Affordable Housing Project for Elderly with Special Needs Approved for North Beach

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Affordable Housing Project for Elderly with Special Needs Approved for North Beach:

Building will also address resiliency

The Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board approved construction of a new four-story, 20-unit housing project in North Beach that will serve elderly residents with special needs. The development is a project of the Housing Authority of the City of Miami Beach which owns the property at 1158 Marseilles Drive. 

Known as The Heron, the development is designed by architects Brooks + Scarpa and features a whimsical open breeze block façade with MiMo pink exterior walls showing through. Elevated to address sea level rise, the building will also contain resilient features inside and out.

To accommodate the elderly housing project, a one-story 1954 contributing building designed by Gilbert Fein will need to be demolished, something Planning staff “did not take lightly,” City Preservation Manager Debbie Tackett told the Historic Preservation Board (HPB).

Because the building is “significantly below base flood” elevation, it would need to be elevated over 3.5 feet to protect it from flooding, a cost that would be “prohibitive” and “not possible or feasible for what is the program of affordable elderly housing,” she said. If it were going to be used for another purpose, she noted, retaining the building and adaptively reusing it might be possible, “but given the stringent program and the budget of this particular project for a much-needed use in the city, staff did not believe that it was appropriate to require that a portion of the existing building be retained and elevated.”

Tackett added, “In terms of an affordable housing project, this is the most creative and thoughtful design that I have personally seen in all of my work and I really want to commend the applicant for their sensitivity, not only looking at the program and the needs of their residents, but also really understanding the historic nature of the district and what is compatible in the district in scale and massing and also design features.”

Akerman Miami Office Managing Partner Neisen Kasdin is serving as pro bono counsel to the Housing Authority. A former Miami Beach Mayor, Kasdin told the HPB, “I think we all know that one of the greatest and most pressing needs in this community is housing and it is even more so for the elderly who do not have the mobility to be able to pick up necessarily and go to another city.”

Architect Jeffrey Huber of Brooks + Scarpa said his firm has designed nearly 10,000 units of affordable housing across the country. In doing so, they’ve learned “the importance of understanding the vernacular, the idiosyncrasies of a particular neighborhood.”

One of the challenges, Huber said, is the required flood elevation of 9 feet and how to address the needed elevation while still having “a connection to the street.”

Huber said the design team incorporated stepped terraces up to the community room which will act as a “resiliency hub for the residents,” an area with a kitchen and laundry facilities and backup generator where residents can go in the event of severe weather and loss of power. The building’s multi-level terraces and surrounding landscaped areas are both resilient features as well as serving as a “community porch” where residents can sit outside and be part of the neighborhood.

“I recall Andy Sweet’s photos” documenting the elderly in South Florida, Huber said. An “incredible aspect” of The Heron is “that this becomes a community asset, a living room for the community” where residents can “have eyes on the street and connect with their community.”

The development team is targeting a LEED Gold certification, a designation for buildings that meet certain standards of incorporating resilient and sustainable design and construction elements. All units will be ADA compliant.

The building will contain two elevators along with open stairs to encourage residents to use the stairs for exercise if they’re able to. 

HPB Chair Jack Finglass said, “I think it’s an absolutely spectacular proposal.”

During public comment, Jamie Straz told the Board, “As a local resident and architect that lives literally right around the corner, this is the type of architecture we want in our neighborhood and in the city.”

“It’s an opportunity to set a high standard... If you are going to demolish something,” he said, “the design must be of a high quality… Brooks + Scarpa did such a remarkable job… this is such high quality.”

The Miami Design Preservation League, however, was not in support given the demolition of the historic structure. Executive Director Daniel Ciraldo said, “The design is really unique and having someone like Brooks + Scarpa who have done other projects in the city is a really high bar that is set… Unfortunately, we have to oppose this due to the demolition of the 1954 contributing structure.” For MDPL, the priority is “keeping preservation top of mind,” he said, “even though there is a great public benefit for affordable elderly housing. [We would] prefer to have seen alternative proposals that possibly could have reincorporated the existing building.”

During Board discussion, member Rick Lopez called it a “wonderful and refreshing project.”

Nancy Liebman told the development team, “I commend you for a gorgeous project and even a more gorgeous purpose.”

While noting he was “piling on,” Max Litt, said the project would address a “critical need in the community and in the city, adding “I appreciate the design, also the sea level rise and resiliency criteria.”

Tackett agreed saying, “It’s just so much fun. It has the energy of the MiMo period but still using contemporary materials, contemporary technology, elevated to the base flood [elevation]. I’m very happy with it.”

Board member Laura Weinstein-Berman said, “This is really for me the architecture of joy,” noting she “really appreciated the comments about resiliency [not only as it pertains to sea level rise but] how it fits within the social resiliency of the community.”

The Board approved the project 5-0 with members Barry Klein and Kirk Paskal absent.

In an interview with RE:MiamiBeach, Housing Authority of the City of Miami Beach (HACMB) Director of Housing Development Programs Michael O’Hara said, “There’s an extremely high rental cost burden and a lack of suitable ADA accessible housing” forcing elderly special needs residents to seek housing outside of Miami Beach or to become institutionalized. Those special needs may include impaired mobility or sight. The Heron development will allow those residents to remain in Miami Beach where they have already been availing themselves of mental and physical care resources.

The existing building is occupied with four units. “When the building is demolished, we will assist the residents in finding new housing in the Miami Beach area and invite them to apply for the new housing at The Heron and next door at 1144,” O’Hara said. 
1144 Marseilles Drive is an affordable/workforce housing project from the Housing Authority that was approved by the HPB in June. It will contain ten studio apartments and 12 one-bedroom units.

Monthly rent in The Heron will start at $443 with a guaranteed affordability period of 50 years. In addition to increasing the number of units from 4 to 20 and addressing long-term affordability, O'Hara said, the Housing Authority is providing a building that adapts to sea level rise with a neighborhood-compatible design.

“The neighborhood is overwhelmingly in support of the project and they love the design by Brooks + Scarpa,” he said. “The result is a master class in what can happen when you listen to the community and take their comments to heart.”

The Heron, he said, “complements the other buildings in the historic district and raises the bar for what North Beach should expect from the development community. And, with all the gentrification that continues to affect North Beach, our projects are an effort to make sure everyone has a place in North Beach for the long term.”

O’Hara anticipates construction on the affordable housing at 1144 Marseilles will start shortly before The Heron but with a shared engineering team, there’s “a lot of continuity that’s addressed,” he said.

Between the two projects, O’Hara said the Housing Authority is making “a $10M investment in affordable housing in Miami Beach not including the land costs.” When land costs are included, the total investment comes to $12M.

How big does he expect the demand to be for the 20 units of elderly housing at The Heron? O’Hara said, the last time the Authority had openings at Rebecca Towers, “I believe we had 6,000 applicants.”

In addition to its many features, the name is special, too. Legend, O’Hara said, is the heron is “a bird that flies to the sick and needy and takes away their sickness… so this is what that building will do. It’s not taking care of sickness but it’s taking care of a need, a need for affordable housing and a need for accessible housing for the elderly.”

The full HPB application is here.

Renderings: Brooks + Scarpa

The proposed Heron building, center, in context with approved 1144 Marseilles project to the left


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