Developer’s high-rise atop historic Miami church is approved

The Christian Science Church on Biscayne Boulevard
The Christian Science Church on Biscayne Boulevard Miami Herald

Miami isn’t losing Biscayne Boulevard’s grand Christian Science church — it’s gaining a mixed-use high-rise tower.

On Tuesday, Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board voted during an unusual and a somewhat testy hearing to approve one of the most uniquely designed towers in the city’s history. They designated the shuttered First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1836 Biscayne Blvd., as a historic landmark, and by a 5 to 2 vote gave developer Fifteen Group the nod to build a 38-story condo tower, parking garage and retail space above and around the empty sanctuary.

Designed by ADD, Inc./Stantec with the assistance of preservation architect Richard Heisenbottle, the project includes a rounded condo tower that extends on a sliver of land south of the church to 10 feet off the boulevard. An 11-level parking garage directly above the church on the north side of the property sits back 30 feet from the church’s front.

While critics say the project will engulf the structure, others note the project saves the church, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The church was not protected by a local historic designation and could have been demolished. The tradeoff: the board also gave Fifteen Group special zoning variances and, based off statements from the developer’s attorney during the hearing, as much as $24 million in transferable “air rights” that can be sold to other property owners.

Board members approved the project with mixed feelings in an unusual meeting that saw them approve a preliminary historic designation for the church, as well as a final designation —often separated by weeks or months from the initial vote. Two preservationists in the audience said the project had changed markedly from several months ago when the developer was working with the board to keep the design from swallowing the church. Most notably, the 352-condo tower presented Tuesday was shorter by nine stories, but more dense.

Megan Cross Schmitt, Miami’s preservation officer, said the project was the best compromise preservationists could have asked for.

“In today's development climate, everybody was looking at that building as an eyesore and wanted to get rid of it,” she said. “It is what it is. I see it as a real opportunity for Miami and the preservation office to get this kind of property on the map so other owners will see their historic resources as an asset.”

To build the tower, Fifteen Group will demolish a “reader room” to the south of the church sanctuary to develop new retail space and the condo tower. A redesign of the project also keeps the church’s north facade intact, with cars entering the garage to the south of the retail space and into a spiral column toward the west side of the property that leads into the garage.

The project, as has been the case in earlier designs, requires Fifteen Group to sink columns into the church, though not in the sanctuary nor in locations where columns already exist.

“The design you see before you today is vastly better,” said Heisenbottle.

But Dolly McIntyre, advocacy chairwoman for the preservation group Dade Heritage Trust, said the new design “overwhelmed” the church.

“What happened to the church?” she asked. “It's become the period at the bottom of an exclamation point.”

Members of the board were indeed concerned about the church. The building, connected from roof to portico by six towering, ionic columns facing the boulevard, was designed by August C. Geiger, one of the Miami area’s most noted early architects. The building’s structure is comprised of terracotta tile and poured concrete, with exterior walls clad in Indiana limestone and the foundation and entrance steps constructed of Mount Airy granite.

But Fifteen Group, without the historic designation, wasn’t bound to save the building. The developer’s architects said the plan has always been to save the sanctuary, but within reason. The only other option was to raze it.

“I never liked it from the beginning. I still don’t,” said board member Gary Hecht. “I think you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.”

Ryan Bailine, a Greenberg Traurig attorney representing the developer, said Fifteen Group may build the project in phases, and plans to use some of the “air rights” afforded historic buildings to build the condo tower. The developer, as part of the board’s approval, must save an organ used by the church and preserve aspects of the interior.