First Project in New Tatum Waterway Historic District Approved

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

First Project in New Tatum Waterway Historic District Approved:

Simpler lines, lower elevation win over preservation board

After being told to go back to the drawing board, the owner and architect of what is expected to be the first project in the new Tatum Waterway Historic District, came back a second time to the Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board with a simpler design concept and an elevation that is at the lower end of what is required to address sea level rise.
The October meeting of the HPB highlighted the conflict between the first projects to build at higher elevations for flood resiliency and surrounding neighbors still at their original elevation which are now below current flood guidelines. 

Owner Pierre Elmaleh told the Board he purchased the two now vacant buildings at 7925 and 7935 Crespi Boulevard backing up to the Tatum Waterway two months before Hurricane Irma. The buildings had tenants in them, none of whom left despite the mandatory evacuation orders. Elmaleh, who also lives on the water in a 1930’s Spanish-style home, said, “When you live on the water you become obsessed with it, especially in Miami Beach with its looming Atlantis reputation.” But Irma changed things for him. He described his own evacuation as “traumatic, a 20-hour exodus on the road to safety.”
“When I came back I was shocked to learn that none of my tenants respected the mandatory evacuation,” he said. “At 5 feet below base flood [elevation], Crespi Boulevard was completely flooded, even though we were downgraded to a tropical storm. My neighbor had one foot of water in her house. It took her one year to repair the damage.” Elmaleh reminded the Board members of the catastrophic damage in Panama City from Hurricane Michael – “60% of homes in Panama city were destroyed, $50 billion in damage, 60 people dead.”
“Imagine if we had storm surge on the Tatum Waterway. What kind of tragedy?” Elmaleh asked. “This is why I would like to congratulate this Board for its responsible attitude I heard last time when you said you believed as much – you are a historic preservation board – you believe as much in resiliency as in historic preservation, thank you. So, this is why I also promised myself not to expose any lives again.”
Earlier this year, when the floor and ceiling of the buildings collapsed, he said his property manager resigned saying the buildings were not safe and urged him to evacuate the tenants as soon as possible. A structural engineer he hired agreed. In hiring an architect to come up with a design for a new structure, he said he had three main concerns, “Design, resiliency, and the historic context.”
After the Board questioned the original design and its scale, Elmaleh and his architect, Eduardo Pado-Fernandez compromised on the building’s height, relocating an elevator to the interior which resulted in two less feet on the top of the structure, but they also compromised on the building’s new elevation, electing to put the parking at the minimal elevation required by law and the first habitable floor at BFE + 2 feet. Originally, the plan was for the maximum elevation of BFE + 5. (BFE is base flood elevation.)
The design has also been simplified as seen in the rendering above.
Original design for 7925 Crespi Boulevard

Pado-Fernandez said, “We always knew the level of scrutiny was going to be very high and the expectations were going to be very high. We tried to make everybody happy. Unsurprisingly that was the perfect recipe to make nobody happy.”
In reworking the design, his thought was “Let’s do not what those architects that defined the character of the neighborhood did 50 years ago. Let’s actually try and do what they would have done had they been commissioned with the task at hand today,” Pado-Fernandez said. “Let’s keep being part of a living tradition and have us modern day 21st century architects do a retooling and a reimagination of what used to be there.”
As a result, he said, “I realized that the courtyard was very important to leave free and the interface of the stairs with the street was very important too.” The new design features an open courtyard and simple screens on the stairways providng a “trimming of the façade.”
“It stops becoming architecture. It becomes a very utilitarian structure because these are very simple buildings, and that’s okay, because these are humble residential buildings,” he said.
Elmaleh said he wanted the building’s design to be inspired by “the mid-century design characteristics of the neighborhood. Because Crespi Boulevard is an island, I asked to try to bring up the tropical paradise vibe” and emulate the “garden apartment concept with a courtyard, planters, catwalks.” But he said he heard the Board’s “indications to tone down the building, all the bold accents. Actually, I believe that thanks to you and staff the new design is much lighter and fits perfectly the garden apartment rental building concept which is, according to me, the essence of the historic district.”
Addressing compatibility with the older buildings in the neighborhood, he said, “I believe that architecture is an art and art of all times should live together especially in the city of Art Basel.”
Matis Cohen, an investor on Crespi, told the Board, “We have spoken on so many occasions over the last three years on the risk of sea level rise and here’s one of the great examples of it being real, not an excuse for a developer” to demolish buildings.
“This architect is known for his respect for preservation,” Cohen said. “Raising this property” to be resilient “and the character of this property has to be something that is evolved. It is not supposed to be a copy.” He urged approval saying, “Don’t send the message to all of the property owners on Crespi Boulevard that there is nothing to be done. There has to be something to be done and it is this Board’s not only authority but responsibility to make sure that something does happen there because the alternative is really a bad situation.”
When a neighboring property owner pointed out that many of the speakers were property owners but not homeowners who lived there, Cohen was irate. “Myself, Pierre and a number of other people were there right after Irma, cleaning up and worrying about the residents that did not evacuate… To say that because you’re a private homeowner gives you a special right is unfair and should not be given extra credence. We are responsible for the lives of many, many, many people living on Crespi Boulevard and we cannot take that risk of them living below [base flood elevation] or in harm’s way because, at the end of the day, we will be responsible. Not this Board, not this City, the landlord.”
With the close of public testimony, Board Chair Stevan Pardo said the Board would consider this project specifically and that this was “not a fight for how we’re going to do all development in North Beach in the future.”
Board member Scott Needelman said the new design “addressed all of our concerns, at least to my liking. I guess when you look at the immediate neighbors it does look a little bit out of scale but overall with the neighborhood it is in scale… depending on how far you go from the property” he said referencing larger buildings in the surrounding area.
The original design showing context of surrounding area

Nancy Liebman who was one of the strong critics of the first design said, “You did it, you did it. I’m just happy to be here to be able to tell you that and I hope since we have other developers in the room who I hope are looking at North Beach – I really believe that that’s coming to life – and people who want to do good development that complements Miami Beach should begin looking at it… We look for more projects to come before us that are like this.”
“I’m glad you took the fluff off,” she said of the simpler design.
Jack Finglass disagreed objecting to its more simple design saying it lacked “quirkiness.” 
“One of the true hallmarks of North Beach is its quirkiness and there’s nothing quirky about this,” he said. “It’s a straightforward, very nice modern building which could be anywhere and that’s my main objection to it.”
He maintained his objections to the project’s scale. “Granted there are taller buildings across the Waterway, not in the historic district, and there are other tall buildings in the area,” he said. “In this particular stretch, this to me sticks out like a sore thumb.”
“I know you have the right to build higher and you should do what you can do but I fear, as people have said it will not be an example for other developers, I know very well it will be an example for other developers and I shudder to think… it’s the beginning of the destruction of this area, the historic district” Finglass said.
Then he turned to the resiliency aspect. “Pierre said something that really offended me,” Finglass said, referring to building owner Elmaleh. “He said that this Historic Preservation Board equates sustainability with historic preservation. God help us if those two are ever equated on an equal basis,” Finglass said. “Sustainability is a very important major aspect of our decision making but it should never be the equivalent of the idea of historic preservation. That runs counter to every historic preservation board in the country. We are here for historic preservation purposes, sustainability being a very, very, very important aspect of that but not equal. I’m sorry. That might offend some people but that’s my strong belief.”
Liebman responded to Finglass’ design criticism. “One of biggest objections I had the last time, I guess it was the quirkiness. I called it fluff, those things that were in the middle, they looked like batwings.”
Pado-Fernandez replied, “As I said at the beginning, it’s a fool’s errand to make everybody happy.”
Pardo addressed the resiliency aspect of the Board’s decision making saying he hoped the Board would do more to address “the elephant in the room” that is sea level rise in the coming year. 
“We as a historic preservation board have been watching and really struggling with how to preserve historically the fabric of the City while at the same time considering new development while at the same time addressing sea level rise and I don’t think that we have figured it out,” Pardo said. “In 2019 what I’d like to see us do as a board is take our hand in this battle and try to better understand how we can do our job better on a historic preservation board level and give guidance to applicants like this one… we need to do a better job at educating ourselves on what are the opportunities and options” with regard to preservation, demolition, and development.
“I’m going to really pull the resources together because I really think that we can make a difference and help guide the City on why historic preservation can be compatible with an unfortunate sea level rise situation that we need to address,” Pardo said.
John Stuart added, “I’m going to push for what Jack was saying, for quirkiness. I think the quirkiness is something than can really come from a deeper understanding of the historic context and how the buildings that were there came into being and as we move forward and see that smaller buildings, buildings with lower [elevation], buildings that are in jeopardy, we need to preserve something of them. We need to preserve something that is specifically theirs. We won’t always be able to preserve all the fabric but we do need to preserve some of the character and that’s something we can discuss and look at how we do that… perhaps we can figure out guidelines how we can do more to preserve what we can when what we can’t preserve is something we can’t help.”
Turning back to the project at hand, Pardo said the owner and architect had “come such a long, long way in such a short amount of time” noting the Planning staff’s support.
“I know there’s going to be criticism of this project,” he said, “and I know some will feel this is the opening of the floodgates, no pun intended, to the sea level rise, but I do believe that we have to be vigilant and sensitive to what Jack is concerned about and has expressed… if a project doesn’t listen to the concerns then they won’t get approved until they are more sensitive to those issues… eventually we hopefully get it right… we may not get it perfect but we try to get it as best as we can.”
The project was approved 5-1 with Finglass opposed. Board member Kirk Paskal recused himself.
Staff report and documents for 7925-7935 Crespi Boulevard project, here.

Renderings: CDS Architecture and Planning
7925 Crespi Boulevard, as approved, front

7925 Crespi Boulevard, as approved, viewed from Tatum Waterway


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