Ruin Away

The Dade Heritage Trust fought to save the historic Priscilla Apartments -- until they won, that is

If buildings were cats, the Priscilla Apartments in downtown Miami surely would be an abused stray. Hunched at the corner of Nineteenth Street and Biscayne Boulevard, the mangy three-story structure is pocked with holes. Its windows are broken out, the entranceways boarded up. The walls are plastered with tattered promotional movie posters, and its ledges are accented with rusted barbed wire.

For the past few years, the Priscilla has been caught in the middle of a war between the forces of development and preservation. Ever since the late 1980s, when he acquired a parcel that includes most of the block on which the Priscilla sits, Isaac Shih has considered the edifice an annoying obstacle to his dream of a $52 million residential and commercial Chinatown complex.

While City of Miami officials sought to pave the way for his project, Shih was opposed by a tenacious band of local preservationists who saw beauty and significance in the Priscilla's decaying visage. Erected in 1925, the Mediterranean Revival-style structure is one of the last remaining architectural vestiges of Biscayne Boulevard's early commercial development. Since 1989 the property has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1991 the City of Miami designated it a historic site. Neither designation confers outright protection, but earlier this year -- even as Shih's Chinatown continued to flounder in the planning stages -- the Dade Heritage Trust took the developer to court and received an injunction to prevent him from going through with a city-approved demolition.

Now the case has been settled out of court, with Shih reportedly paying the nonprofit preservation group $50,000 to drop the suit, according to sources familiar with the matter.

While the Dade Heritage Trust seems satisfied with the settlement, other local preservationists are disappointed. To them the lawsuit represented a rare instance in which a group had secured a legally binding covenant that forced a developer to preserve a historically significant building. It was also all that stood between the Priscilla and the wrecking ball. "While I think the Trust was very well-intentioned and certainly fought very hard to get this agreement in the first place, I think it's a mistaken decision to settle," says Margot Ammidown, former director of the Dade County Historic Preservation Office.

If Shih's Chinatown project never comes to fruition, it won't be for lack of support from the Miami City Commission, which for years has bent over backward to accommodate the developer. Shih arrived in Miami in 1988 with an ambitious plan to re-energize the forlorn Miramar neighborhood by constructing a 200-unit condo adjoining a three-story building filled with dozens of Chinese-owned businesses. Desperate for anything shiny and new in that area, commissioners granted Shih a series of extraordinarily generous zoning variances, deadline extensions, and other concessions, even as the developer repeatedly missed deadlines and showed no evidence that he could raise enough capital to fund the project, or that it would be any more viable than the Omni International Mall, its struggling neighbor to the south. (The Chinatown project and its developer's relationship with the city commission were the subject of "The Shih Dynasty," a September 9, 1992, New Times cover story.)

Preservationists were on guard from the start; it was obvious from Shih's renderings that his vision didn't include the Priscilla, or for that matter the Algonquin, a similar structure a few steps south on Biscayne Boulevard that was also on the National Register of Historic Places and the city's roster of historic sites. In 1992, amid concerns that Shih's project would never get beyond the drawing board, commissioners required that before demolishing either building, the developer must put up a cash bond of $250,000. He did. But just after he bulldozed the Algonquin the following March A and took a chunk out of the Priscilla, too -- preservationists pointed out that city administrators had incorrectly issued the demolition permit before Shih paid all the requisite fees. (See "The Operation Was a Success but the Patient Died," in the April 12, 1993, issue of New Times.)

After that disaster, the Dade Heritage Trust pressured Shih to restore and incorporate the faaade of the Priscilla into his project. According to Scott Warfman, a member of the Trust's board of trustees and its pro bono attorney, in an agreement signed February 24, 1994, Shih promised not only to do that but to make some measure of progress within one year. This past February 23, however, the developer came before the city commission and announced that he intended to pursue a downscaled Chinatown and wanted his $250,000 bond back. Commissioners opted to raze the Priscilla at Shih's expense before refunding the balance of the bond.

"That decision was extremely troubling to me," says Warfman. "Shih didn't even ask for that. He was having the building removed without breaching his contract, and he'd get his money back. He was getting exactly what he wanted." So on March 20, the Trust sued Shih's two development corporations and the City of Miami for breach of contract. A circuit court judge immediately granted an injunction against the developer to prevent the demolition and the return of the bond money.

"It was like a death sentence reprieve, because the city was constantly letting Shih off the hook for one reason or another," says Margot Ammidown, now an editor for Metropolitan Home magazine. "There was a lot of excitement about it [in the preservation community.] These small victories mean a lot to people who fight for these things."

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