but it fits in more with the neighborhood. You go into the bodega and they know you. It’s a true neighborhood. It’s laid-back.
“But this is a slippery slope that’s just going to lead to more development. They’ve developed the hell out of South Beach. Now they’ve said in so many words that North Beach is the next target, and they won’t stop until they turn this into another bloody Sunny Isles, where it’s all one soul-less tower next to another.”
But Scher and his attorney, former Beach mayor Neisen Kasdin, say most of the buildings on the block have little architectural or historical character or value, and its failure as a historic district is proof of that.
“In theory, it sounded good 20 years ago,” said Kasdin, who was on the commission when it approved the district. “But it never had the ingredients to succeed.”
Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.
This story was changed to reflect the fact that several North Beach residents groups oppose the proposed zoning changes and to correct the spelling of Alex Blavatnik.