Balancing Historic Preservation with Adaptation for Sea Level Rise

Palm View

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Balancing Historic Preservation with Adaptation for Sea Level Rise:

Who represents who in making decisions?

The balance – and conflicts – over preservation and the impact of sea level rise were on full display at the Miami Beach City Commission and a community meeting this week to determine the future of the Palm View neighborhood. One involves the composition of the Historic Preservation Board (HPB) and a proposed requirement that at-large members currently reside in one of the City’s historic districts. The other, a neighborhood grappling with flooding and what some residents perceive as an inability to protect their investments in their homes because of a historic designation and people who do not live in their district forcing decisions upon them.
 
To the first, Commissioner Joy Malakoff is sponsoring legislation to change the requirement for the at-large members of the Historic Preservation Board from the current provision that anyone who has ever lived in a historic district for at least one year is eligible to serve to requiring the at-large members currently reside in a historic district. Just getting the ordinance referred to the Planning Board for discussion and recommendation proved controversial.  
 
Malakoff introduced the discussion saying “If you live in Palm View or you live in North Beach in one of the historic districts you know the difficulties you have as sea levels rise. You know the difficulties that some of your neighbors have and I believe that that experience is important when you serve on one of these boards, the Historic Preservation Board particularly, in making your decisions. Just the fact that you once lived in a historic district is not sufficient because things have changed in the last ten years and twenty years.”
 
“We have enough historic districts in the City,” she said. “There should be no shortage of people wanting to serve on the Historic Preservation Board (HPB).”
 
The HPB consists of 7 members. One is chosen from three nominations from the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) and one is chosen from three nominations from the Dade Heritage Trust. The others include a registered architect “with practical experience in the rehabilitation of historic structures”; an architect, landscape architect, a professional practicing in the field of architectural or urban design or urban planning with “practical experience in the rehabilitation of historic structures” or an attorney or engineer “with professional experience and demonstrated interest in historic preservation”; also, "a member of the faculty of a school of architecture in the State of Florida, with academic expertise in the field of design and historic preservation or the history of architecture, with a preference for an individual with practical experience in architecture and the preservation of historic structures." Requirements for the two at-large members are that they “have resided in one of the City’s historic districts for at least one year, and have demonstrated interest and knowledge in architectural or urban design and the preservation of historic buildings.”
 
Malakoff’s legislation does not change the interest and knowledge requirement, only that the at-large members currently live in a historic district. Another ordinance to add water management experts to the Historic Preservation Board, Design Review Board, and Planning Board as recommended in the Urban Land Institute’s review of the City’s resiliency efforts was referred separately to the Planning Board for comment. If approved, the water management experts would take one of the at-large seats on each of the three land use boards.
 
Commissioner Michael Góngora said he wasn’t comfortable with taking one at-large seat for a water management expert and restricting the residency requirement of the other. He suggested the potential of adding two members to the HPB for a total of nine to accommodate a water expert and a seat reserved specifically for someone who currently resides in a historic district though he said he would expand the requirement to include people who live in historic homes whether or not they are physically located in a historic district.
 
The second part of the legislation – prohibiting Board members of the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) and Dade Heritage Trust from serving on the HPB – gave other Commissioners pause. Malakoff said she wanted to avoid any appearance of Sunshine Law violations. The Sunshine Law prohibits members of the City Commission and all Boards and Committees from discussing outside of public meetings any business that might come before them.
 
Commissioner Micky Steinberg said, “Each organization has their rules and regulations about what they can and cannot do and we have a code of ethics in the City of Miami Beach for our boards” which she believes prevents issues. Unless the residency requirement and Board prohibition requirement are bifurcated, she said she wouldn’t support the ordinance.
 
“What’s the problem we’re solving?” Commissioner Mark Samuelian asked. “I’m not aware that we’ve had issues so I’m very reticent, for either of these parts, to do anything that would weaken our Board.”
 
“I’m also concerned about the talent pool,” he added. By requiring that someone be a current resident in a historic district, “What does that do to the number of applicants you get? We’re looking for very specialized skills here so I’m not yet convinced – though I’ll remain open minded here – but I’m not yet convinced what the problem is and the couple solutions, both parts, give me significant pause and I’m not comfortable with them.”
 
Commissioner John Alemán said, “I don’t really see how this weakens the HPB” citing the requirement that someone have “interest and knowledge in architectural or urban design and the preservation of historic buildings.” 
 
She supported Góngora’s suggestion to include anyone who lives in “an individually designated historic home… I think that’s reasonable and it does open up the [talent] pool larger which is a good thing,” Alemán said. 
 
“I think the point, the problem is, that if you lived in a historic district 40 years ago, you don’t have the same perspective as someone who lives in a historic district today,” she noted. “Things have changed. We have flooding and climate change and it’s real and we need to do something about it.” As the City and the HPB consider how to preserve historical assets going forward, Alemán said, “that perspective of currently residing in a historic district means that your perspective on the preservation is more ground in the reality of today, but it doesn’t weaken the Board in any way.”
 
In her response, Malakoff echoed what Alemán said about residency and reiterated the potential appearance of Sunshine Law violations with regard to MDPL and Dade Heritage Trust Board members. 
 
Góngora responded, “I understand the logic of what you’re saying and it makes sense but I’m going to tell you why I disagree. Number one there’s never been an issue with the fact that those two people have served on those Boards.” Currently, HPB at-large members Nancy Liebman and Jack Finglass also serve as members of the MDPL Board and neither currently resides in a historic district. “Nothing’s ever come to our attention of any kind of Sunshine violations or communication so while it’s a concern I don’t think it’s a concern grounded in fact or evidence.”
 
Requiring the at-large members to currently reside in a historic district “confines and narrows the discussion,” Góngora said. “I agree that maybe having a water management expert on the Board might be helpful. I agree having someone who lives there might be helpful. They’re going to bring a different perspective. I think having people that don’t necessarily live in the district but are historic specialists, understand the history of our architecture in our city, is not a bad thing so if we’re moving in the direction of expanding and bringing in these different viewpoints, I would be in favor of expanding the Board. I’m not in favor of restricting and taking away things… If we need to have these different voices at the table during these conversations, let’s expand to nine members.”
 
“I believe that voice [of a resident living in a historic district] would be helpful,” he added. “Clearly, by way of example, the residents of Palm View have been concerned that their voices aren’t necessarily heard so I do think having that voice at the table is helpful. What I don’t agree with about this item is that it’s silencing the other voices and ideas and opinions that have been so helpful and beneficial to maintaining our historic architecture, our historic integrity, the identity of our city for so many years.”
 
Samuelian said, “I want to come back again to what is the problem? ... I appreciate that someone that’s in that district today may have some relevant experience and that could be useful. That’s a fair argument. But let’s think about it. Maybe someone who lived there 18 months ago has a pretty fine perspective as well.”
 
From his viewpoint, he said, “We want a strong HP Board. We want the broadest talent pool and what I would say to my colleagues, if they think there’s a benefit to living in the historic district then they can vote for those candidates. We’re not prohibiting looking at candidates who live in the historic district.” Currently, he said Commissioners can review applicants and make a determination that someone who lives in a historic district would be an asset to the Board and vote for their appointment. “But what this does is excludes a whole bunch of people. Why not let them all come to the table and then let’s pick the best candidates wherever they live,” Samuelian said.
 
Jack Johnson, President of the MDPL Board, reminded Commissioners that the MDPL bylaws prevent Board members who are also on the Historic Preservation Board from “participating in any discussion regarding issues that will, are or could possibly come before the Historic Preservation Board.” He noted that MDPL’s official positions before the HPB are not made by the board of MDPL but rather the Advocacy Committee. “No one who serves on the HPB is allowed to serve on our Advocacy Committee,” he said and if and when issues come up that might present a conflict, an HPB member must leave the room.
 
Mayor Dan Gelber reminded the Commission this was simply a referral item and that it still needed to come back to the Commission for two votes on first and second reading. It requires a 5/7 vote to pass.
 
“Somebody’s going to have to convince me that this is not a solution in search of a problem when it comes back here,” Gelber said, “because I want to understand what we’re trying to address.”
 
Alemán added, “Personally, I believe there’s a problem and it’s not because of the members that are sitting in those seats today. It has nothing to do with them. The problem that in my mind I would ask the Planning Board to explore is the special powers of MDPL and Dade Heritage Trust [in the City’s charter] and those special powers that include designating a property historic against the will of the owner of that property, a recommendation which then comes to the [Historic Preservation] Board for approval and also appealing the decisions of the Board. So if you have the same members doing both functions, I’m concerned and I’d like the Planning Board to explore whether you have a failure, a systemic flaw, in a separation of duties that affects someone else’s property, you know, someone else’s financial condition and their investment, not yours.”
 
The item was amended to include currently living in a historically designated home as one additional option for eligibility. The vote to refer the item to the Planning Board was 6 to 1 with Góngora voting against. 
 
With regard to the current HPB members, while there are no historic district residency requirements for the seats that are not designated at-large, the MDPL and Dade Heritage Trust representatives currently reside in historic districts. Scott Needelman who was nominated by MDPL lives in the Flamingo Park Historic District and Kirk Paskal, the Dade Heritage Trust nominee, lives in the new Tatum Waterway Historic District. John Stuart who holds the registered architect position lives in the new Normandy Isle Historic District.
 
At its meeting Tuesday, the HPB passed a resolution 5-0 opposing the residency requirement legislation and to add a requirement that water management experts on the land use boards “have knowledge in architectural or urban design and the preservation of historic buildings.” Two members were absent.
 
Meanwhile, about 30 people attended the second community meeting to discuss the future of the Palm View neighborhood. The City has hired a consultant to determine how to address concerns about the impact of flooding on homes that are part of a historic district which imposes restrictions on their demolition and the type of improvements that can be made. The neighborhood is in a low-lying area next to the Collins canal and across from the Miami Beach Convention Center and the soon to be constructed park there.

Heidi Siegel of Keith & Schnars, the firm hired to create the plan, told residents at the kick-off, “This is unlike any other study that we’ve done recently… It isn’t about data or calculations on values but really about your quality of life and what’s important to you.” While there is a defined scope of work, Siegel said the company wanted feedback on the community’s priorities so “we don’t have any gaps or missed expectations.” 
 
At the second meeting this past week, Siegel tried to lead the group through a “building typology” exercise where participants looked at different styles of architecture and ways to use greenspace in the event new construction is allowed and usable greenspace identified. The group was given red, yellow, and green dots to indicate their preferences on a sheet with a number of pictures, red for “no”, yellow for “maybe”, green for “yes”. Several residents objected that non-residents were voting as well. While City staff hastily passed around a new handwritten sign-in sheet which asked if attendees were residents or not, the completed photo montages with colored “voting dots” were handed in without attribution to residents or non-residents.
 
One of the main frustrations residents have raised about their historic designation in 1999 and continuing until the present day with HPB actions, is that rules and decisions about what they can do with their homes are being made by outsiders. At the first meeting, resident Luz Latorre said a petition opposing the designation in 1999 was signed by 43 people. Only 21 people indicated they were in favor of the designation yet the Commission voted to historically designate the area. 
 
Following the building typology exercise, participants moved into breakout groups to discuss their vision for the neighborhood. Four of five groups sought de-designation (which would require a citywide vote) and/or some kind of zoning change. Suggestions included making the boundary on 17th Street commercial to create a connection with Lincoln Road and be compatible with the commercial area across the street; allow five-story multi-family construction on Meridian adjacent to the Convention Center; and add more street lighting.
 
Resident Richard Silverman discussed what he perceives to be declining property values as a result of the historic designation. Potential buyers, he said, are “scared of the regulations.”
 
He noted “There are a lot of homes here worth keeping” but added there are “houses that are falling apart and, unfortunately, there are no exit strategies” for the owners.
 
“We want to have a neighborhood, we prefer that,” Silverman said advocating for his breakout group’s vision that included “revisit[ing] our historic designation and our zoning to allow redevelopment in a scaled way, 4-5 stories.” He talked about “a mixed development plan” that included “some historic houses” but “those that have seen better days, they need to go.”
 
The fourth breakout group included MDPL Executive Director Daniel Ciraldo, Nancy Liebman, Jack Finglass, and two residents of Palm View, Joe-Tom Easley and his husband Peter Freiberg, who spoke at length with RE:MiamiBeach in February after the first meeting. (In this case, MDPL Board and HPB members Liebman and Finglass were in attendance at a publicly noticed meeting discussing an issue that is not currently before the HPB.)
 
Ciraldo as the spokesperson for the breakout group said the group’s opinion was to “maintain the landmark status.” 
 
“Voters would be the only ones who could [change the designation],” he said. “It is unlikely our voters citywide would do that. We’d like to keep it for many reasons including feasibility.”
 
The group supported allowing duplexes and Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) behind houses, using a vacant lot that is currently privately-owned as a retention park, and raising the seawall on the south side of Collins Canal. Residents have complained that since the seawall was raised on the north side, water has nowhere to go but into neighborhood streets. Ciraldo said his group also supported reinstating the HOA. “A few hundred people live in the neighborhood. It’s important to get everyone’s view on the future of Palm View.”
 
Speaking for the final breakout group, Jay Levy objected to Ciraldo’s presentation, pointing to the members at Ciraldo's table “who don’t live in Palm View.” Levy's group supported restoring the RM-1 zoning (residential, multi-family, low intensity) and to “allow organized development like the rest of South Beach.”
 
“Remove the yoke from our necks,” Levy said. “The historic overlay, it has only caused stagnation.” Regarding Ciraldo’s comments about a citywide vote, he said, “Voting on these issues should be restricted to owners or more weight given to owners.”
 
 
 

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