Going first is never easy, especially when it comes to developing on a waterway in a very low-lying area of Miami Beach. Add to that a new historic district designation and surrounding low-rise buildings that currently sit well below Base Flood Elevation and you get the picture of the challenge facing the owner of two buildings on Crespi Boulevard adjacent to the Tatum Waterway.
The Historic Preservation Board (HPB) this week considered a proposal to demolish the two buildings at 7925 and 7935 Crespi Boulevard and construct a new four story residential building (above). The existing buildings, designed by architect Donald Smith in the post-war modern style, are twins mirrored around a central courtyard according to City Design and Preservation Manager Debbie Tackett. She described the location as a “very low-lying portion [of the City] and on a waterway with what appears to be insufficient seawall conditions on some areas of the waterway." Based on two engineering reports, she said, “It is likely that these existing buildings are structurally at the end of their lifespan.” Staff supports the proposal for demolition. Though they have concerns with the design of the new building, Tackett said, staff is not recommending a reconstruction of the current buildings.
“Although both of the buildings are characteristic of the post-war modern style of architecture, we did not find any exceptional significance or that these would be the last remaining of their time,” she said.
Despite their concerns with the proposed structure, Tackett said building owner Pierre Elmaleh and his architect “have attempted to design a very resilient building.” And therein lies the rub. The City’s resiliency ordinances require that for new construction finished floor levels be built at Base Flood Elevation (BFE) + 1 foot as a minimum standard but the allowable maximum is BFE + 5 feet.
Elmaleh wants to build the most resilient building he can, thus he has proposed a height of BFE + 5. In this case, Base Flood Elevation is 8 feet, so the first finished floor of his new four-story building would be at 13 feet.
Tackett told the HPB, “With regard to finished floor levels, we do encourage new construction to be built at a finished floor level that exceeds the required Base Flood Elevation + 1.” That elevation, she said, is “the minimum required by the federal flood guidelines, by FEMA for the flood insurance program.”
“They have chosen to design the new building at Base Flood Elevation + 5 which is the maximum freeboard that the City allows for height measurement, so they are permitted to measure the overall height of the buildings from Base Flood Elevation + 5,” she explained. Given the location’s BFE of 8, she said, “They would be required by federal rules to have their finished floor at 9. They are choosing to construct it at 13 which is in accordance with the City’s guidelines trying to encourage significant resiliency far into the future as we do anticipate that Base Flood Elevation that is currently set by FEMA to slowly increase over the years. That has been the trend and we do believe that that will slowly increase over the years.”
That said, Tackett noted, “It becomes very challenging in this neighborhood when you have neighboring properties that were built far below what is currently required and what will be required into the future. The challenges really result in scale, inconsistencies, and massing inconsistencies.” She said staff’s concerns related to the perceived scale and massing of the proposed project.
She acknowledged the challenges of the first resilient building project in an area with mostly low-rise buildings that now sit below the Base Flood Elevation. “It will be a change and as this neighborhood evolves… buildings and new additions to buildings will become more compatible because they will have a similar scale as properties start to redevelop. This is the first project that we’ve seen in the North Shore Local Historic District.”
This summer, the owner of nine buildings on the Tatum Waterway sued the City to overturn the historic district designation saying “the City Commission ‘disregarded’ the threat posed by sea level rise” according to an article in the Miami Herald. That case is pending.
At this week’s HPB meeting, Tackett said staff would have preferred to continue the discussion to a future meeting in order to address some of the concerns about its perceived massing. “Hopefully the scale can be brought down to be more consistent with the characteristic of the district,” she said. The owner, however, requested the application be heard.
The developer's attorney, Monika Entin, detailed the deteriorating conditions of the buildings. Constructed in a three-month period at the end of 1947, she said, “These were the cookie cutters of their time. They were done quickly and they were not necessarily done with that much attention to detail.”
“They were not built to last and, unfortunately, due to the sea level rise and just the conditions of being on a waterway for that many years, we’ve had a lot of damage,” she said. Flooding is common in the area, especially during King Tides, Entin told the Board. The buildings are “almost 6 feet under what is required” by FEMA, she said.
Given the deteriorated state of the structures, she said, they “cannot tolerate being raised.”
In creating a new design, Entin said architect Eduardo Pado-Fernandez tried to incorporate the “courtyard style of the existing buildings and the characteristics of the surrounding buildings.” She noted the new building has a smaller footprint than the existing buildings.
Regarding the elevation, Pado-Fernandez said, “The problem is here there is no downplaying [sea level rise]. We must prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
“We are designing for the next 100 years,” he said. Addressing concerns about the scale of the first resilient building around the smaller structures, he said, “We should not allow temporary conditions to blindside us into shortsighted decisions.”
Echoing Entin’s points about the likelihood that FEMA will raise its minimum elevation guidelines next year, he said, if the ground level units were built at the minimum BFE + 1, “We will be designing for the next 100 years and becoming obsolete in a year or two. That would be irresponsible.”
The new structure, he argued, “will be more of its place” in the future as other buildings are elevated or new buildings constructed.
One of the challenges of the design is created by the developer’s desire to have parking on-site. Pado-Fernandez said the new building would provide “parking where there is little but doesn’t degrade the urbanism and walkability” of the neighborhood.
Entin said the current buildings contain eight units whose occupants and guests currently park on the street. “The proposed building has 14 units,” she said, “and all of the required parking is contained within the building so, in essence, this should alleviate much of the parking concerns that were expressed by the neighbors.”
The proposed height is 42' 6". With a total demolition of the existing structures, the developer is entitled to build to a height of 45 feet. If any of the existing structures were preserved, he would be entitled to build to 55 feet.
A homeowner whose property sits next to the site (and who did not give her name) said she thought the design was “very beautiful” and “it would be an amazing thing to place in the area.” She recounted the previous owners were “terrible” and the buildings were “not maintained.” Crack addicts used to live there, she alleged.
However, she expressed concerns that “It’s taking my breathing space.” She acknowledged, “We have flood problems” but she said that has gotten better since the City installed new pumps in the area. Her objection: "I’m not going to be able to breathe… it’s just too big.”
Saying everyone should be able to do what they want to do with their property, she added, “but don’t limit people’s living space.”
Preservation activist Jack Johnson told the Board, “This is the first project of its kind to be proposed in Tatum Waterway since its designation so how this Board handles this project sets precedents for the rest of the historic district and so I think this Board needs to approach this project very carefully.”
“Not every building in a historic neighborhood can be saved,” Johnson continued. “It may be that in this case the existing building cannot be saved but what replaces those historic buildings is as important as saving historic buildings when they can be saved. So, it’s not enough that the new building should be built high enough so that it won’t be subject to flooding – that’s admirable but it’s not enough. The building needs to be sympathetic in style and in massing to the surviving surrounding historic buildings and I don’t think you can say that about this building. Its massing is too great. Its style, I don’t see, I’m sorry I just don’t see the relationship of the design of this building to the surrounding buildings.”
“I’m not asking for a copy,” Johnson said. “I’m asking for some design relationship with the architectural milieu of the historic district and I don’t see that there. So I would recommend that you follow the recommendation of staff, continue this item and give staff the opportunity to work with the architect and the developer to design something that is more consistent with the existing surrounding buildings.”
Despite the higher height allowed, the developer has proposed a lower height but is seeking five variances to reduce the landscape requirements at the ground level, to exceed the maximum height for a fence in order to construct railings that meet ADA accessibility requirements, and to reduce the required rear and both side setbacks to accommodate, among other things, elevated ramps and railings.
Planning staff does not object to the higher fence but they do not support the other variance requests. They suggest the owner reduce the number of parking spaces within the building in order to provide access to residential units from inside the parking area or from the back of the building or from a single driveway in the front, rather than on the sides. They also recommend the “projecting planter features” along the building’s front façade “either be removed or significantly reduced and that the balcony structures along the front façade be designed in a manner consistent with the rear facing balconies, which establish a more appropriate relationship to the scale of the historic district.” Another recommendation is for the garage doors to be reduced in height “in order to achieve a more compatible scale with the pedestrian environment and surrounding built contest.”
The majority of the Board did not object to demolition. (Member Kirk Paskal recused himself as he owns property in the area.)
John Stuart said, “In terms of demolition, it’s very painful, though, and I understand why this Board is having the struggles that we’re having… The idea of a [historic] district is one that means every building creates a bit of a fabric. Every thread of the cloth matters however thin or thick or momentous it is.” Describing the existing structures “one of the more worn threads in the fabric,” he said he agreed with the staff’s “professional opinion that the buildings can be replaced. That said, we’re still looking at a fabric and in that context the rest of the conversation needs to proceed.”
“I’m very, very torn with this,” Nancy Liebman said. “I know that living in the real world, eventually change is going to happen because of sea rise. I believe in sea rise almost as much as I believe in preserving historic districts so I don’t really see a future for this as it stands. However, I would never give it up for a structure that is not significantly realistically part of the district.”
“I think we need to find a balance here if we’re going to demolish this and the balance has to be that we’re picking up on the theme of what this community is and this is not the only historic district in this City facing this problem,” she said. Liebman said she doesn’t want to see buildings that “just meet the criteria of ‘how big can we can make it, how wide we can make it, how awful we can make it.’ There has to be something that resembles a historic district. This is so far out in that category. That’s what’s making this decision so difficult,” she said.
“I know something has to come,” Liebman added. “Eleven years from now we’re going to be underwater. It’s frightening but so is putting a project that does not fit in that area. That’s just as frightening.”
Tackett said the City is in process of finalizing a contract to develop resiliency guidelines for the City’s historic districts “dealing with existing buildings as well as what will happen with infill buildings.” While focused on two different low-lying areas, she said, “The goal of the final project is to come up with a set of guidelines that can be translated to all our historic districts.”
She noted, however, that the Conservation Overlay District adopted earlier this year “does include design guidelines… with the height regulations” and also “includes certain design requirements, massing requirements, height requirements" in the Tatum Waterway district.
“Massing and height are one thing,” Liebman responded, but she said she wants design guidelines. The proposed building “has a design but the design doesn’t fit… We don’t have the vocabulary written in the Code to express what is good about this design and what is not good.” It would make the HPB’s job easier, she said, “if we could look at a design and say this supports the historic district that it’s in… It’s a slippery slope where we go.”
Board Chair Stevan Pardo said, “This whole area is evolving so it’s not for us to say nothing can be done or that you can’t demolish when its supported by the staff. I want to see this thing evolve further and feel that we’ve done our best to make this more compatible.”
Jack Finglass said, “I’m a great believer in fairness…. Poor little buildings don’t really have a voice. They don’t have engineers. They don’t have attorneys. They don’t have water experts… This is a one-sided conversation most of the time… There are two sides to every question… There’s never an effort to say how much would it cost to raise the building.”
“We’re talking about precedent for a whole historic district,” he said. “What we decide here will be used as rationale for anything in the future... I’m not saying the side is wrong but every argument should have two sides and we never hear the other side.” He lamented “I can’t do much about it because I’m not going to pay for” the costs to provide the “other side.”
With regard to feedback on the design, Scott Needelman said, “It does look out of scale with some of the surrounding properties… that’s my first impression looking at this.” He also said he would like to see “more green space for resiliency.”
Acknowledging allowable height requirements, Chief Deputy City Attorney Eve Boutsis said, the building “still has to meet design criteria.” The Board has “approved less [height] than maximum because of compatibility issues so I don’t want you to limit yourself. That is within the envelope,” she guided.
Pardo responded that the Board “shouldn’t ignore larger buildings” in the area as being “part of the context” referencing buildings across the waterway and down the street from the proposed project (below).
“We disagree,” Finglass replied.
Liebman said, “If we emulate” those buildings “and call it a part of the historic district, I think we’re on the wrong track.”
Pardo said he wasn’t sure if those taller buildings should be ignored or considered.
“It’s called scale,” Finglass said. “And that’s what the historic district is supposed to preserve, scale. This building couldn’t be more out of scale if you tried. It’s out of scale with its neighbors.”
Pardo said with regard to the “context for discussion about how we arrive at a decision for this," he agreed any building “has to be compatible,” but he said to Finglass, “We’re looking at maybe some different criteria.”
“People are circling like buzzards around this district,” Finglass said. “And once you approve something of this mass and this bulk it sets a precedent and every developer will come, buy up all these little properties and you will have no historic district because everything in it will be 45 feet tall.”
Pardo said, “We have to come to a decision based on compatibility” but he suggested the item go back for further discussion between the developer, staff and the community. “Otherwise we’ll be up here for two hours debating compatibility.”
Rick Lopez suggested the architect “reduce the perceived mass of the building.” He noted the elevation “at max freeboard, which is bold, but it could work with less” saying the building could probably “come down a little bit in height” with lower ceiling heights than the 10’6” proposed.
Stuart said he would like to see a building that is “a little calmer toward the street, little more open to the back. It’s almost like you’re replacing two very workaday buildings that are of their time with a showpiece.” But, he said, the architect needs “to show that you understand the context… in this context [the design is] just totally not this neighborhood.” Stuart said he believed there is a way “to get a kind of upper scale apartment living… in a much quieter building that has simpler massing.”
Pado-Fernandez said, “This is a conversation that sooner or later needs to happen” in all areas of the City. “It’s a matter of degrees, I mean to what extent we maximize resiliency and at the same time preserve what is worth preserving which is a lot.” With regard to this project, he said, “There isn’t a single answer but we hope to find one that pleases us all.”
When Liebman remarked that the “parking seems to be the thing that’s driving this building” and the side ramps that are objectionable, Entin replied the “neighbors expressed concerns” about parking.
Liebman responded, “But they don’t have parking there now. People will find parking… maybe the City which is ‘garage happy’ will help with that,” she said.
Tackett noted “That’s why we eliminated parking” for buildings in historic areas. “Providing parking and the character of the historic district, they’re in conflict.”
“In this case the applicant chose to provide parking which they can do but you can see how that makes it more challenging,” she said.
Despite the challenges, the staff memo expressed optimism that a compromise could be reached. “[T]he applicant’s architect has done a very good job of developing a successful architectural language, which has the potential to appropriately respond to the established context of the immediate area. Staff is confident that the above noted recommendations will address [the concerns] and will result in a successful new residential development.”
The Board voted to continue to hearing until December 11.
Renderings: CDS Architecture and Planning
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