Imagine you live in a charming, friendly neighborhood in an otherwise bustling city. Despite dense development rising up in nearby areas, this neighborhood has been retained largely because of the fact that it’s a historic district. While similar areas in the vicinity have received much needed renovations, this one hasn’t yet found someone ready take on the task of revitalizing this neighborhood . . . until now.
A developer sweeps in, a knight in shining armor promising to reinvigorate the neighborhood and restore it to its former glory. What’s the catch? This entrepreneur wants to obliterate nearly every preserved building in the historic district and wants the area up-zoned to create a complex that is enormously-scaled for the neighborhood. Sounds crazy, right?
The developer is proposing to demolish 11 of the 13 historically protected buildings.
That’s the proposal that voters in Miami Beach will be deciding on in Tuesday’s election. Claro Development, which has successfully restored other notable properties on the beach, is hoping to make its mark on Ocean Terrace, a quieter, smaller sibling to Ocean Drive in North Beach.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
It hopes to redevelop the neighborhood with a mixed-use project that would be one of the largest in the North Beach area.
The developer is proposing to demolish 11 of the 13 historically protected buildings in the North Block, with only two of the larger historic examples left standing (which will need approval by the Historic Preservation Board). But he is also asking voters in Miami Beach to have height limits raised and residential floor-area-ratio (RAF) increased in order to have his vision realized.
Like its more famous sibling, Ocean Terrace is a beachfront street, home to gorgeous examples of Art Deco and MiMo architecture. It’s nestled in the Harding Townsite/South Altos del Mar historic district that occupies roughly four city blocks made up of almost exclusively preserved buildings, all of which are low-slung and small in scale.
There’s no question that the neighborhood needs work. Many buildings are in dire straits, with several shuttered or dilapidated. Even the most iconic buildings could use significant refreshing. But the bones of what make the neighborhood historic haven’t disappeared, and the project would completely undermine its unique qualities.
Perhaps what is distressing about this project is the complete disregard for the historic district designation. Historic districts are often enacted to protect the character of a neighborhood by ensuring that historically-significant buildings remain part of the area and that future development respects existing structures.
As Herald reporter Andres Viglucci noted in an earlier story, the historic designation was granted for the district based 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 developer has defended the project by saying that it will retain the two major architectural gems of the neighborhood, the former Ocean Terrace Hotel and the Ocean Surf Hotel, while only lesser architectural works will face the wrecking ball. But two buildings do not make a historic district.
For example, many locals might find it difficult to name more than one or two of the historic buildings located in South Beach’s Flamingo Park Historic District or in mainland Miami’s MiMo District, but they could easily identify the qualities that make these neighborhood historic.
Although the development doesn’t seek to demolish the district in its entirety, most of the neighborhood’s distinctive qualities that the designation sought to protect would effectively cease to exist. Because of the diminutive size of the historic district and the significant scale of the development, the neighborhood’s character would change to such a degree that the historic designation would be rendered meaningless.
Allowing it to move forward would likely place other historic districts at risk from the runaway development that has plagued other parts of Miami and led to a loss of distinctive character.
This is not to say that the neighborhood should continue to exist in its current state. Ocean Terrace deserves to thrive. Development should be encouraged. But it should be in tune with the historic district, not seek to replace it outright.