Ralphy Amill stepped out from the shaded porch of a historic Art Deco hotel on a recent afternoon, his coral tank top matching the hue of the Miami Beach sidewalk.
The 19-year-old vacationing from New York was about to hit the beach with friends on a gorgeous day: 74 degrees under a cloudless sky, with a light ocean breeze swaying the palm trees, only steps away from the sand.
But he wasn’t walking out onto the buzzing, crowded sidewalks of South Beach. Amill and his friends had booked a cheaper hotel in what could be considered a smaller, sleepier counterpart to Ocean Drive. They were in Ocean Terrace, a half-dead swath of beachfront hotels along the city’s north shore — most of them shuttered — that is in dire need of resuscitation.
“It’s missing life,” Amill said, peering down a mostly empty sidewalk. He was staying at the Ocean Surf Hotel only because of the lower price.
A developer is making a second attempt at reviving the legally protected historic block of Ocean Terrace between 74th and 75th streets. Claro Development’s Sandor Scher, owner of the majority of the block, on Wednesday will ask the City Commission to approve an overlay district that would include a significant height increase from a 75-foot maximum to 235 feet for a residential tower.
Scher and his principal investor, Alex Blavatnik, spent about $75 million to buy most of the block before asking the city’s voters last year for something that had never been granted: an increase to the floor-area ratio, a formula that determines the maximum square footage of a building.
The referendum failed in November after a polarizing campaign that illuminated the community’s sensitivity to historic preservation and large-scale development. Voters rejected Scher’s vision, which included demolishing most of the historic district’s buildings.
Now, six months later, Scher has regrouped with a noted planner and an architect who specializes in historic preservation. This time he’s got a different pitch, with plans to restore Deco facades and keep the majority of the redevelopment low-scale. Several community groups and some previous detractors are pleased with Scher’s commitment to restore facades and preserve the street-level scale.
But others still bristle at the thought of a tall tower near the existing Saint Tropez, a 270-foot condo tower that was approved in 1996 before the creation of a local historic district. Scher’s tower would be 15 feet shorter and thinner than his earlier plan, but some still consider the height an outstanding issue.
The building at 7433 Collins Ave., now shuttered, used to be home to Curry’s Restaurant. The facade has been altered through the years, masking the late-era Deco face of the building, which was built in 1938 and designed by John and Coulton Skinner.
Addressing several dozen residents who attended a community meeting about the project last week, Nancy Liebman, a longtime preservationist and former Beach commissioner, said the new version of the project is much improved and will help reinvigorate the neighborhood.
“[Scher] has learned his lesson well,” said Liebman, who helped save the Art Deco district in South Beach and opposed Scher during last year’s referendum. “They’re preserving the buildings. They’re actively reusing the buildings. That’s the direction that historic districts throughout the United States take.”
Jamie Straz, a North Beach resident and architect, said he is impressed with Scher’s team, which includes Richard Heisenbottle, an architect who specializes in historic preservation, and Cesar Garcia-Pons, an associate principal at architecture firm Perkins+Will Miami.
Scher’s team has emphasized the relationship the area has with the rest of the neighborhood, framing the project as a way to get locals walking east along 74th and 75th to enjoy an upgraded Ocean Terrace. The team also researched the histories of each of the 12 buildings Scher owns on the block and laser scanned each one to capture details it will use in adaptively reusing facades.
“The amount of historic research that has gone into this is fantastic,” he said. “My only reservation is what is the design going to be? But my feeling is you don’t do this amount of research and just throw it all away.”
Some North Beach residents want to see concept renderings before supporting any project. The design, Scher says, comes later in the process after an overlay district is passed and he knows what his limitations are.
Others just don’t want to see a tall building on Ocean Terrace.
The Miami Design Preservation League wants commissioners to defer the vote and direct Scher to go to the Historic Preservation Board for a preliminary evaluation of the project.
“MDPL’s position on height increases in historic districts remains unchanged: We do not support increases in height within historic districts, because of conflicts with compatibility with existing historic structures,” the league wrote in a letter to the City Commission. “We remain concerned that a large tower on top of small low-rise buildings will adversely affect the historic look and scale of the area.”
Kirk Paskal, president of the North Shore Historic District Neighborhood Association, said he is happier with this version of the project, but still struggles with the possibility of a 235-foot tower and its impact on the scale of the rest of low-rise North Beach.
“We all want Ocean Terrace to succeed so I hope we can find the proper middle ground and safeguards to ensure it happens the right way,” he said. “I can appreciate that Sandor has come a good distance from where he once was with this project.”
For Liebman, preservation was the key problem with the last plan. The height is a non-issue.
“You have to get off the height thing,” she told residents last week. “Height never killed anybody.”
At last week’s community meeting, Scher addressed a crowd of eager supporters and skeptical critics. Speaking to the fear that a 235-foot tower could set a precedent that sends North Beach into a spiral of out-of-scale overdevelopment, he told the community his plan is tailored specifically to this block of Ocean Terrace.
“What we’re proposing here we believe is the right solution for this particular spot, but this is only the right solution for this particular spot. This is not the right solution for many other, or most other, or possibly any other part of North Beach.”
Many in the community still feel the sting from Eighty Seven Park, a project at 8701 Collins Ave. that was originally supposed to involve restoration of a revered 1951 hotel designed by Morris Lapidus and Albert Anis. After plans were changed and the hotel was slated for demolition, the developer defended the new plan and said further study revealed the development couldn’t support two buildings.
“The Morris Lapidus building for a long time will be paramount in people’s minds,” said Kathryn Comer, of the North Beach Neighbors Alliance. “And it was the feeling that we can’t trust the city to look out for the neighborhood’s best interest.”
Comer, along with the preservation league and others said the community would feel more assured if the City Commission approves an ordinance that includes language solidifying Scher’s promise to preserve historic facades.
The ordinance creating the overlay district does not mandate restoration of facades. It increases the maximum height for a condo tower to 235 feet and the max for a hotel to 125 feet. Scher said both buildings could not be built at their maximum heights because of the existing allowable square footage.
On that recent sunny afternoon, 18-year-old Paola Perez was joining Amill for the idyllic beach day. The Kendall resident said the area needs restaurants, music and bars.
Above them, the name of the late-era Deco building adorned the front in pink letters: Ocean Surf Hotel. Although, much like the life and energy many say are absent in Ocean Terrace, the “E” and “F” were missing.