Miami Beach

Bal Harbour church in center of battle over sale to shops next door

The 65-year-old Church by the Sea in Bal Harbour, after stained-glass windows were removed and covered with plywood.
The 65-year-old Church by the Sea in Bal Harbour, after stained-glass windows were removed and covered with plywood.

Tucked in between tony Bal Harbour Shops and its parking garage, the picturesque Church by the Sea, the work of a pair of prominent Miami architects, has stood sentinel on 96th Street for 65 years — long enough to be under consideration for possible designation as a historic building by Miami-Dade County.

But the Congregational church, which agreed three years ago to be bought out by the shops to make way for a $300 million expansion, is doing everything it can to avoid designation, including suing the county and, on Friday evening, the Village of Bal Harbour, which it claims is blocking issuance of demolition permits.

On Tuesday, two days after the congregation voted to move out of its home for temporary quarters at the nearby St. Regis resort, workers began removing the church’s stained-glass windows without a permit, alarming preservationists and Bal Harbour residents who have pushed for its protection. After the village twice issued orders to stop work, Bal Harbour village manager Jorge Gonzalez said, the church did get a permit to proceed with the stained-glass removal, though church representatives insist they didn’t really need it.

Why the apparent rush? Following months of consideration, the county’s historic preservation board is scheduled on Nov. 19 to again take up discussion of whether the Church by the Sea building should be studied for inclusion on its list of protected properties. If the board, whose members have been divided on the question, decides at some point to go forward with a formal study, that would bar demolition or alteration of the building until further review determines whether it merits permanent preservation.

Late Friday, the imbroglio produced yet another lawsuit. A church member who has objected to its sale sued the church, the mall and the Whitman family, owners of the Bal Harbour Shops, contending they were using a subterfuge to skirt review by the preservation board by quickly demolishing the building.

The member, Lynn Bloch Mullen, claims the church deliberately failed to notify dissenters about the meeting to vote on whether to vacate the church building, then attempted to start demolition surreptitiously by removing the stained glass. She is asking a court to block demolition until the preservation board makes a decision. In typical cases, though, property owners are free to apply for demolition permits until there is a formal vote.

The mess comes amid a pitched battle over historic preservation in Bal Harbour’s neighbors of Surfside and Bay Harbor Islands, prompted by a wave of big development that’s put some historically and architecturally significant buildings at risk of demolition. It has pitted big developers, municipal officials, some residents and Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman on one side against other local residents, some local elected officials and condo owners seeking to protect a handful of Art Deco and Miami Modern buildings.

It’s obvious what they’re doing. It’s outrageous.

County preservation board chairman Mitch Novick

Some Bal Harbour residents last year began asking the county preservation board to look into preserving the Church by the Sea, initially designed by noted architect Russell Pancoast, and later significantly expanded by the renown Alfred Browning Parker. The board initially declined, saying the county’s small staff was swamped with designation proposals in Surfside and Bay Harbor.

Board chairman Mitch Novick, a Miami Beach hotelier and preservationist, eventually began urging consideration of the church. At last month’s meeting, a motion by one member to not consider the Bal Harbour church failed on a 4-4 vote, meaning the question remained alive.

On Friday, Novick noted that attorneys representing both the church and Bal Harbour Shops, from the firm of Shubin and Bass, did not raise objections. He also noted that county preservation chief Kathleen Kauffman quoted assurances by Bal Harbour village officials that no demolition permits would be issued until they had a chance to deliberate on the matter.

In an interview, Novick said he was “disappointed but not surprised” by the church’s actions since the last meeting. He added that the board is legally powerless to stop demolition of the church absent a formal vote, but said its actions circumvent the spirit of the process and the assurances given board members by county staff.

“It’s obvious what they’re doing. It’s outrageous,” Novick said of church representatives. “There is a process, and it was represented they would follow this process. They did not object. I relied on that. I thought, OK, the building’s safe for now.”

Kauffman declined comment. So did church attorney John Shubin, saying he could not speak without church permission. The church’s pastors, the Rev. Robert Asinger and the Rev. Barbara Asinger, did not respond to a request for comment left on the church office voicemail during business hours Friday.

Gonzalez, the Bal Harbour manager, said late Friday he had not seen the suit by the church. But he denied the village blocked applications by the church for asbestos removal and demolition, saying those are undergoing required review by county environmental regulators before coming back to Bal Harbour’s building department for a final OK.

In a statement issued through its attorneys, Church by the Sea disputed the contention it was in a “rush” to move out, saying the plan has been in the works since it agreed to the sale. The statement called the church building “a hodgepodge” and inefficient without addressing the merits of preservation directly.

$300 million Pricetag of Bal Harbour Shops’ expansion

The statement does contend that the county preservation board acted in violation of its code when it asked Kauffman to research the building, something its attorneys argue in their lawsuit againt the county can only be done by a property owner.

The code does allow Kauffman to initiate consideration of a property for designation. As far back as 2004, the church had been included on a county list of potentially eligible sites.

The church agreed in 2013 to grant Bal Harbour Shops an option to buy its property following a vote by a majority of the congregation, in exchange for the shops building the congregation a new home. A price was not disclosed. It could not be determined Friday whether the shops exercised the purchase option.

Gonzalez said the church has been offered a new home at the site of Ocean Cadillac in nearby Bay Harbor Islands. Bal Harbour’s expansion plan, meanwhile, has yet to be approved by the village council.