The Operation Was a Success but the Patient Died

Miami politicians and bureaucrats saw to it that Chinatown developer Isaac Shih complied with regulations. And that's what really counts, right?

Preservationists in Dade are a determined but weary bunch. For years they have raged A often in vain A at the demise of historic building after historic building, their valiant appeals drowned out by the crash of the wrecking ball.

This past month they again mustered their strength in an eleventh-hour attempt to block the demolition of two old buildings on Biscayne Boulevard, the Priscilla and the Algonquin apartments. Built in the mid-1920s, the structures are classic remnants of boomtown Miami and important links to the early commercial development of the boulevard. For years preservationists have tried to prevent Chinese-American developer Isaac Shih from flattening an entire block in the downtown neighborhood of Miramar to make way for a massive commercial and residential Chinese-theme complex, his "Chinatown." (Miami's Historic and Environmental Preservation Board designated the Priscilla and Algonquin, both of which are part of that block, as historic sites in 1991, but too late to affect Shih's $12 million project.)

Desperate for development along the boulevard, city commissioners and zoning bureaucrats indulged the entrepreneur's grand vision of a "real center for American-Chinese," as Shih called it, and for three years granted him extraordinarily generous zoning variances and deadline extensions. This past year, amid growing concerns that Shih would go broke and abandon the project halfway through, commissioners required that before he could begin demolition, Shih must first put up a $250,000 cash bond to guarantee completion of the complex.

By December Shih had paid that sum, as well as thousands of dollars in requisite fees, and he received the go-ahead to begin demolition of the historic buildings. So began an unmitigated administrative screwup that already has eliminated one historic building from the Miami landscape.

On Friday, March 12, Shih began bulldozing the Algonquin. The following Monday, in response to an appeal by preservationists, Miami city officials discovered that Shih had failed to pay a $28,400 county impact fee. It was an omission the city should have caught before issuing the building permit in December that allowed Shih to knock down the structures.

Officials from the city Planning, Building & Zoning Department immediately ordered Shih to cease demolition until he had paid the fee. That didn't help the Algonquin, which had already been reduced to rubble. And the next morning, having paid the fee the previous afternoon, Shih's crew began razing the Priscilla.

Building officials insist they told Shih to suspend all demolition until they sorted out the matter, but no building official has been able to document for New Times exactly when such an order was issued. Shih's demolition contractor says she wasn't told to stop demolition until Tuesday -- again, too late to preserve the Priscilla intact.

Later that same week, building officials revoked all permits and variances for the proposed Chinatown project, on the grounds that Shih's failure to pay the impact fee in time to meet the city's February 26 deadline constituted a violation of zoning laws. The action may derail the five-year project if Shih doesn't win an appeal before the zoning board, scheduled for next Monday, April 19.

"They give us the building permit without checking whether we paid the impact fee or not," protests Anna Chan, Shih's assistant. "Mr. Shih didn't know he had to pay the fee. Otherwise he would've paid it right away, because we have enough money to pay the impact fee, and this is very important to us. Why wouldn't we pay? Do you think Mr. Shih is stupid? For only $28,000?"

No city official knows -- or is willing to explain -- how such a blunder occurred, or what the bureaucratic ramifications might be. "Somebody overlooked something," Planning, Building, & Zoning inspections chief Tomas Menendez offers helpfully. Victor Martinez, the examiner who approved the plans without ensuring that the impact fee had been paid, did not return repeated phone calls last week. Nor did his boss, structural section chief Raul Pielago. Nor did his boss, chief building official Santiago Jorge-Ventura.

Amid the finger-pointing and obfuscation, Louise Yarbrough, executive director of the Dade Heritage Trust, knows exactly what happened: one historic building was destroyed and a second is in dubious shape. "If they'd been the least bit sensitive, they could have salvaged window fittings, doors, Dade County pine," she laments. "If not reused on that site, it could have been salvaged for someone else. There are a lot of properties in South Dade that could use building material."

Yarbrough also knows with certainty what should happen now. "The $250,000 [bond] should go into a preservation trust fund and should be used to help historic buildings that are threatened," she asserts. (Not surprisingly, no such fund exists in Dade.) "And," Yarbrough continues, "I think Shih should be fined big time. He knew all along what he was doing. And I think that somebody at city hall should be held accountable."

The debacle, say preservationists and historians, amplifies the need for city officials to re-evaluate the way they care for Miami's legacy. "All I see that's happening is buildings coming down, and even if there's regret, there's no consequence," says Yarbrough. "We have a lot of vacant lots all over this county that used to have historic significance. The only victory I can see is if this event makes people more aware of what has happened and less willing to allow it to happen again.

 
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