After preservationists and developers reached an historic agreement to support an increase in FAR (density) for the North Beach Town Center which was subsequently approved by voters, they have been careful to keep the companion piece of legislation – including the Tatum Waterway in the North Shore Local Historic District – moving along at the same pace. This week, Miami Beach Commissioners gave their final approval to the two ordinances that implement the new Town Center FAR and provide historic designation for the Tatum Waterway.
Daniel Ciraldo, Executive Director of the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) said, “Because of the public benefit in terms of implementing the Master Plan [which recommended increasing density in the Town Center] and also getting the historic designation of surrounding neighborhoods, it seems to be a good thing… I do think the future of North Beach is looking bright.” Ciraldo, preservation activist Nancy Liebman, and investor Matis Cohen were among those who reached the compromise that laid the groundwork for both ordinances.
Silvia Coltrane, who’s building a hotel on the 7100 block of Collins Avenue, told Commissioners, “Your vote today is going to make a major change to North Beach in an area that has been neglected for a long time. The voters voted for the increase in the FAR. This will allow my site to be able to bring a much better hotel than I was going to be able to deliver before because I’m able to provide a lot more public areas and better amenities… it has attracted a lot more [hotel] flags than I was going to be able to attract before.”
Cohen, a property investor who is also Chairman of the North Beach Community Development Corporation, said, “The [North Beach] Master Planning process that took a number of years created a consensus and the number one ‘big idea’ that was the result of this consensus was to create a vibrant Town Center. There were a lot of political concessions that were given in order to get to this point and I want to commend you. Know that this is the one most important impetus to revitalizing North Beach.”
Next up, design guidelines for building within the new Town Center Districts.
While designation of the Tatum Waterway (above) was part of the Town Center compromise, not everyone was celebrating. John Breistol, President of Ytech International which owns and operates the Grand Beach apartment complex along the Tatum Waterway, asked Commissioners to delay their vote.
“As you know, the Tatum Waterway is ground zero for sea level rise in Miami Beach,” Breistol said. “There’s consistent sunny day flooding along the Waterway which negatively impacts both the public perception of the neighborhood as well as the physical structures themselves.”
“In addition, our residents contend with flood conditions on a regular basis,” he continued. “Our residents walk in ankle to knee high water to access their units from their vehicles and vice versa. Unfortunately, it appears that you have not properly studied the impacts this legislation may have from economic and resiliency perspectives… If you historically designate the Waterway without first studying the potential economic and resiliency impacts of such a designation you risk significantly harming both property owners and residents.”
Breistol said Ytech has owned the Grand Beach since 2015, cleaning it up, making improvements, and eliminating the crime there. Grand Beach consists of 22 buildings with 182 apartment units making Ytech the largest property owner/stakeholder along the Tatum Waterway.
“We understand that there’s been some sort of political behind the curtain compromise which led to this proposed legislation at the expense of the Tatum Waterway stakeholders. We were not part of that compromise,” he said. “In fact, we’re the largest property owner along the Waterway. We did not hear from the preservation community until after the first reading when we indicated that we had concerns with the legislation.”
“Regardless of any past political – quote end quote – deal, the facts are clear,” Breistol said. “The Waterway’s flooding and the historic designation may exacerbate the effects of that flooding and effectively paralyze property owners’ ability to address that flooding. We urge you to do the right thing and properly study the Tatum Waterway from both economic and resiliency perspectives as required by your own code prior to enacting the legislation. Otherwise you risk not only alienating stakeholders and constituents, but you’re also turning your back on your own noble sea rise and climate change initiatives.”
Ciraldo agreed resiliency is an important issue. “The community has come together to discuss how do we extend the life of our city. How do we look toward solutions? A lot of good ideas are coming and we need the time to really focus on what do we do… All that we’re trying to do is designate the areas of importance within the City and say that we will commit to the vibrancy of those areas.”
He noted he and Liebman met with Ytech and Breistol. “We committed to him that we will work with them on what they can do with their project to really make it thrive. If you look at any of our 14 historic districts, there’s a lot of development going on, a lot of economic progress. We’re not trying to stop any of that. We realize there is resiliency and that is a goal of the City. We supported having criteria in the designation report about resiliency. And I think that this is going to be the start of something very good, not the end… you have our commitment that we are going to work together, with the community, and with the property owners to really continue the vibrancy.”
Liebman, who is also a member of the Historic Preservation Board, said, “I believe that some people come into this city, buy property, and either don’t know or don’t want to know about the fact that we have historic districts here. Historic districts that have made this city a fantastic place to live and be…”
“We will be back to talk about what we can do to help the owners do something significant and creative rather than only think about demolishing,” she said. “Let’s not allow the use of the flooding to take hold and create people who want to demolish their buildings and convince you to demolish their buildings.”
She said she didn’t understand why the owners didn’t know about the compromise. “I don’t think there are many people who didn’t know about it.”
Responding to a question about working with Ytech, Liebman said the historic designation does not mean people can’t do anything with their buildings. She said the preservation community will “gladly help them” but she said the City also has to help with corrective measures.
“I asked when they’re on the list to have pumps put in, whatever is needed,” Liebman said. “I asked the City Manager when they’re on the list. And not until 2020 which shocks me. Especially after I sat here all morning and listened to the people [from North Bay Road] who didn’t want their streets to be raised. They didn’t want anything and here are people who feel that they’re the most flooded place in town and nobody’s going to help them until 2020. So, we have a lot of work to do. We will do what we can and I know we all will help.”
Cohen said, “This Commission and the prior Commission were eager to make that promise to residents to protect the structures and they fulfilled that promise, but here now I’m asking you to make the promise to these property owners that you will protect their interests by creating guidelines for the [land use] boards… that the obligation for this resiliency doesn’t fall solely on the property owner but on the City equally.” He urged that those guidelines be quantifiable so that “property owners know how to behave and not be at the whim of a subjective board.”
Glenda Phipps, North Beach resident, reminded the Commissioners that many voters supported the increased density in Town Center because of the promise of historic designation of the Tatum Waterway. “Those were very, very difficult things to do. We have many other issues that the City needs to deal with that are going to be based in trust. We’ve got the [General Obligation] bond issue coming up. We need to see that when we do things like that, when we make those agreements, everyone follows through on them.”
North Beach resident and property owner, Kirk Paskal said, “I really want my neighborhood to be promoted. It’s a fantastic place. We all have issues with sea level rise but we’ve all signed on to show leadership on sea level rise, not only on Tatum Waterway – we know what we’re dealing with, we live with the water – but all of Miami Beach.”
Paskal, also a member of the Historic Preservation Board, said historic designation does not mean properties can’t be demolished. He referred to a decision earlier this year in which a home by August Geiger on North Bay Road “was at a bad elevation and structurally determined that it could not stand being lifted.” With the support of MDPL and City historic preservation staff, Paskal said the HPB voted unanimously that “we couldn’t save the building, we had to come up with alternatives.”
“The point is that we’re all trying to work together to take a reasonable approach,” he concluded.
Deborah Cahill, a property owner on Tatum Waterway whose father owned the property before her, said, “I hope you’ll remember that it’s a community. We love that community and the architecture of it is what contributes to who we are.”
Mayor Dan Gelber said, “There obviously is a tension that exists between resiliency and preservation and we’re sort of new at both in a sense… We all know it’s important that developers don’t use resiliency as an excuse but similarly that people who care deeply about preservation don’t ignore it in a way that’s unfair, and finding that balance is very difficult.”
Speaking to Planning Director Tom Mooney who is working on updating the guidelines for the historic districts, Gelber said, “I feel like we’ve got to get better at this and I’m hoping your efforts will give us the ability to have the appropriate lens as we go through this analysis in all of the communities where this occurs.”
Mooney said in order to update the development guidelines the City first had to get survey data “which was lacking.” The Planning Department started working with surveyors on “two of the more vulnerable” historic districts, the Collins waterfront area along Indian Creek and the western area of Flamingo Park. That task is almost complete and includes property elevations as well as first floor elevations for properties that they were given access to by owners.
Architects Shulman & Associates will draft new guidelines along with firms that have experience in sea level rise and “sea level rise engineering in historic districts,” Mooney said. The kickoff for that process will be this week. He expects those guidelines “will be able to translate into those other historic districts” though he said the Planning Department will ask for money in next year’s budget “to get the same type of survey data for other vulnerable historic districts, Tatum Waterway included” so that the guidelines can be “specific and informed.”
Gelber said, “I think it’s becoming a real challenge to figure out and I don’t like the debate where it’s one side versus the other.”
“I’m going to support this [historic designation] today, not because of your agreement; I wasn’t party to your agreement,” Gelber said. “I want to support it because there’s utility in the designation. That said, I really do want us to be able to have that discussion. I don’t like the sides competing like they’re opposed to one another. This ought to be much more collaborative and, honestly, I feel like there are growing pains with this but I think you need to get past them and I’m hoping your efforts will inform us and allow us to mature into sort of a thoughtful approach to all of these thorny issues.”
Commissioner John Alemán speaking of a vote earlier in the day to delay a resiliency project for North Bay Road said, “You heard us say today and reference the Urban Land Institute study several times and where the Urban Land Institute said ‘Keep going, what you’ve started has taken courage and you should keep going but you should actually do it faster and you should do more’, instead we as a body lost our nerve and we backtracked and we hit the pause button on our adaptation program. And where the Urban Land Institute said you should consider and approach differently, which was preservation, because the Urban Land Institute said ‘You’re not going to be able to save everything. You’re going to have to pick your historic jewels and throw everything you’ve got at those’. We said ‘Forget it. We’re saving everything’ and that’s the action that we’re going to take now.”
“I have promised and I will honor my commitment to [historic designation of Tatum Waterway],” Alemán said. “But I never promised to do it without expressing my deep consternation and so that is exactly what I am doing.”
“We’re definitely putting a big burden on the Historic Preservation Board through this action,” she continued. “We know that the canal waters regularly flow over the sea wall, across the properties and all the way into the public right of way, which means that the foundations of these buildings are sitting in water right now. We know that. It is some of the lowest lying property in North Beach. We know that. So, the burden will be on the HPB. I hope that they are pragmatic, responsible stewards of the public trust in this… because they will have to make some hard decisions. I know that future Commissions will be obligated to replace impractical members of that board as conditions get more severe which we know they are.”
Commissioner Michael Góngora said, “I think the property owners that have come forward have raised some great points. I wished the concerns had been raised sooner, before the plan was developed, before designation moved forward, before compromises and deals were made before the November election.”
City Attorney Raul Aguila reminded Commissioners they were not voting on a resiliency and sustainability ordinance. “That is coming,” he said. “Nothing in our code and nothing in your designating this district as historic precludes a property owner’s ability to either modify or demolish their property. It just subjects them to different criteria under the historic preservation code.”
In expressing his support for the designation, Commissioner Ricky Arriola said, “I believe it is super important to have historic districts in a community, especially one as old as ours, for a lot of reasons. One is we’ve seen it’s great for tourism. It’s great for economic development. It’s great to preserve our heritage. I also think it’s important to preserve beautiful things.”
That said, Arriola added, “Just be forewarned that having too heavy of a hand against possible adaptive reuse or potential demolition of some buildings may result in this area becoming slums. Let’s face it. If these buildings become consistently waterlogged, landlords will eventually abandon them and that will become a blighted area for us and so as we move forward in future legislation and future discussions, I think that we need to look at this area maybe differently than we’ve looked at other historic areas in our community.”
Arriola said he is working on a historic preservation fund to help property owners and noted that he has “unsuccessfully asked my colleagues to allow adaptive reuse to rehabilitate buildings” along Tatum Waterway and “to create an economic incentive for landlords to invest in the buildings and improve the quality of life of residents who have zero mixed-use in their community” and have asked for local cafés and other amenities within walking distance.
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Closed since a fire, it also suffered hurricane damage