Snorkelers on an elkhorn reef in Biscayne National Park.
Snorkelers on an elkhorn reef in Biscayne National Park.
Courtesy of National Park Service

The Ten Most Endangered Places in Miami

Miami is a city with some serious issues. Sure, there's the looming threat of sea-level rise due to climate change (sorry, Rick Scott, it's a fact), but that's just one piece of the key lime pie. South Florida has more than a few environmental, political, and financial woes. 

And, unfortunately, our collective quandaries have created very real consequences. Some of Miami's most magnificent spots — from historic landmarks to rare ecosystems — are facing threats to their existence. 

To get you up to speed on what the city could lose, New Times spoke with historical and environmental preservation experts to find out which places around town are most at-risk — and why they're worth saving. Better hurry up if you wanna see them before they disappear. (Better yet, keep reading for some ideas on how to help save them.) 

The DuPuis Medical Office and Drug Store
The DuPuis Medical Office and Drug Store
Courtesy of Dade Heritage Trust

10. Dr. DuPuis Medical Office and Drug Store
In Lemon City — now officially designated as Little Haiti — history abounds. One landmark of note is the office of Dr. John DuPuis, a pioneer physician who set up shop in Miami in the early 1900s. He founded White Belt Dairy and the Dade County Agricultural School, and his office is a prime example of early Miami architecture. Dr. DuPuis used the office until he died in 1955.

In recent years, however, it's been abandoned, and it's not holding up well.

"It has a great arcade, and it’s falling down," says Christine Rupp, executive director of the Dade Heritage Trust. An area developer is interested in restoring the building, she says. "But if something’s not done soon, it probably will fall down." 

9. North Beach
Though South Beach gets most of the attention, North Beach has many charms of its own, including some remarkable architecture. In particular, it's big on a style known as Miami modern, prominent during the post-World War II period. The North Beach Bandshell is a prime example.

"Miami modern is a style similar to art deco," explains Daniel Ciraldo, the historic preservation officer at the Miami Design Preservation League. "It has really not been identified until recently as its own style." Two areas of North Beach are designated by the federal government as historic, but that's only honorary, Ciraldo says, so there are no local protections against demolition. Local advocates are working to expand the designations so the area can balance development with preservation.

"We think it has so much potential in terms of revitalizing neighborhoods. [Miami modern buildings] are really funky and unique and add a lot of character."

If you want to see Miami modern style stay the course, you can support PlanNoBe, a master plan designed to revitalize the area and preserve its architectural integrity. 

The Coconut Grove Playhouse
The Coconut Grove Playhouse
Courtesy of Dade Heritage Trust

8. Coconut Grove Playhouse
Yet another landmark that's long been sitting unoccupied, the Coconut Grove Playhouse was once the cultural center of the bayfront neighborhood. Designed by architects Kiehnel and Elliott in 1926 as a "fanciful Spanish rococo movie palace," (in the words of the City of Miami's preservation officer), it was later remodeled by architect Alfred Browning Parker and became the city's first live theater, the stage for stories by Tennessee Williams and Samuel Beckett.

"Kiehnel and Elliott were both master architects of the time; they’re kind of like our own Frank Lloyd Wright," Ciraldo says. In 2005, the spot was designated a historic landmark by the city, and money has been set aside for renovation. Then, in 2015, architecture firm Arquitectonica won the bid to lead the redesign effort.

But despite the interest of plenty of stakeholders and ongoing efforts to get going on the work, the playhouse is facing the same threat as Miami Marine Stadium — disuse. As Rupp says: "The longer something sits, the more it deteriorates."

Little Havana, Riverside
Little Havana, Riverside
Courtesy of Dade Heritage Trust

7. Little Havana
This famous neighborhood is more than just a destination for tourists looking to play dominoes and smoke some Cubans. It's one of the city's most diverse — and affordable — neighborhoods. And it's at risk because of upzoning and encroaching development, Ciraldo says. The National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2015 listed the area on "America's Most Endangered Historic Places.

"Developers in Brickell have run out of land, so they want to start going west," he explains. Upzoning refers to changing the zoning in a neighborhood to allow for taller buildings and greater development density.

"It's like our own version of Ellis Island. It’s the melting pot of our city, and we are a city of immigrants, so it's important that we protect the legacy of Little Havana."

Last year, the city created a small historic district in East Little Havana, but the rest of the area is still at-risk. "We want to keep that unique part of our downtown and not erase it with a bunch of skyscrapers. That's our hope with Little Havana."

Miami-Dade County Courthouse
Miami-Dade County Courthouse
Courtesy of Dade Heritage Trust

6. Miami-Dade County Courthouse
We're all familiar with downtown's center of justice, the Miami-Dade County Courthouse. But who knew it was endangered? The historic building has fallen into disrepair, Ciraldo says, and there's some debate over whether it's worth preserving. There's a push for a new building but no consensus on what would happen to the old one.

"When it was built, it was the tallest building in Florida — 28 floors," he says. "It’s a great icon of downtown Miami and an architectural gem. From the preservation side, we would love for the county to find a way to restore it and maintain it.

"It’s been a part of the legal memory of our county — that's where so much history has happened — and now it’s a matter of whether or not the county will take on the responsibility of historic preservation."

Queen angelfish.
Queen angelfish.
Photo by A. Bourque / National Park Service

5. Biscayne National Park
Biscayne National Park's proximity to a dense population center like downtown Miami is part of its problem. The nation's largest marine park, this aquatic oasis protects the northern part of the third-largest barrier reef ecosystem in the world — as well as some of the only living coral in the continental United States. 

"Only about 6 percent of Biscayne’s corals are still alive, and some fish populations are on the verge of collapse," says Caroline McLaughlin, Biscayne program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. "There are a number of different factors: overfishing; an increased number of people using the park; water-quality problems from pollution and development; issues with climate change — ocean acidification and warming waters, which lead to coral bleaching; problems with marine debris; impacts from boating. All of these factors together have led to the severe decline of the coral reef ecosystem."

The National Park Service (NPS) is trying to help the park by creating an onsite marine reserve that would protect the living coral. A plan for the reserve was already approved last year after more than a dozen public hearings and 43,000-plus comments — 90 percent of which favored the reserve. The "no-take" zone would constitute only 6 percent of the park's waters, and people would still be able to swim, snorkel, scuba dive, and enjoy the area — just no fishing or making off with any marine resources.

Unsurprisingly, some Florida politicians are on the defensive. Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson introduced the Access to Sportfishing Act of 2016, legislation that McLaughlin says would derail the reserve so fishermen could continue to have free rein over the area. Then there's the Conserving Our Reefs and Livelihoods (CORAL) Act, introduced by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo. "It does contain a lot of important protections, but it also contains damaging language for Biscayne National Park,"  McLaughlin says. "The impact of some of these pieces of legislation would be to prevent the NPS from upholding their legal duty to protect and conserve our national parks."

As of now, the reserve plan has been approved and no legislation has been signed into law, so there's still time for Floridians to show their support for the park. "Call your representatives and senator, and tell them that Biscayne National Park is important to you and that a marine reserve is one of the best ways to reverse the damage we’ve seen over the past decades," McLaughlin advises.

Miami Marine Stadium
Miami Marine Stadium
Courtesy of Dade Heritage Trust

4. Miami Marine Stadium
This one-of-a-kind waterfront stadium has been sitting stagnant for decades. And despite robust attempts to raise funds for refurbishment — championed by Miami's most famous sound machine, Gloria Estefan — renovation has yet to happen.

"It has sat empty since 1992, and we've been working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) over the past several years to get the city to move on it," the Dade Heritage Trust's Rupp says. "That site is a local landmark and very iconic. There’s no other marine stadium anywhere in the world — that's been verified."

The NTHP — in cooperation with Heineken USA — has an IndieGoGo campaign running to raise funds for restoration.

And though the stadium isn't in immediate danger of being torn down, neglect is a very real threat, Rupp adds. "As things sit and are abandoned, they tend to fall apart." 

Biscayne Bay's reefs
Biscayne Bay's reefs
Photo by Rivah Winter

3. Biscayne Bay and the Biscayne Aquifer
Biscayne Bay may look pristine, but that doesn't mean it'll stay that way. That beautiful blue water faces a lot of threats. First and foremost is water pollution. 

"That includes sewage spills; industrial runoff; fertilizers from lawns, golf courses, and agriculture; potential contamination coming from Turkey Point [a nuclear plant owned by Florida Power & Light]; as well as a reduction in freshwater flow from the bay," says Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper.

And for the aquifer that provides Miami's drinking water, the stakes are even higher. Biscayne Aquifer spans almost 4,000 square miles from Dade to Broward and into the southeastern part of Palm Beach County. "A lot of people don't think about where our water comes from," Silverstein says. "Turkey Point is putting an almost incomprehensible amount of salt into the aquifers every day." 

The issue is the power plant's antiquated cooling canals. Because Florida has porous limestone, pollutants from the canals sink easily into the groundwater. Studies suggest 600,000 pounds of salt and other contaminants travel from the canals into the aquifer every day.  The county is pushing for FPL to retire the canals and install cooling towers, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection signed an order that requires the corporation to fix the problems in the next decade. But ten years is a long time. In July, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) and the Tropical Audubon Society filed suit against FPL, citing the Clean Water Act.

"It isn’t currently impacting the water we’re drinking right now, but is impacting our water supply for the future," Silverstein adds. "If it isn't fixed, we'll have a huge problem."

Pine rocklands ecosystem.
Pine rocklands ecosystem.
Courtesy of Al Sunshine / Miami Pine Rocklands Coalition

2. Richmond Pine Rocklands
What's a pine rockland, you ask? It's a type of ecosystem that's perilously close to extinction, and Miami is one of the few places where it still exists. Dominated by the South Florida slash pine, limestone rock outcroppings, and a thick layer of shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers, the pine rocklands once covered 185,000 acres of Miami-Dade County. But today, less than 2 percent is left outside of the Everglades, owing mainly to development.

Now one developer wants to put a Walmart-anchored shopping center on part of the remaining rocklands. The Richmond pine rockland tract, alongside Zoo Miami, is the largest privately owned piece of this land left. The University of Miami sold 88 acres of it to RAM Realty Services in 2014, outraging many conservation groups, and not for the first time. In previous years, UM used the land for research, and the school was actually sued by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2006 for releasing hazardous waste into the ground. 

"Since we only have about 2 percent of what we used to have, what's left is really special, the last of the last," explains Jacki Lopez, Florida director and staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups working to protect the pine rocklands, along with the Tropical Audubon Society, the Miami Pine Rocklands Coalition, and the Everglades Law Center, among others. "It's home to species like the Miami tiger beetle [one of the fastest insects on Earth], the Florida bonneted bat, several butterflies, and a species of snake that you don't find anywhere else. Once it's gone, it's gone — that's why it's so important to keep it intact."

As things stand now, RAM has submitted a habitat-conservation plan to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and at some point it'll be available for public consumption and comment, Lopez says. There will probably also be a public hearing, so passionate folks can voice their opinions. A Save the Pine Rocklands website offers plenty of info and action steps. 

Shark Valley in the Everglades
Shark Valley in the Everglades
Photo by Hannah Sentenac

1. The Everglades
For many Miamians, the Everglades is an afterthought. While parts of it reside in Miami-Dade County, it can seem much farther removed, a far-flung river of grass populated by pythons and mangroves and alligators. But the 2 million-acre ecosystem is crucial. It's the originating source of drinking water for 8 million Floridians, and the threat of its loss is very real. 

"It was the first national park designated because of its biodiversity — it's this one-of-a-kind biodiverse ecosystem," explains Dawn Shirreffs, senior Everglades policy adviser for the Everglades Foundation. "And for most of us, it's what protects our way of life. We have a tourism-based economy.  If you're a developer, you're even relying on the Everglades because you can't get a development permit unless you can get a water supply source for your building."

When Florida was developed in the early part of the 20th Century, water flow to the Everglades was interrupted all over the place. Since then, the Everglades hasn't had enough water to sustain itself, while other parts of Florida have had way too much. To get the water flowing the way it's supposed to — south and into the Everglades — there's a plan in place: the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, passed in 2000.

Some pieces of the plan have come to fruition, but there's one large chunk that's missing: water storage. Officials need a place to store and treat water before sending it back through the Everglades, the way nature intended. Without said storage, Shirreffs says, polluted water continues to be released, causing serious problems, such as this summer's toxic algae blooms in St. Lucie and Martin Counties. 

"The biggest threat becomes delay. The longer it takes for us to implement that plan, the Everglades continues to die while it waits," Shirreffs says.

The good news is, there's progress. "Florida State Senate President Designate Joe Negron just announced his plan to get storage south of Lake Okeechobee so we can really address this problem," Shirreffs says. "This is the health and livelihood of our lifestyle in South Florida. We’re not doing it for the endangered species alone — it’s really a matter of self-interest."

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