Last week, fireworks went off all over the city as local residents celebrated the Fourth of July. But sparks have been flying in Bay Harbor Islands, where tensions between neighborhood residents, preservationists, developers, city council members, and county commissioners have escalated over whether to preserve the city’s historic buildings.
Bay Harbor Islands’ East Island is a quaint community consisting primarily of low-slung apartment buildings nestled on a small island in the middle of Biscayne Bay. The vast majority of the buildings were built in the MiMo (Miami Modern) style, a distinctive regional adaptation of Mid-Century Modern architecture that was born out of our city's unique climate and lifestyle.
While the area may not have a massive MiMo icon like the Fontainebleau, East Island has a low-key charm that mirrors that of South Beach’s Flamingo Park Historic District, which also is largely comprised of low-rise, residential buildings, mostly examples of Art Deco architecture.
Last year, East Island was named among the 11 most endangered historic places in the country by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, largely because developers hope to capitalize on its scenic waterfront location.
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Typically, when a site is named endangered by the trust, communities rally to help preserve these unique landmarks. Over 250 sites have been identified by the trust over the decades, many of which still stand today because of preservation efforts that arose after being named endangered.
While other communities in Miami and Miami Beach have made concerted efforts to preserve MiMo architecture, Bay Harbor Islands has had no such push for a variety of reasons. Despite the fact that the Miami-Dade County Historic Preservation Board has identified several dozen buildings that could deemed historic individually, no buildings are currently historically protected.
Preservation efforts have been met with hostility from property owners and developers who do not see the value in preserving the character and integrity of the neighborhood. The city of Bay Harbor Islands has also done little to encourage preservation of existing structures, with some city council members suggesting that the buildings are only being preserved because they are older than 50 years old.
The situation is dire for many of the architecturally significant buildings on East Island. A source familiar with preservation efforts told me that at least 20 buildings that would likely have been deemed historic have been demolished in the past year alone and that the island resembles a “war zone” because of the rapid demolition of so many structures at once.
Last week, county commissioners junked the historic designation of the Bay Harbor Continental, which preservationists identified as one of the crown jewels of the East Island. Designed by prominent MiMo architect Charles McKirahan, the building is most-known for its unique architectural flourishes, such as its stunning multi-story brise-soleils accented with blocks of multi-colored glass.
The designation was significant in many ways, not only because it validated the architectural importance of the building but also because it was the first building in Bay Harbor Islands to be designated historic.
The county commissioners’ decision to junk historic designation of the Bay Harbor Continental is an egregious mistake that puts the property at risk of demolition. Having a major building named historic in the neighborhood could have motivated others to preserve other buildings in the area.
Moreover, if one of the island’s most significant buildings can be demolished, some may wonder why bother saving other lesser structures.
While creating a historic district much in the same way the MiMo District has successfully done seems like a potential solution, it is no longer an option for East Island as the demolition of MiMo buildings has become so rapid that it no longer meets the 50 percent threshold of historic structures that is required for a historic district to be enacted.
Unfortunately, the clock is ticking if there is any hope of saving the vastly unappreciated architecture of East Island. Developers, property owners and city council members must stop seeing the short-term profits and see the long-term value in historic preservation.
Preserving, revitalizing and repurposing architecturally significant buildings while creating new structures that complement them is a model that has helped Miami Beach become one of the most valuable neighborhoods in the country and turned the MiMo District from a once-distressed strip to one of the city’s trendiest areas.
But more importantly, it is vital to preserve MiMo architecture, a style that is distinctive and only can be found here, for future generations. We must not get carried away and risk throwing away Miami’s rich architectural history for a quick crash grab.