The Politics of Preservation [New Miami magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
New Miami magazine
Photo by Brian Smith
Design by Kevin Jolliffe

AWARD WINNER: This article received a silver CHARLIE Award for Feature Writing from The Florida Magazine Association

TWO YEARS AGO, JUST BEFORE the doomed Senator Hotel was razed, a demolition team descended on the historic Miami Beach structure like pall bearers. The shirtless men with white work gloves tore etched glass from the Senator’s window frames. They ignored the graffiti messages: “Save the Senator” and “Royale Kills Deco, which had been spray painted on the half-century old monument.

The Senator’s owner, the Royale Group, had decided the land beneath the Senator should be used as a parking lot. The company had finally gotten a demolition permit from the City of Miami Beach after a six-month wait.

For those six months, a battle to save the Senator was waged by the 200-member Miami Design Preservation League, led by the late Barbara Capitman, Miami’s most vocal advocate of preserving historic architecture until her death last March.

On October 12, 1988, the battle ended. The law was on the side of the Royale Group. There was nothing the preservationists could do to save the hotel, nothing except stand and watch as a wrecking ball crashed into the Senator’s eye browed facade. A backhoe finished the job.

It was a sad day for Greater Miami’s historic preservation movement. But there was a silver lining for Capitman and her followers. The Senator did not fall in vain.

Its demise became a catalyst for the creation of a Miami Beach ordinance, which made the demolition of historic structures more difficult. That was an important chapter in the story of historic preservation in the 1980s. It was a decade of growing support for efforts to protect the architectural reminders of the past.

Ten years ago, the county government became a bold leader in the effort to protect Greater Miami’s architectural gems. Since the county enacted its historic preservation ordinance in early 1981, groups like the Miami Design Preservation League have succeeded in winning historic designations for about 900 buildings in Dade County.

Equally remarkable in the last decade has been a change of heart among some real estate investors who once regarded the preservationist movement as an outright attack on their individual property rights.

One of them is Abe Resnick, a Miami Beach city commissioner and real estate investor. In 1980, amid widespread criticism, he knocked down the New Yorker Hotel, an Art Deco jewel that once stood in South Miami Beach. Since then, however, Resnick has helped put in place the Miami Beach ordinance which makes demolition of other Art Deco structures more difficult.

But preservationists aren’t relaxing. The Dade Heritage Trust, an 18-year-old historic preservation group, says 22 local properties with historic significance—including the Hialeah Race Track, the Sears Tower in downtown Miami and the Brown House on Watson Island-are in danger of demolition.

Many preservationists, in fact, believe their movement is headed on the right path. One reason is the ever-rising cost of land. When appraising a property, historic or otherwise, it’s the land beneath the building—not the building itself—that often determines value.

“If you build a skyscraper in Homestead and you build one in the center of downtown Miami, which is more valuable?” says Mike Pappas, vice president of sales at The Keyes Company, a Miami-based real estate brokerage firm. “Of course, it’s the skyscraper downtown because land sells for $2 million an acre compared to $20,000 an acre in Homestead.”

Does restoration enhance a property’s value? “That depends on where the property is,” Pappas says. He adds that restoration doesn’t always make business sense. “Usually, restoration puts an additional burden on property owners.”

Another problem for preservationists is a worsening economy, which doesn’t bode well for the future of restoration projects.

The owners of several of Greater Miami’s best-known historic properties—including the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami and the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables—have gotten into financial trouble, partly because of the high cost of renovating the buildings.
“I am afraid the combination of the high cost of renovations and a lessening of economic incentives [such as tax credits] could deter people from investing in preservation,” says Roberta DiPietro, executive director of the Dade Heritage Trust. “Preservationists need to get together and come up with some dramatic solution.”


Hopes for the preservation effort were bright a decade ago when Former Metro-Dade County Commissioner Ruth Shack scored a major victory for the preservation movement. She was the political force who pushed for passage of the county’s historic preservation ordinance.

Her success was especially sweet because for five years leading up to the passage of the ordinance, Shack fought a heated battle against businessmen who dismissed the preservation movement as an annoying hindrance. She helped change their minds.

“When I got elected, I started out with the goal of getting the ordinance passed,” she recalls. “All this time, I was thinking this was a motherhood issue, this fight to save the past. I quickly found out I was wrong.

“This was a time when we were building some splendid new buildings, and no one was paying attention to the past. It was ironic, really. Sophisticated Miami residents would travel around the world to see old estates and old buildings, but they were oblivious to what they had here at home.”

Her efforts helped turn Dade County into a policeman that protects historic architecture, not only in unincorporated Dade but also in the county’s 27 municipalities. When the county ordinance was passed in 198 1, local municipalities were given the option to abide by the county’s historic preservation rules or create their own.

As a result, nine municipalities—Miami, Coral Gables, Miami Beach, Miami Shores, Homestead, Miami Springs, South Miami, Opa-locka and Hialeah—either wrote or rewrote their own preservation ordinances.

Among those nine municipalities, three of them—Coral Gables, Miami and Miami Beach-have accounted for nearly 700 of the historic property designations throughout Dade County in the last 10 years. Miami Beach alone has accounted for about 400.

THE SENATOR: It wasn’t all in vain

There was a time when drug-infested neighborhoods and hotels filled with the ill and the elderly were a common sight along Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive. Walk along South Beach at night and take your life in your hands. Or so Miamians thought.

Barbara Capitman knew different. She loved the intricately detailed Art Deco facades on South Beach, and she believed the dilapidated seaside community could once again be a favorite location for fashion photographers and moviemakers, as it was in the 1920s and ’30s.

She founded the Miami Design Preservation League in 1976 and quickly made an impact. In 1979, the Art Deco District of Miami Beach was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was a prized designation because it encouraged restoration of old buildings; owners could qualify for hefty federal tax credits based the cost of improving buildings on the National Register.

But that designation provided only a carrot, not a stick. It encouraged property owners to restore historic buildings in a manner faithful to the original design-but ultimately, it could not prohibit demolition of a historic building.

In 1982, the City of Miami Beach enacted its own preservation ordinance—but it didn’t prohibit demolition of historic buildings, either. A controversial provision in the city’s ordinance, known as the “owner consent” clause, frequently came into play in the early 1980s, because preservationists were trying to designate entire areas as historic, not just individual buildings.

When preservationists proposed historic designation of a particular area, the “owner consent” clause allowed all property owners within the area to vote on the proposal and unless 100 percent of the owners consented, the proposal died.

It wasn’t a pro-preservation ordinance. City leaders in Miami Beach were hesitant to embrace the preservation effort because they had their eyes focused on a large-scale redevelopment of the Beach with government assistance, says attorney Joe Fleming, who represented the Miami Design Preservation League during the early 1980s.

“They wanted to declare the area an urban slum and get bonds from the federal government,” Fleming says.

In its role as preservation policeman, the Dade County government filed suit against the City of Miami Beach in 1984, contending that the owner consent clause was illegal. To settle the lawsuit, the Beach rewrote its ordinance; instead of requiring consent from 100 percent of the owners in a proposed historic district, the amended ordinance required only 51 percent.

It wouldn’t be the last change in Miami Beach’s preservation ordinance, which gradually became more protective of historic architecture in the late 1980s. In 1987, Miami Beach city commissioners threw out the owner consent clause altogether. It was replaced with a provision that permitted the city commission to delay the issuance of a permit to demolish a historic property for six months.

The theory behind the change: Property owners who wanted to tear down historic buildings would be discouraged from doing so if they were forced to wait half a year for a demolition permit.

But the new ordinance still wasn’t strong enough to keep the Senator Hotel from its meeting with the wrecking ball; the Royale Group was willing to wait six months.
Yet the demolition of the Senator galvanized the preservation movement and led to further strengthening of the Miami Beach ordinance. Today, when a property owner asks permission to tear down a historic building, the city commission has the power to permanently deny a demolition permit.

Miami Beach’s preservation ordinance is the strongest in the county and is a model for preservation efforts across the country, says Jud Kurlancheek, the city’s director of historic preservation and urban design.

Since the Senator fell, Kurlancheek says millions in renovation work has occurred in the Art Deco District—improvements that have enlivened the area and helped restore some of its past glory.

“This is the only 20th Century historic district,” Kurlancheek says. “We are unique because we offer an alternative lifestyle and a sense of neighborhood. There are front porches here. The buildings have names like Elaine; not ‘The 2001 Building.’ It’s very friendly here, very comfortable.”

CORAL GAB LES: Like Merrick would have wanted it

Coral Gables has a reputation of being a top-notch town for historic preservation. In 1973-eight years before the county passed its preservation ordinance-the Gables established its own rules for protecting historic architecture. The purpose was to protect the city’s special look—a direct result of the vision of George Merrick, the legendary developer who designed and built much of Coral Gables in the 1920s.

As a result, 220 properties in Coral Gables have been designated historic sites in the last 17 years. After the county preservation ordinance was passed, Coral Gables opted to rewrite its own in 1984. Since then, the city has strengthened its ordinance several times.

Unlike Miami Beach, Coral Gables has never allowed real estate investors to hide behind an owner consent clause. On the contrary, the Gables has created financial incentives for developers to remain faithful to the historic architectural designs.

For example, in the city’s business district, commercial developers who met certain architectural criteria have been allowed to provide a less-than-standard number of parking spaces.

“lt doesn’t do any good to put your heart on your sleeve and ask people to save a building,” says Stephanie Berry, a real estate agent with Esslinger Wooten & Maxwell, and chairman of the nine-member Coral Gables board of historic preservation. “There has to be an economic incentive.”

Even now, Coral Gables is trying to fortify its preservation ordinance. This month, the city commissioners will consider a proposal to extend from six to 12 months the maximum waiting period for permission to demolish a historic building.

The longer wait would mean demolition of fewer historic properties, says Ellen Uguccioni, historic preservation administrator for the city’s planning department. She says a 12-month wait would give the city more time to step in and try to find alternative uses or buyers for threatened properties.

“We are hoping to come up with adaptive uses, like turning old schools in condominiums,” Uguccioni says. “The added time gives us the ability to market the properties longer and hopefully find a preservationist who will invest in the buildings and come up with adaptive uses. We need the extra time to develop alternatives.”

THE CITY OF MIAMI: The weakest link?

Two years ago, the City of Miami’s historic preservation board wanted to add the S&S Diner to its list of historic sites. But the owner balked; Charlie Cavalaris didn’t want to face any obstacles when the time came to modify or sell his restaurant.

“To be put on that city register is nothing but a headache,” says Cavalaris. “For me to even change my awnings or the color of the paint on the building would mean going before a board. I don’t need those kinds of hassles.”

The proposal didn’t go much further than the city’s preservation board. The proposal to designate the S&S Diner as a historic site was killed.

That was just fine with Miami City Commissioner J.L. Plummer, who says he does not like to make historic designations without owner consent. “A man’s home is his castle,” Plummer says. “Saying that home should be designated a historic property takes his rights away.”

Born and raised in Miami, Plummer says he wants to keep the historic buildings standing, but has mixed emotions on the subject of preservation. “I want Miami to stay intact, but I have a real problem with taking rights away from property owners.”

Again playing policeman, Dade County threatened to sue the City of Miami five months ago. The county alleged that the city was adhering to an unwritten policy of denying historic designations when property owners objected. In the end, the county filed no lawsuit. Instead, the City of Miami passed a resolution declaring that it wouldn’t rely on owner consent in designating historic sites.

Nevertheless, owners of numerous properties in the City of Miami have successfully resisted efforts to designate their buildings as historic.

The Sears Tower, for instance, came up for historic designation in 1983. The owner resisted with the help of Robert Traurig, an influential attorney with the Miami law
firm of Greenberg Traurig. The designation was denied. “That building wasn’t capable of being restored or revitalized,” Traurig says. “We wanted the option to demolish it.”

Another unique property in Miami, which is considered “endangered” by the Dade Heritage Trust, is the Biscayne Shops, located along Biscayne Boulevard, just west of “The Miami Herald.” The property has been acquired by the newspaper’s parent company, Knight-Ridder Inc.

Earlier this year, retailers who had been doing business there vacated the Biscayne Shops at the request of Knight-Ridder. “We closed the doors because the building is in a bad state of repair,” says Doug Harris, a Knight-Ridder vice president. “Plus, there is a lot of commercial office space available downtown, and the cost of maintaining the shops is more than we get in rent.”

What preservationists are worried about is a plan to begin construction of a Metro-mover station adjacent to the Herald building in January. About 240 parking spaces at
the Herald could be lost temporarily during construction, forcing the Herald to look elsewhere for parking space. “Hopefully, we will put the spaces somewhere other than where the Boulevard Shops are,” Harris says. “We have no plans to knock down the building.”

To ensure that historic properties in the City of Miami are rotected, county officials have asked the city to give its historic preservation board more power.

Specifically, the county is requesting changes in the historic designation process, which would leave a large number of routine decisions in the hands of the historic preservation board. “By doing this, the city commissioners will save a lot of time and energy because they won’t be hearing routine cases,” says Tom Logue, an assistant Dade County attorney. “They will only have to get involved in controversial cases.


One Miami real estate investor who is sympathetic with the preservationist movement is Sallye Jude.

A founding member of the Dade Heritage Trust, Jude has spent $ 5 million to restore a four-building complex along the Miami River. Her property is now known as the Miami River Inn, a first-class bed and breakfast hotel.

There is no cookie-cutter consistency to the guest rooms. Some have four walls, others have six. Painted in a pale cream color and accented by forest green, the Miami River Inn has been, in Jude’s words, “a work of love.”

The 40-room hotel isn’t in the best of neighborhoods, however. Separating the hotel from its vicinity is a cast iron fence. Jude is hopeful, not only about the future of the neighborhood and her hotel, but about the preservation movement as well.

“The job is bigger, harder than it used to be,” Jude says of the preservation effort. “It’s do-able, though. Where I come from [Baltimore], there is a strong sense of place. Miami has to look to its past, too. A city without a past is like a person without a face.”

Without Sallye Jude and people like her, Greater Miami would have lost far more architectural treasures than it already has, says DiPietro of the Dade Heritage Trust.

“A community is defined by its history,” DiPietro says. “The mission of local preservationists is to find a way to make preservation work in a community that has little history. A community that is so culturally diverse needs to have a sense of place to make everyone feel that, when they are in Miami, they have come home.”