Legislation threatens hundreds of Florida's historic buildings with demolition

Many historic areas of coastal South Florida are in the crosshairs.

Historic buildings in Miami Beach are among the many threatened by a bill that would allow demolitions of certain buildings in coastal areas of Florida.

Historic buildings in Miami Beach are among the many threatened by a bill that would allow demolitions of certain buildings in coastal areas of Florida. Verónica Zaragovia/WLRN

Summary: State senators just passed a bill to prevent local governments from blocking the demolition of structures on coastal areas - where many of Florida's most historic buildings are. Supporters say it’ll protect people from structures that are potentially vulnerable to natural disasters, but preservationists worry developers will swoop in and destroy iconic areas. WLRN reports.

Miami Beach Commissioner Alex Fernandez held a small megaphone and told a crowd of about two dozen people on Ocean Drive that the state is trying to destroy his city.

"We are a community, our voice matters and our history matters!" he shouted. "Hands off Miami Beach, Tallahassee!"

Residents and activists rallied Tuesday against a bill that could become law by the end of the week, and which they say could let developers level the whole city. The Senate passed the legislation; the House still needs to approve it before the end of the legislative session on Friday.

The bill was changed to exclude buildings more than 200 years old, after a Republican state representative from St. Augustine protested that the bill could destroy the legacy of her city, founded in 1565.

But that leaves many historic areas of coastal South Florida in the crosshairs. The city of Palm Beach has already lobbied against the bill – saying it represents a threat to that city.

In Miami Beach, all of the local protections to save Art Deco buildings constructed nearly a century ago would be toothless. The pastel colored aesthetic that Miami Beach is known for – could be history.

The Senate sponsor of the bill, which passed the Florida Senate on April 28, is Republican Bryan Avila. He represents Hialeah and Miami Springs — an area nowhere near the coast.

"History is rich and alive in Miami Beach. So the message is clear today to Tallahassee: Stick to your district. Stick to Hialeah. Stick to Miami Springs. Leave Miami Beach alone!" Fernandez said in Tuesday's rally, drawing applause.

"I love Hialeah, but Hialeah isn’t known for its architecture except for the race track," said Ileana Oroza, a Miami Beach resident. "And it’s a Hialeah senator that wants to take all this away? It’s just wrong."

'Not all ... structures have a historical significance'

The new bill would allow owners to tear down buildings in high-risk coastal flood zones mapped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, if they're "nonconforming" to FEMA standards for new construction, if local building officials say they’re unsafe or if local governments want them to come down.

"If a building is in one of these situations it should be able to be rebuilt," Avila said. When demolition is allowed, new buildings don’t have to resemble the old ones. They can be as tall or as big as local regulations allow.

He said his measure targets dangerous buildings — and said some local governments are too generous with their historic designations.

"We're certainly very appreciative of our history and historical structures, but not all these structures have a historical significance," he said, a reference to the hundreds of Art Deco and Miami Modern buildings in Miami Beach.

"Structures like the Château de Saint-Cloud, Versailles, or Buckingham Palace — you can go down the line. Or whether it’s Machu Picchu," Avila said. "History should certainly be preserved. Now with saying that, there are some structures that are simply not historical."

He did approve an exception for those buildings older than 200 years. His measure already excluded buildings listed individually on the National Register of Historic Places, of which Miami Beach has fewer than 10 by name.

The legacy of Art Deco preservation

Lawmakers in Tallahassee might question the historical value of buildings in Miami Beach, but they go back roughly 100 years. After a Category 4 hurricane in 1926 killed hundreds of people in greater Miami, and the Great Depression in 1929, Miami Beach was rebuilt in what became the popular Art Deco style at the time.

During World War II, soldiers were stationed in Miami Beach’s Art Deco hotels, which were converted to army barracks, during training.

"These are the buildings that housed World World War Two servicemen," Fernandez told WLRN. They including Clark Gable, who had already filmed Gone With the Wind when he enlisted in the U-S Army Air Corps in 1942. "It's American history that will be bulldozed with Sen. Bryan Avila's bill."

Then, from the 1950s, the small Art Deco buildings became homes for mostly Jewish retirees. Over the years, Miami Beach has designated local districts within the city limits that has some protections for these buildings.

Much of the success in safeguarding this architecture has come thanks to the legacy of activist Barbara Capitman, who started the movement to preserve Art Deco in the 1970s. She was a founder of the Miami Design Preservation League – a nonprofit that works to preserve the historic architecture in the city.

"These people fought tooth and nail to protect this area, to make sure that a piece of history as big as this one didn’t get destroyed, and now they just want to make all her work in vain," said Oroza, the Miami Beach resident.

Influence and 'malpractice'

Critics worry about the potential influence of developers in getting these measures passed.

A company called 13th Floor Investments gave $10,000 each to political action committees led by Roach and Avila around the same time the House and Senate bills were filed. The company, which has oceanfront parcels in Miami Beach, has said the donations weren’t related to the legislation.

Daniel Ciraldo, the executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League, said he views this bill "like legislative malpractice."

Ciraldo said he feels like big business interests are trying to do a runaround on democracy. Miami Beach voters have strongly supported historic preservation over the years, and he says the only way to get around it is to sidestep those local decisions – and go to the state government.

"What it looks to be is if folks don’t get what they want in a democracy, they just go and try to find another venue to change the way democracy works," Ciraldo said. "It’s kind of like changing the goal line on the football field."

Opponents of this measure want its supporters at the Capitol building to consider the loss to tourism revenue should this become law. Miami Beach Commissioner Alex Fernandez said the measure would not only hurt tourism, but also erode the city’s charm.

"That attraction is being stripped away from Miami Beach, and once you strip that away, we end up being just any other coastal community." he told WLRN, sitting in his office last week. 

Listen to Tallahassee Takeover — a WLRN podcast detailing how local governments in Florida are losing control of their own cities, towns, counties and schools.

This story is published as part of a collaboration between City & State Florida and WLRN NewsVerónica Zaragovia covers health care, as well as Surfside and Miami Beach politics. Contact Verónica at vzaragovia@wlrnnews.orgDaniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org

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