The Historic Preservation Board this week voted 5-2 to begin the process of designating the International Inn, located at Miami Beach’s gateway to North Beach, as an historic site. What makes the action unusual is that the process is being initiated by the City over the objection of the property’s owner.
The International Inn at 2301 Normandy Drive was built in 1956. It was designed by Melvin Grossman, a protégé of Morris Lapidus, in the post war modern style. Grossman also designed the Seville Hotel (2901 Collins) in 1955, the Deauville at 6801 Collins in 1957, and the Doral Beach Hotel (4833 Collins) in 1962. A preliminary Staff report indicates the Inn satisfies the necessary criteria and is likely eligible to be designated historic.
The Inn has been owned by Belsa Tsay and her family since 2001. Her attorney, Alex Tachmes, told the Board, “We’re not going to debate the merits as to whether the property’s historic or has historic merit or architectural merit. I think that Staff has laid out a pretty good case for it and it’s not something that we’re going to debate. However, we would like to talk about process and what the City has done and not done in the past with regard to individual site designations.”
Noting that while historic preservation has “a lot of amazing benefits”, Tachmes said, it also “imposes severe restrictions on properties” which “affects the property owner’s individual rights. At the same time, we recognize that historic preservation has a lot of community benefits as well and where there’s a group of properties that all have the same characteristics and contribute to the history of the City and the architecture, designating them helps to preserve the historic character of the City.”
“Up until now the City has always stricken the right balance, in my opinion, between involuntarily designating properties historic and trying to preserve the private property rights of individuals,” Tachmes said. “Today the City is proposing to do something different which is individually designating a historic site without the consent of the owner.”
Tachmes told the Board in more than 20 years of historic designations, “The City has never – not once – designated involuntarily an individual site as historic.” Entire districts have been created that involuntarily designated properties, he said, but those involved groups of properties that were all treated the same.
Tachmes objected to the process saying, to his knowledge, no one had sought to discuss the designation with his client. “She got a notice in the mail,” he said.
“We all know there are dozens of other properties that could be designated as historic that are not in historic districts,” he said. “But for some reason this property has been singled out. If you’re going to proceed on the path of individual designations and you’re going to do it fairly and evenly by doing it citywide, that’s one thing. But to treat one property owner differently, I think is unfair and improper.”
Tachmes suggested a deferral of the action in order to have a dialogue between his client, the City, and preservationists with regard to the historic preservation process. He said Tsay wants to be cooperative but that there are legal options that can be taken. While he said no one wants to go down that path, he urged a dialogue before the situation is no longer amicable.
The owner, Belsa Tsay, also spoke to the Board. “I don’t think this is fair what you’ve done to me,” she said. “I think it’s discrimination because it’s only one building. It’s not fair. If it’s the whole area, yes, I maybe understand it but it’s only one building. It’s not right. We work very hard and I don’t think it’s right that anybody can just go and decide on your property. I don’t think it’s fair … This is my retirement and if you devalue my property, I don’t think it’s fair.”
Daniel Ciraldo, Executive Director of the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL), told the Board, that the conversation regarding designation started with a news article about human trafficking arrests in Miami-Dade County and a subsequent arrest at the International Inn. “The community really got together and said ‘what is going on with this property?’ This is a beautiful MiMo property right at the entryway of North Beach and why has it languished for so many years? Why is it crime ridden? Why does the man in the lobby have to have bullet-proof glass around him?”
Following public discussion of the issue on social media, Board member Nancy Liebman asked the HPB to discuss the designation process in May. At that time the Board asked Staff for the preliminary report on eligibility which is what was considered this week.
“The historic preservation criteria are very objective,” Ciraldo continued. “They’re based on very specific parameters .. Only one of the criteria has to be met in order for it to be worthy.” In this case, he said, four of the criteria have been met for designation.
Acknowledging that individual owners usually initiate the historic designation process, Ciraldo told the Board, “But you all have that power. We wish you would use it more … there are not dozens but hundreds of individual sites that can be protected if you all had the time to look into that.”
North Beach resident Daniel Veitia expressed his concern about the process. “Yes, this is an amazing building,” he commented. “If you look at our MiMo map, it’s just an amazing building but individual designation without the involvement of the property owner is significant to me. It’s very concerning to me. Yes, you have that power. Yes, you have that ability but you are not going to turn this building around and make it a better building because you’re going to designate it as a local historic district.”
“Yes, many things need to be done better and I hope that, if anything, this results in a dialogue with the property owner to recognize the eyesore that this building is on the entrance of our community,” he continued. “But you designating it isn’t going to take away all of those problems.” Veitia said he supports local designation of historic areas but forcing one property owner to designate gives him pause.
In his rebuttal, Tachmes said, “I think it is highly inappropriate and unfair for people to now bring up crime issues relating to this property as the basis for historic preservation … it’s inflammatory … That’s completely unfair and I’d ask you to please just focus on the issues.”
Board Chair Stevan Pardo responded, “I think you’re absolutely correct and I don’t think that this board would ever make a decision based upon issues that are really to be resolved in a separate and independent manner. But it does cause me some concern as a resident ... I was a hotel owner and I remember it was in a crime ridden area and we had to do things about it but that’s a separate issue for another day.”
Liebman asked Tsay, “Would you accept a group of preservation people who care about the building who might come and visit with you and talk about the hotel?”
Tsay responded, “I don’t mind to talk but I don’t want to designate my building.”
Liebman persisted and Tachmes said, “We’d be happy to talk.”
“I think it will make her less afraid if this is going to continue,” Liebman said. “There are many advantages.”
Board member Wyn Bradley told Tsay, “You have a beautiful, beautiful building. You have a crown jewel that needs care and that needs love. And I know you love your building. There are a lot of people that want to show you how much love the community has for it and how many resources are out there to help you with your building, so I hope you can understand that and know just what a valuable asset you have in your possession to care for.” She said she supported moving forward with the designation process.
Involuntary designation, however, gave some Board members pause. John Stuart said, “It’s nice to say it’s a jewel and a crown jewel but I still think we need to be a little more thoughtful about what the direction we hope to achieve with this designation is and, if it’s really an unusual circumstance that we’re designating involuntarily, I don’t think we should do that very lightly by just saying ‘we all love your building so we’re going to do it.’”
“I would like to see us be more articulate so that we can strengthen our role as a board in the community,” he said. “I think we fail to do that when we seem capricious and in some sense this seems a little capricious.” Without the property owner having a full understanding of the advantages and disadvantages, he said he thought it was unfair for the Board to take action this week.
Board member Scott Needelman said, “One of my main concerns is with the involuntary designation.” When he asked if other such processes had been started and abandoned, staff member Debbie Tackett said recent attempts included a single family home at 42 Star Island in which MDPL submitted an application that was ultimately denied by the Commission and an application filed by the City to designate the Rod and Reel Club on Hibiscus Island which was also denied by the Commission.
Needelman continued, “Obviously there’s no question the building should be protected. You don’t see anything like that in the City so it’s kind of a dilemma we’re in here. I’d like to see it move forward but I think it’s incredibly important that the property owner sit with Daniel [Ciraldo] and MDPL and talk. There are a lot of incentives out there.” But, he said, “If there’s too much animosity, I won’t hesitate to change my vote if I think the process didn’t go smoothly, but for now I will vote for it.”
Member Kirk Pascal told Tsay, “When you say ‘why me?’ this is really an exceptional structure. It really is. It’s a standalone that’s beautiful.” Noting its importance at “the gateway to North Beach”, Pascal said, he wanted Tsay’s business to thrive. “Maybe we’re opening up a dialogue where we can come up with the tools to help you do better.”
Finally, Pardo, an attorney, gave his thoughts. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful gem, no question about it. At the same time I do believe as a lawyer in process and I think this is the beginning of that process.” Telling Tsay that sometimes good things come out of things we might initially think are bad, he said, “I want you to be part of this process. I think everyone on this dais has told you they have an open mind. They’re sensitive to your concerns and the concerns raised by your counsel. They’re also sensitive for the historic preservation of property on Miami Beach. That’s why we’re here … This is not the end. This is the beginning.”
Stuart suggested deferring a vote for a month in order to show “good faith” with the owner and the community to allow the dialogue about the preservation process to take place first before voting to take the next step. But the Board voted 5-2 to move forward with designation with Stuart and Pardo voting no. Both indicated they favored deferral.
The presentation of Staff’s preliminary evaluation is only the first step in the historic designation process. The Board’s vote this week to accept the evaluation and begin the process of a formal designation report can be modified or denied by the City Commission within 60 days. If the Commission does not modify or deny the action, the process will continue. It would then require a formal recommendation to the Commission, followed by Planning Board review and back to the Commission for two readings and public hearings.
The next step, a Letter to Commission, relaying the Board’s decision was sent to the City Commission yesterday along with Staff’s preliminary report. The Commission has two meetings within the 60 day window (October 18 and October 31) at which they could modify or deny the request. Otherwise, the process will continue.
Image: City of Miami Beach Staff report with credit to “Beyond the Box, Mid-Century Modern Architecture in Miami and New York” Exhibition Catalog, 2002
Historic Designation Process Begins for International Inn:
owner voices objections to involuntary action by preservation board