About a dozen residents in the Palm View Historic District of Miami Beach gathered this past week to discuss the challenges they say historic designation creates in an era of sea level rise including stagnation and lower property values. The occasion was a kick-off meeting for a comprehensive 20-year vision plan that will include a review and analysis of quality of life issues, land use changes and trends, sea level rise, and real estate values.
Palm View is a small neighborhood bounded by Dade Boulevard on the north, Lenox Court on the west, 17th Street on the south and Meridian Avenue to the east. It is across the street from the Convention Center and soon to be developed park. In 1999, it was designated as a local historic district, meaning any demolitions or alterations to dwellings within it require Historic Preservation Board (HPB) approval. The residents who came out for the kick-off told City staff and the consultants conducting the study that the designation and its constraints have become a burden, lowering their property values and leaving their homes vulnerable to flooding.
The neighborhood is primarily made up of one- and two-story single-family homes with low-rise apartment buildings. In a memo to Miami Beach Commissioners last year, City Manager Jimmy Morales wrote, “The architectural style with the most significant concentration in the historic district is the Mediterranean Revival style, which was popular in the 1920s during the first major land development period. Other architectural styles represented in the district include Masonry Vernacular, Med/Deco Transitional, and Post War Modern.”
“At the time of the designation in 1999, the vision for the Palm View Local Historic District was to protect and stabilize an existing urban neighborhood through appropriate and sensitive infill construction and restoration of the existing Contributing homes,” Morales said. “The blending of new and old styles was desired, in order to respect the history and character of the neighborhood, maintaining the historic fabric and modest scale of buildings, while allowing for new appropriate development.”
Since then, Morales said, “The areas surrounding the Palm View Historic District have changed dramatically.” Originally part of a 200-acre strip of land from the Bay to the ocean, the area around it has been “rezoned and redeveloped with much larger and more intensive development… Additionally, 17th Street has become a highly traveled east-west corridor and Alton Road has developed into a major north-south commercial corridor,” Morales wrote.
“In addition to these land use factors, the district is likely to experience some difficulties associated with proposed and future modifications that will be required for existing historic homes due to the close proximity of Collins Canal and flooding impacts associated with sea level rise,” he said. (Photo above: View of Jefferson Avenue from 19th Street during King Tides, fall 2015)
The memo was an introduction to the challenges faced and discussion of a consulting agreement to create a 20-year plan that includes a review and analysis of the challenges and will “explore options for improvement and for sea level rise adaptation within the neighborhood,” Morales said.
The options discussed in 2016, according to Morales, for which he emphasized “no recommendations have been formulated,” included studying the area “for potential rezoning to allow for new multi-family uses including duplexes, townhomes, multi-family or even residential offices.” That option would require amendments to the City’s Comprehensive Plan and Land Development regulations. Any increase in FAR (floor area ratio or density), if proposed, would require voter approval.
A second option could be repealing the historic designation which would require a ballot referendum.
Another option would be to provide single family zoning incentives. The City’s Land Development Regulations provide incentives for the retention and preservation of individually designated historic single-family homes and architecturally significant single-family homes that include increases in unit size, lot coverage, and height for additions. “As currently written, these incentives cannot be applied to single-family homes located in locally designated historic districts,” Morales wrote.
Finally, he mentioned the City’s design guidelines for new construction which are currently being drafted. The City expects these “design standards to provide a framework for the design of new construction and for the adaptation of existing structures to address flooding and sea level rise issues.”
The City Commission agreed to spend approximately $70,000 to look at Palm View’s challenges and come up with options for residents and policymakers.
Heidi Siegel of Keith & Schnars, the firm hired to create the plan, told the 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.”
According to their website, “Keith & Schnars (K&S) is a premier, full-service engineering and consulting firm that has served clients throughout the state of Florida since 1972. K&S offers multi-disciplinary expertise in the fields of engineering, land surveying, landscape architecture, planning and environmental sciences.”
In addition to the kick-off meeting, Siegel said there would be two more stakeholder meetings followed by a final report. Then any recommendations would be vetted through the land use boards before going to the City Commission and its committees. Throughout the process there will be many opportunities for public input, she emphasized.
The consultants will look at historic designation and “anything on the spectrum of historic designation” in doing its analysis. One option might be a sustainability district, “perhaps allowing development to happen with perhaps sustainable initiatives at the same time,” she said. “I know there is a sense of restrictions on what you can and cannot do with your properties… Our goal is to meet somewhere in the middle and that may include a sustainability district.”
The consultants then listened to the residents in attendance. Rita Starr has owned property at 18th and Michigan since 1960. Thinking it “made financial sense,” she and her husband bought an adjacent property, then five more to build apartments and townhomes. Their properties run for 670 feet along the Collins Canal.
“In 1999, we had the rug pulled out from under us,” she said referring to the historic designation. Despite a large number of residents signing a petition against the designation, “Commissioners ignored us… Now, 20 years later our hands are still tied.” She said properties are deteriorating, the neighborhood “floods more often and deeper than before.”
She pointed to the elevated seawall on the north sign of Dade Boulevard with no openings to allow rising canal waters to run out onto the roadway. Instead, she said, there is “flooding only on the south side” and into her property. (Photo above: Elevated seawall on Dade Boulevard.)
Luz Latorre has lived on Jefferson Avenue since 1973. Since then, she said, there have been two downzonings, one that went from allowing multi-family, low-density housing to allowing townhouses and then another to single-family housing only with the historic designation. The petition against the designation was signed by 43 people, she said. Only 21 people indicated they were in favor but the Commission went ahead to historically designate the area.
Latorre describes her house as a “plain little matchbox house.” After changing the roof and windows and other elements of the house prior to the designation, she said there is nothing left that distinguishes it as a contributing structure.
“My future now is really very bleak,” she said. With plans to raise the streets around them, she said she can’t afford to elevate her home and she can’t sell it given the restrictions on demolition. “The City has put me in a dire, dire financial prospect.”
“If we preserve history, we risk failing to revitalize the neighborhood,” Latorre said. Historic designation is “no longer viable. We need to be planning for the future [without] so many restrictions.”
Dave Aitel who lives on Michigan Avenue said if the houses aren’t allowed to be torn down to build newer, resilient structures, they’ll come down from the flooding.
While preservationists have suggested historic homes can be raised Aitel said, “It’s not legitimately financially prudent to take a one-story house and somehow jack it up.” Allow the homes to be torn down “and build flood proof housing,” he said. “I don’t think it’s that complex. There’s not a lot of options. The water just goes up.”
Another resident, Richard Silverman, said empty lots are passed over by buyers “once they hear the draconian restrictions” on what you can and cannot do with homes within the historic district. “One day we want to retire,” he said. “Our house is unsellable. It’s worthless. The value has been stripped away totally.”
He told the consulting team, “You’re looking at a group of people who are petrified and scared that their biggest asset has been stripped of value. Palm view needs investment and rejuvenation to keep the neighborhood viable.”
“It’s going to go underwater and everything is decaying because you can’t fix anything,” Silverman said. These are “terrified homeowners who feel like all their property values have been drained… by people who don’t live here,” he said referring to the preservationists who want to keep the district and its rules for demolition and modifications intact.
Jay Levy who’s lived on Lenox Avenue for 20 years, is concerned that the last sale in the area took place two and a half years ago. Since then, he said, there have been ten homes on the market and “not a single closing.”
“If beautiful houses can’t sell, that’s something to be concerned with,” Levy said.
Paul Freeman, said “We’re not urban planners” so the community is looking to the consultants for “creative ideas.”
Understanding the dynamics of the flooding is important, he said. It’s not just sea level rise and the “water coming over and flooding the street,” but also water coming up from below ground. The underground flooding is a concern because it impacts resiliency strategies.
“Some people will tell you that it’s easy and cheap to raise your house. It’s not either.” Freeman said he got a quote to raise his house, a Russell Pancoast designed home, for $180,000 or more. Because of the water table, Freeman said “You really have to raise the lot four feet.” Resupporting the floor with hand piles would cost over $100,000, then you have to add the cost of a new water line, running the electricity to the elevated home, a new slab, fill, putting the house back, redoing the driveway. “It’s a half million dollars,” he said. “It’s just not feasible for a single-family homeowner to have to do that on their own budget.
Freeman quoted from the recent ULI and Harvard reports which encouraged a “broader more flexible view,” reconsidering “what preservation means.”
The Harvard report, he said, noted “many buildings are in fact of questionable historic value… and that’s what we have.”
Meanwhile, the cost of flood insurance is increasing 25% a year as the federal government pulls back on its subsidy. Because his mortgage is paid off, he was able to cancel his flood insurance but homeowners with mortgages are required to carry it. “If I hadn’t paid off my mortgage, I’d be looking at my mortgage plus $9,000, $12,000, then 25% more,” Freeman said.
The situation is leading to “stagnation and rundown buildings,” he said.
Jane Losson, who has lived on Jefferson Avenue in an 80-year old Mediterranean home since 2006, said, “We have real problems in our neighborhood. We’re hoping you can help us resolve them. We expect that we will see some actionable suggestions for us to go forward.”
Susy Torriente, Assistant City Manager and Chief Resiliency Officer, told the audience, “This was very moving, very heartfelt. I really have hope for this project.”
While it is “one of the smallest” resiliency projects underway in the City, she said it has “so much potential. I think this is a really neat experiment in Master Planning neighborhoods in the face of so much change.”
“Let’s keep talking,” she said.
Planning Director Tom Mooney reminded the audience that if their homes were “too vulnerable to be retained” they could make individual applications to the HPB for approval to demolish. When asked about the cost, he said it comes to about $5,000 with fees and exhibits.
Latorre said, “For us senior citizens, if we cannot do a repair to our homes, how do you think we’re going to come up with $5,000 without guarantees” that a demolition would be approved?
“That’s why we’re here,” Torriente said. The goal, she said, is to figure out how to be creative in adapting today’s rules to today’s conditions.
Not everyone is on board with tinkering too much with the historic designation. Joe-Tom Easley and his husband Peter Freiberg live on Michigan Avenue between 17th and 18th in a multifamily building of five townhouses.
While the City put door hangers announcing the meeting on about 100 homes that were accessible, Easley and Freiberg were not aware of the discussion. In fact, they weren’t aware of the study.
They have, however, heard of efforts to allow development from several people. “All of them appeared to be in some way connected to the real estate community,” Easley said. “They’re developers or real estate agents. There may be some others in addition to them but the driving forces, I think, are three real estate agents who live in the neighborhood.”
When asked about the flooding, Easley said it’s no more than you see around the City in general. “I never thought that our neighborhood was particularly flood prone or flooded more than other neighborhoods around the City.”
“The property values issue is always brought up whenever there is an attempt to do any historic preservation. If property values were the only concern here you would just have no historic designations of any kind,” he said.
“I’ve said to these folks when they raised it before… I said 'what’s changed since the designation of our neighborhood as historic?' and they can’t really answer that,” Easley added.
“Nothing has really changed since we were designated a historic district. There are a few non-conforming buildings… I live in one of them that got built before the designation but by and large the district is intact and if you go through the district and you look at the buildings it’s a delight,” he said. “They’re delightful buildings, some of the country’s best known architects of that period are represented here… and if you removed the designation those single-family homes would be torn down and they would be replaced with a neighborhood of nothing but drab and uninteresting buildings like the one I live in” which replaced a single-family home.
“If you eliminated historic preservation, every house on this street would have a condo on it, a small condo, 5 or 6 or 8 units and it would be a miniature condo canyon, not like on upper Collins but it still would be an unattractive neighborhood and we would have lost some of the real charm that is Miami Beach,” he said.
“I’ve never heard of a middle ground in historic preservation, either something’s preserved or it’s not,” Easley said. “That sounds to me like kind of a fudged way of, in effect, avoiding historic preservation but still keeping it looking nice. I’m very dubious about that. And it’s not going to satisfy what they really want because several of the people, when this first came up, the argument was ‘do you know how much money I could get for my house if it didn’t have this designation?’ and I think that’s what we’re talking about here. It’s a matter of money… they see this as an asset to be exploited, [not a] neighborhood of people.”
“I’m not saying bad things about the people themselves,” he said. “These are nice people but just because they’re nice people doesn’t mean they should be able to squeeze every dollar out of that lot that they have and instead of a historic building they end up with a shoebox that has a bunch of apartments in it. That’s not where I want to live… and I don’t think that’s where they want to live either.” If the historic designation is limited, “They’re going to sell and go retire somewhere. They can do that if they want to, but don’t leave behind when you go out the door a neighborhood that nobody would want to live in.”
Regarding sea level rise, he said, “I’m not sure what kind of solution we’ve got but I haven’t heard anyone articulate anything other than ‘tear these buildings down’ which allows them to sell the properties for more,” he said.
Freiberg said, “We find problems minimal and we love the historic nature of many of the houses and we just see no reason why it should be de-designated.”
The property values argument frustrates him. Noting the same sale from a couple of years ago that Levy did, he said “It was sold two years ago for $1.2 million, that’s six times what the owner paid for it.” Easley and Freiberg's condo, purchased in 1996, “is worth about three and half times what we paid for it” according to real estate professionals, Freiberg said. “So, I don’t see the argument that property values are declining. How much more profit do you want from selling your home? How greedy can people be? I just don’t see it.”
“If de-designation occurred it would be precedent setting,” Freiberg warned, “and not just in Miami Beach and maybe not even just in Miami-Dade, but possibly nationally.” Freiberg is a retired reporter who spent some of his career covering development and historic preservation.
“I have not heard of a landmark historic district nationally that has been de-designated. There may be one but I haven’t heard of it,” he said.
“We’ll listen to them,” he said of the ideas that come out of this process. “What we don’t want to lose is the special character of Palm view and we don’t want to see historic houses demolished or even partially destroyed in any manner. If these planners can be creative, well sure, we’ll certainly listen to it.”
“I will see what they end up proposing,” Freiberg said, but, he added, “If this ever came to a citywide vote I can assure you there would be a very well-coordinated campaign by preservationists and neighborhood activists to preserve this beautiful neighborhood. We have full confidence that the City’s voters would overwhelmingly choose preserving Palm View’s special character over destroying it. Hopefully, there will never be a vote on de-designation.”
Next step is for the consulting team to conduct its research followed by additional stakeholder meetings between now and July. The final report and other public meetings are scheduled between August and November.
Photos below: Sampling of properties in the Palm View Historic District (September 2018)
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