Owners of Landmark North Beach Tripod Spire Appeal Decision Preventing its Demolition

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Owners of Landmark North Beach Tripod Spire Appeal Decision Preventing its Demolition:

Can a property owner can be compelled to maintain a structure for the public benefit?

Beach Legal Properties, owner of a one-story building on 71st Street that contains the tall white tripod structure above its roof, has appealed a Miami Beach Design Review Board decision preventing its demolition. Last month, the DRB agreed with a Planning Department staff recommendation that a demolition permit should not be granted without plans for a replacement structure on the site. Neisen Kasdin, Managing Partner of Akerman’s Miami office, argues the structure is no longer used for its intended purpose as a sign and is now an illegal structure. Refusing demolition, he said, and forcing the owners to maintain it as a public benefit is burdensome and a violation of the owners’ property rights. The appeal will be heard by the City Commission.

The structure isn’t historic, but it is a highly recognizable landmark in what is now the Town Center, an area envisioned to revitalize North Beach. The owners filed for a demolition permit of the 55-ft tall postwar-modern architectural element in October 2018 but were told they needed DRB approval. An application was filed with the Board in April 2019 and the first hearing scheduled for July of last year. 

Following a community outcry, the owners began working with City staff to explore alternative solutions to demolishing the pylon. In an unusual move, the Historic Preservation Board (HPB) sent a letter to the DRB recommending the application be continued and urged the City to explore with the property’s owners ways in which the pylon could be retained and incorporated into a future development project “in a manner consistent with the North Beach Master Plan.” While not a protected building or landmark, supporters of retaining the structure point to the what they say is the intent of the Master Plan to preserve it. 

 


In the Master Plan document, the caption under the illustration above reads, “A fully built out Town Center could look like this.”

The text goes further: “The iconic MiMo structure at 301 71st Street is a landmark of the area, originally built to hold an electronic sign displaying the date and time. It now acts as a sculptural representation of the stylistic spirit of Miami Modern. The plan envisions this structure reclaimed as part of a new building on the same site, using a similar strategy to the identical structure which was preserved atop the Rockwell night club in South Beach.”

Both the North Beach building and the one at 743 Washington Avenue served as branches of the Miami Beach Federal Savings and Loan Corporation, later Financial Federal Savings Bank, according to Jeff Donnelly, public historian of the Miami Design Preservation League. The branch on 71st Street was built in 1952 and the South Beach location followed five years later, Donnelly said. Formerly home to South Beach hotspots Les Bains and Chaos, the space is now occupied by the Rockwell Miami Nightclub which plays up the pylon on its website. 

 
Old postcard image of Financial Federal Savings South Shore Branch, 743 Washington Avenue


Despite months of discussions, an agreement to maintain the pylon was not reached and, after several months of delays due to the COVID pandemic, the clock had run out. The City’s Code requires applications either be withdrawn or considered by the land use board within a year of their filing.

In the report to the DRB accompanying the item, City staff recommended “denial without prejudice,” meaning the owners could bring the application back again in the future. 

“The existing bank building was designed by Edwin Reeder, a celebrated local architect of the Midcentury modern style of design,” the report stated. Herbert Mathes designed the sign structure which was permitted in 1966. 

“It is important to note that the original architectural ‘role’ and function of the pylon was to accommodate extending rooftop signage well above the roof lines; ironically, these types of sign projections are prohibited under today’s sign code,” according to the report.

Acknowledging the property “is not located in an historic district and is not an individually designated historic site,” the staff report indicated, “the role of the DRB in this application is to review the proposal to remove the pylon and decide whether it should be replaced in some form.”

“The purpose of the new TC-C district,” the Town Center Central Core contemplated in the North Beach Master Plan, “is to facilitate and enable the design and construction of larger buildings within the Town Center and to encourage the development of 71st Street,” the report stated. Noting a larger allowable massing and maximum permissible height of 165 feet where the one-story building now stands, the report notes, “[I]t is presumably only a matter of time before the site is redeveloped in accordance with the recently amended zoning entitlements.” 

“Ideally, any future development on the site will feature prominent and distinct architectural elements and architecture commensurate with the design feature, and existing one-story structure, it will one day replace,” according to the report.

“Although the DRB does not have any legal jurisdiction to deny the removal of the structure, the DRB does have jurisdiction to review, and require, some form of iconic placement for the pylon,” the report states. 

At the July 2020 meeting, Kasdin emphasized that the structure itself and its intended use – as a sign – are no longer permitted. In addition to noting the difference in architects with Mathes, the sign architect, not being considered significant to his time, Kasdin said the building’s ground level is believed to have been “significantly altered from its original design by the enclosure that is there” around the base of the tripod. In contrast, he said, the pylon at Rockwell at 7th and Washington is “part of a small open plaza, open at the base.” The North Beach structure, he said, “no longer matches the original design.”

Kasdin called the owners – Donald Kahn, Joel Piotrkowski, and Marsha Green – “mainstays of North Beach. They were investors when it was good and they stayed, invested when North Beach went down and maintained their property and maintained their investment.”

“I’m not going to argue that the structure is not an attractive structure,” Kasdin told the Board. “In fact, I think it is an attractive structure but that is irrelevant to this discussion.” He said the City staff report “correctly” stated that “the DRB does not have any legal jurisdiction to deny the removal of the structure… Remember, this is not a historic district nor is it a historically designated structure.”

“The only basis for the denial,” he said “is the failure to approve a replacement structure. There is no plan to put a replacement structure or building there and the property owners cannot be compelled to put a replacement structure or building there.”

Images below taken from the DRB filing, show the current conditions at the site along with how it would look without the pylon structure.
 
 


“What you would be doing is taking a structure which is being saved for the benefit of the general public and putting the entire burden on one property owner to maintain that non-conforming illegal structure that has no viable purpose for which it can be used; that is violative of their property rights. It is an illegal exaction.” He cited Supreme Court decisions, Nollan v. California Coastal Commission and Dolan v. City of Tigard, which involved cases “where one property owner is made to bear the entire burden, cost and expense of maintaining something that is for the public benefit.”

“It goes without saying that if that tower has to be maintained where it is, it will defeat the ability to redevelop the property and have an enormous financial impact on the property owners,” Kasdin said. 

“The sign is illegal and nonconforming and under the City Code as stipulated in the staff report, it can’t be used for signage and it couldn’t be rebuilt,” he said. “I understand the affection people have for this structure but there is no legal basis for denying its removal.”

Daniel Ciraldo, Executive Director of the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL), cited the North Beach Master Plan in his comments to the Board. “There were certain elements of North Beach, particularly its MiMo heritage, and even within the Town Center, there are elements of MiMo heritage that the Master Plan identified and the biggest one was this pylon.”

“This is a character-defining feature of the neighborhood,” Ciraldo said. “It is an important element. It is a landmark even if it’s not protected. I’m disappointed with the property owners because we had been in discussions about adding even more incentives to their property.” Among the incentives that could be allowed, increased height.

Ciraldo urged the Board to deny the application. “By removing this pylon you’d really be erasing an important part of this neighborhood.”

Co-owner Piotrkowski said, “I’m aware of that depiction of the tower in various drawings, pictures, renderings for 71st street. The tower pictures and the tower itself were never part of any ordinance, approvals or anything of the like” establishing the Town Center. “To say that there were depictions of the tower is correct, but it was never placed or put into any of the ordinances, approvals and such.”

“We need to have that tower removed so that we have the same rights of any other property owner on 71st Street,” Piotrkowski continued. “As it stands now, we would be the only property owners who could not fully develop their property and there’s a significant economic impact in having to keep the tower. The tower is big. To develop around it just doesn’t work.”

Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, a cultural anthropologist who lives in North Beach, commented, “Mr. Kasdin made a very compelling argument in favor of property rights, but you surely know that property rights are not absolute and they must be balanced with the cultural memory of the community, with issues of identity, and neighborhood, and community and so on.”

“I think that we should not see this monument in isolation,” Hernandez-Reguant told the Board. “It’s part not only of the surrounding city, it’s also part of people’s memories and what the neighborhood means to them. Although I understand that legally, perhaps, these owners don’t have any obligation to keep it, I would suggest that a committee is formed of residents, the City and this Board and the owners to find a solution. I don’t think it should be moved to some remote place because landmarks are part of the context [of a place], but perhaps it could be moved to just the corner.”

Daniel Veitia, North Beach resident and a member of the Blue Ribbon Panel and Steering Committee for the North Beach Master Plan, said the community has lived up to a commitment to historic preservation through the designation of additional historic districts as a balance to the proposed development in the Town Center. But, he added, “I do not ever remember agreeing as a part of the committee to preserve this single element in Town Center. As memorable as it may be, it is not historic.”

“As concerning as it is to me that it will be torn down, it still is part of a longer vision for a Town Center, an urban core where we have a continuous retail corridor on the ground floor,” Veitia said. “I understand the sentimental value but here I am asking you to recognize efforts we’ve made on historic preservation in North Beach and our commitment to the character of our neighborhood and allow us to move forward with the Town Center vision which is as important to the success of North Beach as our historic preservation is.”

In his rebuttal, Kasdin told the Board, “Plan NOBE is not a regulatory document which imposes restrictions and guidelines upon development. It was an area plan, an aspirational plan, and, in fact, it had many elements which spoke to the need to redevelop that property in its entirety. So, that [document], although it may have aspirational goals in it or certain visions, it’s not the force of law.”

“We have a building that has a structure that has completely outlived its useful and lawful purpose. You cannot have a pylon for a sign. You cannot have signage on top of the building. The very purpose for which it was constructed is illegal and cannot be used,” he reiterated.

“Although there is definitely a charm to the architecture of this pylon, it has outlived its usefulness and it is an enormous burden on the property owner and unfair and I would even say illegal burden to force them to maintain it,” Kasdin added.

During Board discussion, member Scott Diffenderfer expressed his frustration that the Board is placed in difficult positions when properties outside of historic districts are not protected. “It’s very sad to me that we’re talking about knocking something else down, one of our few remaining, very iconic structures. I ask preservationists why they do not focus on preserving iconic structures that are outside of historic districts. We keep going over and over this. Since I’ve sat on this board I’ve been sickened to see the demolition of several L. Murray Dixon houses that were beautiful and iconic and if there was the most amazing architect in the world that had their last remaining structure in this city that was not in a historic district, there’s not a thing we could do to stop it from being knocked down. So, let that sit in for a minute.”

“I don’t understand why this is in front of us,” he added. “Staff recommends not approving this because a replacement has not been suggested. Staff does not believe this structure is going to be saved nor is it advocating for this to be saved based on the fact they’re only denying this because there is not something being replaced.”

James Murphy, the City’s Chief of Urban Design, responded, “We’re talking about an alteration to a building... Changes to a property acquire significance in their own right all the time.” Citing an earlier application that day regarding removal of tile on a building, he said, “The removal of this [tripod] element to the building is being reviewed the same way we would the tile of a building being removed, a gargoyle on the corner of a building being removed or the removal of a concrete balcony and the replacement to glass, so we see these things all the time.”

“I’m very disappointed in the fact that staff and administration would be belaboring this point when nobody is going to save this building,” Diffenderfer said. “There’s no effort to save it. There’s only an effort to stop it without fully explaining that the reason it’s being stopped is because something else is not being proposed in its stead. That’s number one. Number two, I am very disappointed in our preservation community because we keep going through again and again these iconic structures and houses being knocked down and nobody’s doing a damn thing about changing the law to save things that are outside the historic district,” though as pointed out by Assistant City Attorney Nick Kallergis, individual designations are possible.

“That being said, we are now penalizing, we’re wasting enormous amounts of money and time of staff, of the property owner to save something that we’re kind of beating around the bush of why it’s not being knocked down, basically because there’s no replacement being put there,” Diffenderfer said. “And, basically, it is such a big and cumbersome structure that it would prevent them from building what they need to build there. And there’s nobody that’s going to pay to try to remove it and put it somewhere else. So here we go again. I don’t want to knock the damn thing down but in the same token we’re going around in circles here.”

Board member Michael Steffens said the owners “can come in with a proposal to develop it right now.”

Board Chair James Bodnar responded, “Yeah, but they didn’t… I’m only one vote on this board but I would say I think we want to see a proposal, wouldn’t you?"

Steffens said, “I don’t understand why they’re tearing it down when there’s no reason to tear it down. Maybe somebody will buy the piece of property and want to retain it and develop a building around it.”

DRB member Sarah Giller Nelson said she appreciated the context provided by Murphy regarding the earlier tile review. “It’s the same thing. It’s a detail. It’s a part of the building. There’s been an enormous amount of public outcry.”

“Meaning changes over time and just because something isn’t functional doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a purpose,” Giller Nelson said. “Without seeing an alternative proposal… it seems like there have been people looking at this and saying this is going to be a problem to redevelop but this is an exciting, unique detail that so many people have become attached to.”

“It could be such an inspiration for a project that would really make Town Center such a landmark,” she added. “It’s just a matter of perspective of, you know, you see it as a problem, an impediment to development but, on the other hand, it could also be the inspiration for a really iconic building in that street in a neighborhood that we’ve all been trying so hard to redevelop.”

“I am uncomfortable, like many of my colleagues have said, in allowing this to happen, allowing this to go through without there being some sort of proposal of what it’s going to do,” Giller Nelson said. “What I would really hate is for this to be torn down, and, you know, as has been stated, the owners have no plans to develop it any time soon so you take down this element of the building that does have some neighborhood iconic significance and then you just have a plain building where before we had something really significant and that people really enjoy.”

Board member Jason Hagopian who also lives in North Beach said, “Things like this, I’m a big believer in fighting for. I know they’re complicated.” Referencing his stints on the DRB, he said he shared Diffenderfer’s frustration. “I’ve seen so many homes… and just the crazy things that we just could not do anything about, but I’m a big believer in fighting for these things.”

“It’s big,” Hagopian acknowledged. “Is it an asset to the site? Could it be? Of course it can be. Things like this can be highlighted in any development site. Can it be relocated and moved? Of course it can… Could the developer work with the City and put it in one of the parks, of course. There’s so many options, but the only option we’re being presented with is just to cut it down at the knees.”

Bodnar said he was “shocked” when he joined the Board and learned, “We get to give variances. We get to override the zoning code and give permission to do things, build it higher, build more bulk. You know, do things that if there’s a hardship, you get to do it. 

“This thing’s a hardship,” he said, “but it also could provide opportunities for a developer to do things that we couldn’t expect. And there’s value in that. And if we want to take it down, we lose that so-called leverage we have in these positions of giving people opportunities to do things that, without our rulings, no one else can do.”

The Board then voted 7-0 to deny the application without prejudice, allowing the owners to come back in the future with a new application.

In the appeal, Kasdin reiterated that “Neither the Pylon structure nor its attendant signage are permitted under today’s zoning regulations. The Pylon is functionally obsolete and legally nonconforming. The Pylon also presents ongoing maintenance concerns for Beach Legal, especially due to its design, age, and architectural relationship to the Building.”

In reference to the conversations with City staff to save the pylon, the appeal states, “[A]fter several months of discussions, it became clear that any meaningful mitigation option would require affirmative action by the City, including possible legislation… Therefore, Beach Legal chose to continue to pursue its option to demolish the Pylon. Notably, no alternative to demolition has ever been proposed under the Application.”

Despite the staff’s recommendation that the application be denied because “The applicant has not provided detailed information of a replacement for the removal of the existing pylon,” the appeal notes “… the City Code does not require Applicant to propose a replacement structure.”

Kasdin also argues in the appeal, “… demolition of the Pylon would eliminate a nonconforming, nonfunctional use, and bring the property closer to its original intended design. Notably, Applicant also submits that the Application could and should have been approved administratively (without the need for DRB review), as it is merely an accessory structure to the principal building with no utility or purpose.”

“[T]he DRB has no jurisdiction to deny the removal of the structure and... requiring the Pylon to remain or be unreasonably replaced would be a de-facto prohibition on a legal demolition, would greatly impede future redevelopment of the Property, and would unfairly impose a significant financial burden exclusively upon Beach Legal for Public benefit,” the appeal states.

“The DRB’s Order is legally deficient and must be overturned,” it concludes.

In an interview, Kasdin told RE:MiamiBeach, “We have an absolute right to demolish it” adding the “staff report even admitted we have an absolute right to demolish” but recommended denial based on the “failure to put forth a substitute structure. That was a completely improper basis upon which to deny demolition.”

“Under the Code, you are commanded to remove non-conforming pylon signs like this when the use ceases, which it did,” he noted, though he said he did not know why none of the owners, past or present, had removed it earlier.

Another error, he said, “The reason many of [the Board members] denied it was because of its historical significance. You can only limit and condition demolition if you’re in a historic district or a structure is historically designated and this is neither.”

Asked why the owners wanted to demolish the tripod, Kasdin said, “It has no use and can’t be used. It has to be maintained and there’s a cost to maintaining it over time and it does deteriorate over time. Secondarily, in the event that they someday want to redevelop the property, having that huge unused pylon in the middle of the property greatly restricts what a developer can do with the property.” 

He explained one of the Supreme Court cases he referenced during the hearing “where a property owner was forced to take a substantial portion of their property and create a public beach access there for the benefit of all public beachgoers.” It was deemed “a legal exaction or imposition on them,” he said. “This is kind of the same. People do like looking at the pylon, perhaps, and there’s a public benefit, but there’s an enormous cost to the property owner.”

“Arguably, it’s an attractive form but you’re going to greatly limit what the property owner can do with the property they’ve owned for decades for the benefit of the general public without any law or regulation that prohibits demolition. Really, it’s unconstitutional,” he said.

In response to a question about whether the owners wanted to develop or sell the property, he said he did not know what their plans for the property are.

According to the Miami-Dade County Property Appraisers office, Beach Legal Properties purchased the former bank building at 301-317 71st Street for $825,000 in 1994. A letter from Joe Bland, Vice-President of ABC Concrete Cutting, filed with the DRB application, stated the tripod is a 162,000 lb. structure that, during demolition, would be “cut into (18) approx. 9000 lb. pieces starting from the top of the structure and working down towards the roof” and, ultimately, “cut flush with the existing roof.”

City Manager Jimmy Morales, anticipating the potential of an appeal, wrote a letter to City Commissioners in June 2019 in which he recounted the structure’s history and outlined the process. “[T]he role of the DRB in this application is to review the proposal to remove the pylon and decide whether it should be replaced in some form. The DRB does not have the same authority as the historic preservation board (HBP) to prohibit the demolition of a structure.” (The Washington Avenue pylon at the Rockwell Miami nightclub is within a historic district and under the HPB’s jurisdiction.)
 
Morales cautioned in the letter, “[I]t is important to note that an appeal of a DRB decision would go directly to the City Commission. As such, it is important for the City Commission to consider its role as an appellant body in any discussions pertaining to this DRB application.”

MDPL’s Ciraldo said he was “not aware an appeal had been filed, but I would be surprised if the Commission overruled its Design Review Board on something like this.”

Details of the application before the Board can be found here.

 

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