Old buildings and the sea

Normandy Isle , North Shore

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Old buildings and the sea:

preservation in the age of sea level rise

There is vigorous debate in Miami Beach over how and if buildings should be preserved as the City deals with looming sea level rise. At issue: how to balance the character of the community with the rights of owners to protect their properties.
Ground zero is North Beach which has seen no development in thirty years but which is now part of a revitalization effort spearheaded by the Mayor and City Commission.
The Commission will hold a special meeting on Monday, December 5 at 3:00 pm to consider proposed historic designations for North Shore and Normandy Isles as recommended in the recently approved North Beach Master Plan and to consider how such designations would fit into the City’s resiliency efforts.
The City recently changed its building code to require all new construction as well as “substantial improvements” to existing structures be built at a minimum of Base Flood Elevation +1 foot, up to a maximum of BFE +5. Base Flood Elevation is the 100-year flood elevation as determined by FEMA. BFE for Miami Beach is 8 feet. So, new construction and substantial improvements to or repairs of existing structures must start at a minimum of a 9-foot elevation.
Which brings us back to North Beach and potential requirements for property owners to preserve structures. Paying for the restoration of buildings that are below current Base Flood Elevation does not make economic sense. Raising structures is expensive and many may not have the structural integrity to be raised given the deterioration of rebar from cement that was mixed with salt water and beach sand. Even doing nothing is costly as flood insurance premiums continue to rise substantially and capital improvements are needed in order to keep insurance (for example, installing vents in the base of a building to allow water to flow through).
While preserving character and the City’s unique architectural heritage is a factor, another concern is attainable housing. North Beach is one of the last areas of the City that is affordable and many residents fear revitalization will force them out. Property owners say that designating an entire area as historic and restricting their ability to build resilient structures to the new City code means they cannot protect their properties from flooding. Forcing replication of older buildings at the higher elevation is not economically viable as rents or sale prices would have to be too high to justify the cost. Owners argue these factors mean buildings will not get renovated and will simply deteriorate. In the meantime, they say that the increasing cost of getting and maintaining flood insurance, increased storm water fees to pay for the City’s resiliency efforts, and increases in property taxes on commercial properties which cannot be homesteaded, mean housing costs have to go up no matter what.  
Developers of attainable housing say the only way to achieve affordability and resiliency is by increasing density – the number of units that can be built on a lot. The City is facing the same dilemma as it looks at its own properties in North Beach. At a special Commission meeting on November 18, Michael O’Hara, Director of Housing Development for the City’s Housing Authority discussed City-owned land in North Beach that is proposed for affordable housing. Three parcels at 1144-1148 Marseille Drive illustrate the point. One is a vacant lot while the other two contain “contributing structures.” (Contributing structures are deemed to be historically significant.) These structures, four-unit single story post-war modern buildings built in 1954, are about three feet below Base Flood Elevation. If the structures were to be renovated, there would be 35% fewer affordable housing units than if they were demolished and new structures built and the buildings would remain vulnerable to flooding. Commissioner Joy Malakoff’s reaction: “To spend a lot of money demolishing and rebuilding is one thing. To put a lot of money into restoring the buildings and have it below sea level doesn’t make a lot of sense, at least looking at it from the outside. So I think that’s something that you have to look at carefully because we really are looking for new buildings [to be] Base Flood Elevation +1 foot because the sea levels are not going lower.”
And that is the crux of the issue.
At the December 5 meeting, the Commission will consider its options to a) do nothing to designate the areas (not going to happen) or b) to recommend staff create Locally Designated Historic Districts and/or Conservation Districts. Locally Designated Historic Districts contain protections against demolition or alterations. Conservation Districts provide more flexibility than Local Historic Districts through the use of design regulations. These regulations would dictate the form and massing of new construction and may also include guidelines on additions and alterations to existing structures.
The Historic Preservation Board previously approved the more restrictive Local Historic District designation. In doing so, the Board indicated it believed its role was to protect the historic character of neighborhoods and that it was up to the City Commission to consider the resiliency issue. Since then, the Commission directed staff to prepare guidelines for all Boards and Committees to include consideration of sea level rise in their deliberations.
Special City Commission Meeting
Monday, December 5
3:00 pm
Commission Chambers
Further information regarding the City’s resilient building requirements including flood zone map.

To see the areas under consideration for historic designation, the color maps in recent Planning Board materials are a good resource. 

City designates historic areas in North Beach

Normandy Isle , North Shore

Susan Askew
Susan Askew
design guidelines to be drawn up for new construction and adaptations

possible historic districts for north shore and normandy isles

Normandy Isle , North Shore

Susan Askew
Susan Askew
historic preservation board to review