International Inn Preservation, Development Tripped Up Over Criminal Activity

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

International Inn Preservation, Development Tripped Up Over Criminal Activity:

Plan to Give More Height to Hotel Owner on Hold for Six Months

An agreement to allow the owner of the International Inn to add an eight-story addition in exchange for not contesting historic designation of the property is on hold after City Commissioners objected to rewarding “a nuisance property” with development incentives. Citing an increase in criminal activity including prostitution and theft by a prostitute, Miami Beach Commissioners said they weren’t willing to grant new development rights if all the City would be getting is “more of the same” in return. 
The iconic structure at 2301 Normandy Drive is one of the first things drivers see as they cross the 79th Street Causeway into North Beach. Concerns about criminal activity at the property have been raised for years. One of the most well-known incidents occurred in 2017 when a man was arrested on human trafficking charges there. Meanwhile, the community has worried about the hotel’s deteriorating condition. 

The International Inn was designed by Melvin Grossman and built in 1956. When the Historic Preservation Board began the historic designation process in October 2017, Alex Tachmes, the attorney for owner Belsa Tsay, told the City his client would fight the involuntary action but proffered a compromise: Allow Tsay to build a new addition within the allowable FAR (Floor Area Ratio or density) for the site and permit a bar, restaurant, and outdoor entertainment area. In exchange, the owner would accept the historic designation and restore the iconic building. The Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) and preservationist Nancy Liebman worked with the owner to craft the agreement and gave their blessing.
As part of the compromise, the historic designation, changes to the City’s Land Use Regulations, and a development agreement with the City would all travel together. By travelling as a package, the historic designation would not take place without the changes to the regulations or the development agreement, but neither would the land use amendments and the incentives for the owner take place without designation. 
Miami Beach Planning Director Tom Mooney said there were still a couple of outstanding terms that the City administration and owner have not come to agreement on, primarily the ability to have standalone bars on the site and the hours for outdoor ambient entertainment. The City proposed ending outdoor entertainment at 10 pm due to the residential nature of the area.  
Tachmes reiterated that his client was not in agreement with the designation initially due to the restrictions imposed on historic properties but following a “series of negotiations” with MDPL, Liebman and the City, a development agreement was reached for the most part. 
“If there’s no development agreement, there’s no deal,” he told Commissioners at their meeting earlier this month. “And while the City can, of course, try to proceed on its own with involuntary designation… I can tell you that our client will not consent to it.”
“The bargain that was struck was historic designation in exchange for us to have a hotel restaurant and bar,” Tachmes said. “If the City doesn’t agree to this settlement and these conditions, obviously it’s up to you, but then the preservation part will be litigated and contentious going forward.”
Tachmes said the outdoor bar requested would be attached to a restaurant inside and would only be open when the restaurant is open. The owner is also seeking to have a lobby bar. “Hotels everywhere in the world have a lobby bar. We’re simply seeking permission to have a bar in our lobby.”

Old postcard of the International Inn in its prime

The item's sponsor, Commissioner Ricky Arriola, acknowledged the legacy hotel located in a residential neighborhood that no longer allows hotels “isn’t up to the standards in terms of operations that make any of us happy… in order to make this hotel thrive, at least in my mind, we have to help it have the sort of amenities to help it attract a better crowd, better tourists, and residential traffic… ambient noise, a lobby bar, things that most hotels have to make them successful.”
“The other overriding policy that I think all of us support is the preservation of this hotel,” he said, “so when we’re trying to decide to have a lobby bar and ambient noise, I think we have to do it in the context that we want to make this hotel be successful… so let’s keep an open mind, try to help this operator make the investments they need to make so that we can preserve it and have a nice hotel product we can all enjoy.”
Because of the preservation aspect, and the ability to separate the new tower from the historic portion of the building due to the layout of the site, MDPL Executive Director Daniel Ciraldo said the preservation organization is supportive of the development agreement “and as part of that we support the height increase.” Acknowledging MDPL doesn’t usually support height increases he added, “Just because this is a very unique site in the way it’s laid out… we think this is the right way to go.”


Developer and North Beach property owner Matis Cohen told Commissioners he was “conflicted” on the issue. “To see this property go by the wayside would be a tremendous shame.” While he said he had “respect for the process that MDPL went through trying to find a way to bring this property up to spec, I do think that we have to take a look at the game plan and see if we’re giving special treatment whereas… good operators are not receiving the benefits which are being offered here.”
“If this is the right methodology with which we do look at preservation, then shouldn’t we be looking at other preservation projects the same way?” Cohen asked. Referencing properties in the newly designated historic districts in North Beach, he said, “For your consideration, I think you have to look at that in a larger prism, in a scope of how this affects other property owners that have recently been designated” and how you apply the International Inn model “so that everybody can elevate their projects, not just this project.”
Steven Polisar, whose family has owned property a block away from the International Inn since the 1950s said, “It’s a fact that if you let something just languish like that, it’s not going to get better… Here the City has an opportunity in an area that’s starting to make a comeback and I think it would be an artificial handcuff for us not to let them go ahead and spend money and bring in a better class of clientele. The irony of it is that if all you do is suppress something and you don’t make moves to improve it, you get a lower clientele and as a result the neighborhood actually gets reduced in its value and its safety.”
Mayor Dan Gelber called on the Miami Beach Police Department’s North Beach Neighborhood Resource Officer, Julio Blanco, to address the crime concerns at the inn. Blanco said he conducted a crime prevention survey for the owners and made a number of recommendations for improving safety on the property including a fence and landscaping to force people to use one entrance, keycard access for all rooms, enhanced lighting, and a security guard.
While he commended the owner for meeting with him, he noted, “The numbers for this year are worse than last year, in particular prostitution crimes and that’s a little concerning but, to be fair, I really feel that if they implement the suggestions I’ve made, I think that over time we would have better news and lower crime numbers.”
Blanco said he’s been assigned to North Beach for 19 of his 20 years with MBPD. “That property has been a real problem for us.” At one point, he said there were 211 calls for service in one year. Last year, there were 95 calls for service, an increase over 2017 which saw 71. 
“And already this year, we’re at 62” calls for service, he said. “That’s unusually high.” The calls primarily involve prostitution, theft by a prostitute, batteries, trespasses, and disorderly conducts. “Any officer that’s worked undercover narcotics or even SIU where they’re investigating prostitution crimes knows this property well,” Blanco said.
Tachmes told Commissioners there is now a nighttime security guard on the property and a contract has been signed to retrofit all the room doors for electronic keycards. The owner has installed the “no trespassing” signs which allow police to enter and remove people from the property and she is getting quotes for a fence to provide centralized access to the property.
Gelber was blunt. “This has been a problem for decades and I’m wondering why all of a sudden is it happening? Why didn’t your client at some point prior… just say ‘Maybe I need a security guard, better access systems?’ to stop the behavior that obviously is hurting the community and the residents.”
Saying the operation is a “family business” run by “good people” who have owned the property for 15 years, Tachmes acknowledged, “I do know that this has been a wakeup call for them from the standpoint of the City indicating that these things have to change.”
North Beach resident Margueritte Ramos told Commissioners, “This has been an eyesore in our neighborhood for 20 years, so if we’re going to offer perks to the same owner, I think we should see some immediate action. We should not be seeing prostitution and drug deals, etc. So if there’s a perk, there should be benefits to the neighborhood because we’ve lived with it for 20 years.”
Commissioners and the Mayor all emphasized they supported the historic designation of the property but had to consider its operations and the impact on the neighborhood. Commissioner Micky Steinberg said, “I don’t know that anything we do today is going to change the bad behavior that has been occurring for the last two decades. There is no guarantee if we give them all these other additional rights, then what? Then what would happen?”
“We have our officers who are telling us the trajectory is going down not up,” she said. “The reason they finally met with PD is because Commissioner [John] Alemán and myself requested that they meet with PD so that we can start having that real dialogue.” She recommended tabling the discussion for a year to give the operator time to “show us they’re not bad actors… I’m happy to have the conversation that rewards good behavior but I’m not supporting rewarding bad behavior.”
Alemán said, “The numbers are terrible. I agree with the designation in exchange for the development rights… The larger issue to me depends on the new hotel operation being a good operation that’s not just more rooms doing the same thing that has been a disaster in North Beach for decades.”
Commissioner Mark Samuelian said the issue is not about the building or the added uses. “The core issue is… about being a good neighbor. It’s about good behavior. That’s a threshold issue. You can’t get past that, you don’t earn the right to talk about the other stuff.”
He said first he wants to see crime numbers that show “the trend is going in the right direction. That to me is the starting point... I’m very open to the agreement once we see those results.”
Liebman objected to the direction the discussion was going. “We have seen buildings that are worse… how do you expect this person who has had this building for fifteen years, she lost her husband and she is trying to manage it herself so instead of helping her do this project and helping us who care about preservation in this world you’re sitting back for, Commissioner Steinberg, a year? You won’t even see that hotel in a year. Either it will have been demolished or it will have been sold.”
“Why aren’t we trying to do something positive to make this happen?” she asked. If you don’t pass the development agreement we may as well say goodbye… we have to stretch and do something different.”
Tachmes said, “Obviously, we have a lot of work to do and we’ll speak to our client and do the best we can to assist.”
Gelber said, it is “a huge leap that [linking] the development agreement and the designation is somehow going to change the nature of the way it’s run… that’s something you would like to happen and you hope would happen but if it doesn’t happen all we’ve done is reward it and exacerbate, frankly, conduct that for 15 years should have been stopped.”
“If somebody came in and said they were going to invest a certain amount in this property, if a new owner or co-owner came in, if we had some sense that this was a transformational moment that’s going to stop, not just bad behavior but it’s debilitating behavior to the neighborhood,” Gelber said, that might help give Commissioners more certainty.  “I don’t think this Commission wants to do anything unless it has a really high belief that this is going to be a different kind of property. We love the property as it looks. We hate the way it’s been managed.”
Arriola said, “None of us like the behavior that has been taking place there… if we want to see this property preserved and we want it to become a better neighbor through some enhancements, I think we need to move forward.”
“A hotel operation’s that not on the beach, that doesn’t have a bar, restaurant, it’s only going to attract a certain type of clientele,” Arriola added. 
Alemán said she looked at it differently. “The paradigm we like. We’re good with granting more development rights and granting more operating rights in terms of the restaurant under the right Conditional Use Permit, outdoor ambient entertainment, but there’s an ingredient missing.”
“What we’re saying is go find that and come back,” Alemán said. “Come back with a convincing structure and partners that give us the comfort that it’s not going to be a zero star crime magnet anymore, it is going to be a quality hotel operation that contributes overall to North Beach and its neighbors.”
Samuelian said, “For me it’s very specific… show the recommendations [from MBPD] implemented. Show us the incidents of crime going down toward zero.”
City Manager Jimmy Morales raised the issue of the shuttered Deauville Hotel. “It’s an interesting contrast. There you have a building that’s historic, iconic in a bigger way because of the Beatles and is decaying daily with a family that has zero interest in working with the City.” While he said he was not advocating approving the development agreement at that moment, he added, “You’ve got someone that has come forward and wants to work with us. What a difference. So I just would say, let’s not miss an opportunity to maybe save a historic building, make it better, and let’s avoid what happened at the Deauville.”
Noting the pending court case in which the City is seeking a receiver for the hotel and to compel the owners of the Deauville to make necessary repairs, Morales said, “Who knows where that ends up and we could lose that building one day.”
“Here you’ve got a property owner who may not be perfect, they have issues,” he said. “Let’s figure out over the next few months [how] we can work with that person. We’ve got an opportunity here. That’s all I wanted to say compared to the other one.”
Steinberg responded, “Let’s be clear. The only reason they’re here trying to work with us is because there’s a designation on the table and other than that they wouldn’t even be having a conversation with any of us.”
Commissioners suggested the owner come back in six months or sooner if they felt enough progress had been made to revisit the development agreement. 

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