Miami Beach Gives Initial Approval for 250-ft Aman tower in Faena District

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Miami Beach Gives Initial Approval for 250-ft Aman tower in Faena District:

New building would be part of Versailles Hotel restoration

Miami Beach City Commissioners gave initial approval for a new, 250-ft tall tower to be built next to the historic Versailles Hotel on Collins Avenue in the Faena District. Developers Len Blavatnik and Vlad Doronin want to bring a new Aman Hotel and Residences to the property which currently is approved for 203 feet in height. Second and final reading of the height increase text amendment will occur next month but, in between, Commissioners asked for an advisory opinion from the Historic Preservation Board (HPB). Earlier this month several members of the Board expressed concern about future height amendments and, prior to the Aman tower vote, HPB Chair Jack Finglass sent an email to the Commission opposing the height increase though he did so as a "private citizen and property owner."

In addition to the new tower, the developers will restore the historic Versailles. The new proposal has pitted the developers against residents of the ultra-luxury Faena House. Residents of the King David Condominium across the street have also expressed opposition.

Neisen Kasdin, Akerman LLP, described Aman as “the finest hotel brand in the world” and highlighted their ecological and historic sensitivity. He noted that eleven Aman properties “are located in UNESCO world heritage sites.” In addition to his other investments, Doronin is the owner, Chairman and CEO of Aman.

A taller, slimmer building will “further open up the views of the historic [Versailles] structure,” Kasdin said. “It is far away from Faena House and respectfully back from the beach.” He said the new building, designed by noted Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, would “fit in well contextually” with other even taller buildings in the area, notably the Mirasol and La Tour buildings at 285 feet and the Atlantis at 274.

Comparing the new tower with what is approved, Kasdin said it “improves more views than it diminishes at Faena House.”

Rendering of the restored Versailles, the proposed tower, and the Faena House (far right)

Thomas Stern, President of the Board at Faena House, told Commissioners the majority of the unit owners at Faena House oppose the height increase saying the proposed tower will be “completely out of character” and “dwarf the Versailles,” reduce privacy and cast a larger shadow on the surrounding area.

“Aman has all that it needs” through the approved design, Stern said. Approval of the height increase will “set a terrible precedent for Miami Beach,” he added, urging the Commission to seek an advisory opinion from the Historic Preservation Board on the increase. 

Miami Design Preservation League Executive Director Daniel Ciraldo said the organization, which generally opposes height increases in historic districts, “maintains our opposition” to an increase for the Aman tower. Ciraldo said text amendments “put pressure on the Historic Preservation Board trying to squeeze everything in and make [buildings] compatible” with their surroundings.

Former City Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez called the proposed tower “another middle finger in the sky” to the residents of Miami Beach. “No one wants it but two developers [with] very loud voices and a whole lot of influence.”

One of those in support is Jay Parker, Douglas Elliman Florida CEO. Parker said an “investment of this nature will powerfully and positively impact” the area. The high-end Aman brand, he noted, “aligns with Miami Beach’s goals” as the City plays up its arts and culture assets.

Richard Heisenbottle, the preservation architect on the project, explained the thought process that went into proposing a taller building. “With this tremendous opportunity of bringing an Aman hotel to the site, we sought to come up with a preservation project that was second to none, a preservation project that had more integrity than what was previously inherited.” The new plans call for restoring “two significant areas… which should never have been allowed to be demolished,” the porte cochere and Gulfstream Dining Room, Heisenbottle said. In addition, plans are to restore the top of the building so that it more closely resembles the original Versailles.

The currently approved building at 203 feet has a “hulking heavy-handed design,” Heisenbottle said. “And what we decided was that this increase of 47 feet allows for the design of a building that is more appropriately scaled. It is slender, elegant instead of heavy and more oppressive to the Versailles hotel.”

Commissioner Ricky Arriola said he looked at the height increase from the perspective of “what’s good for the overall city. Certainly an Aman Hotel project is going to be very good for the City even pre-COVID, but post-COVID to have this kind of investment and this kind of brand investing in the City sends a signal to investors in the market and the tourists that we’re trying to attract that [one of] the most prestigious luxury brands in the world is willing to go forward with an investment, a significant investment in Miami Beach.”

“The Faena District has had profound positive effects on Miami Beach since it was developed and this project will be the culmination of the overall district and adding the Aman Hotel and Residences, I think will just enhance the district’s prestige even further,” he said.

“Any project, even the most bland project, is going to generate some kind of opposition,” Arriola said, adding he understands the objections of the Faena House owners, “but our job is to do what’s best for the entire city."

Commissioner Michael Góngora said he feels for the residents who expressed concerns about the height, adding “It’s kind of surprising to people sometimes when you get involved in Miami Beach because there’s never a finality to anything that we seem to determine. Everything can be reopened, readdressed, amended, changed… Just because the overlay district was created at the 203-ft height in 2014 that doesn’t obviously mean that it’s set there forever and I think it’s a good lesson for people that buy in these expensive buildings that we’re developing to try to make sure that they’re better protected, that there are contracts and documents to protect from surprises and changes like this one.”

In response to concerns about shadows from a taller building, Góngora asked Planning Director Tom Mooney for his opinion. Mooney said, “There would be lightly increased shadows in the morning to the northwest” but that the 47 foot increase in height from what is approved “will only result in a very nominal increase in shadows, ironically over most of Faena’s other properties on the west side.”

“During the afternoon and during the winter,” Mooney said, “There would be a slight increase in shadows on the beach but only for a very limited area” but he didn’t believe it would be significant.

Góngora, looking for potential public benefits from a taller tower, asked about a list of resiliency benefits drafted by the City. Mooney said they were suggestions provided to the developers for discussion. While the City can’t require them as part of an approval, the developers could proffer them voluntarily.  

Saying he’s “generally opposed” to height increases, Góngora said, “I’m Incredibly impressed with the quality of the Aman developments and I do agree with those people who spoke that said the Aman would be a coup.”

“I want to see the project happen,” he said. “[I’ve] taken the time to research various Aman hotels around the world and they’re all gorgeous and fabulous… They certainly look like they will be bringing in another high caliber level of resident or tourist.”

“I would like to see it happen and be as little a problem as possible for the surrounding buildings and I would like to get as much of a public benefit as possible," he concluded.

Commissioner Steven Meiner called it “exciting” and said, “It sort of lets you dream what could be” but he clarified that the legislation was property-specific and not specific to an Aman Hotel locating there. 

Noting that, Commissioner Mark Samuelian said, “I believe the opportunity to bring the Versailles back to life and also to perhaps secure this flag – although we’re making land use decisions [not tied to a hotel brand] – but I think the Aman name is an important one. I think it is a good opportunity for the City. I think it is especially noteworthy at this time."

Samuelian, too, focused on the public benefits, saying with the additional height, “There’s a whole lot of value that’s being created.” 

“I’d like to think the broader community is benefitting” as well, he said. While “supportive of the direction of the project,” Samuelian said, “I encourage the developer and property owner to engage significantly” on the resiliency benefits they could offer. “My final vote would be based materially on that."

Mayor Dan Gelber noted the “thoughtful and informed opinion of the staff” which supports the height increase for the site. “It’s a taller building,” he acknowledged. “It’s also a thinner building… There’s no increase in FAR, it’s the same FAR. It’s just moved differently in the area.” FAR refers to Floor Area Ratio or the allowable density of a building.

“Even though no one wants buildings that are out of context for the neighborhood,” Gelber said, in recent instances, “We’ve actually said that a skinnier, tall building is sometimes better than a stout, shorter building for resiliency purposes, for view corridors, for a lot of things that I think are better for the city and we’ve moved in that direction throughout the City on some projects.”

“Everything in that area, in that vicinity, is 200 [feet] and taller,” Gelber added. “On Collins Avenue we have buildings much, much taller than that, I believe."

"I feel for the residents next door because nobody likes the disruption of their view, or, frankly, the disruption of construction,” but he said, “That building is going to be built… The only question is if it’s taller and skinner or shorter and stouter… I don’t think that what the staff has recommended is particularly unreasonable.”

Calling Aman “the top of the line” in hotels, Gelber concluded, “I think that it’s a good adoption of that property in a way that will bring back not only historic property but also really remind the world that this is a city that has hotels like Aman and has places like the Miami City Ballet, and has places like the New World Symphony and Faena, frankly. It’s a cultural destination and, in fact, having buildings that are essentially almost destinations in themselves, I think, enhances that.

Commissioner Micky Steinberg said, Aman “would be unbelievable and wonderful” but she reminded her colleagues, “We’re not voting on a project, we’re voting on code amendments.”

Given the concerns expressed by the neighbors, she suggested sending the item to the HPB for an advisory recommendation prior to second and final reading of the height increase amendment in October. 

Commissioner David Richardson said the Commission was already aware that HPB Chair Jack Finglass expressed his opposition to the height increase in an email, though Finglass signed his email as “Private citizen and property owner.” 

Richardson said he was more concerned about ensuring that if the height increase were approved, that the Aman Hotel is what the City would get. “I would like some comfort that this is not going to be a bait and switch,” he said asking for some assurances such as any agreements between Aman and the property owners “to give us some comfort that we’re not going to pass something and then find out that there’s another flag coming in.”

He cautioned his colleagues on what they ask in terms of public benefits. “I would say the greatest public benefit that we as taxpayers are going to get is a recurring increase in tax base that’s going to be coming into the government coffers,” Richardson said. “There is always some appetite to try to get a little bit of more juice out of the lemon, but I would just caution that we’re getting a huge benefit in the increase in tax base… I’m more concerned about the potential of a bait and switch where we might end up with a hotel that doesn’t have the same name.”

He concluded that he didn’t feel the need to send the item to the HPB “because I know what the answer, I think, could be there.”

Samuelian, however, decided to second Steinberg’s motion to refer it to the preservation board. “This is a case where doing our job is to be as informed as possible,” he said. “We may have heard from the chair… but there are multiple members of the board and nothing bad is gonna happen.”

The Commission then unanimously passed the motion to get the advisory opinion from the HPB and to approve the height increase on first reading. It will be discussed by the HPB on October 13 and come back to the Commission on October 14.

HPB Role

As to the HPB, there is the advisory opinion being requested but the preservation board also has the final say on design and that includes the height and massing. After four hearings, the Board this month approved a new tower for the Raleigh, South Seas, and Richmond Hotels development site.  But the approval involved a contentious four-hour discussion during which Finglass led a negotiation that ultimately resulted in a 175-ft tower versus the proposed 200, the height approved by City Commissioners last summer. The Raleigh project is being developed by Michael Shvo. Like the Versailles/Aman project, which involves substantial restoration of an historic hotel, Shvo has pledged to restore the iconic Raleigh Hotel and pool along with the Richmond and South Seas. By maintaining their hotel use, Shvo is also maintaining the public’s access to them.

During that meeting, Board member Scott Needelman expressed frustration that when the HPB gave an opinion on the text amendment to increase the height on the Raleigh site, the Board was shown a concept rendering but not specific plans. While he said he was supportive of the restoration efforts and understands that “Sometimes we do make compromises” in order to get preservation, “With this project, the reason we got ourselves into this position where we’re really being lobbied and pushed to approve it… goes back to when they originally presented the text amendment over a year ago.”

Early concept rendering of height and massing of 200-ft tower on the Raleigh development site by Kobi Karp

“We were shown a simple rendering of the Raleigh with a small round tower behind it,” Needelman said. Relying on the fact the Board would have the final say when the project came back to it for design approval, members supported the height increase. “I think that’s where we made an error… basically giving them a blank slate to go 200 feet tall and it put us in this position” with the back and forth negotiation and lobbying. “They propose something and then when they propose it, we have all sorts of concerns over it.”

Rendering of the Raleigh tower at 200-ft though it was approved at 175-ft. New drawings are being prepared by architect Kobi Karp.

Proposed 200-ft Raleigh tower. New drawings are being prepared by architect Kobi Karp to reflect the 175-ft approved height

Needelman said if any other text amendment came before the Board during the remainder of his term, “I would not be in favor of it until I saw the project” including a massing study showing what’s being proposed.

“A more developed plan,” he said, would have alleviated a lot of the issues we’re talking about now.” The Versailles/Aman proposal is more developed than the Raleigh tower was when that text amendment came before the HPB but whether it’s enough to satisfy Needelman and the Board remains to be seen. (Renderings below.)

The opinion this time, however, is only advisory. The Commission can choose to ignore an unfavorable recommendation, should the Board go that direction. If the Commission approves the height increase amendment in October, the tower design will come back to the Preservation Board at some point and, then, it will have the final say.

Finglass, however, already weighed in with his email to the Mayor and Commissioners this week in which he said, “Approving this monumental change would greatly damage the character, open space, and view corridors of the entire area. Additional errors in allowing more construction density to destroy our beach fronts should not be allowed. Please vote NO on this overreach of development. Thank you.” 

Details of the height amendment are here.

Rendering of restored Versailles Hotel from Collins Avenue

Rendering of east side of restored Versailles Hotel with proposed reconstruction of Gulfstream Dining Room at ground level

View of proposed restoration of the Versailles porte cochere

View from the beach of proposed tower with Faena House to the left

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