Bay Harbor Islands Wants to Ditch Historic Preservation Board, Threatening MiMo Gems

Bay Harbor Islands Wants to Ditch Historic Preservation Board, Threatening MiMo Gems
Photo via Keep Bay Harbor Islands Beautiful's Facebook page

If Bay Harbor Islands, the two-island, 5,000-person town on Biscayne Bay between North Miami and Bal Harbour, is known for anything, it's MiMo architecture. But at a commission meeting earlier this week, the town moved closer to breaking away from the county's historic building preservation rules, and some town residents -- already devastated by a recent development boom -- are more worried than ever about the future of the town's distinctive character.

"We're really kind of desperate here," said Teri D'Amico, a resident leading the preservation movement.

On Monday, after a heated, six-hour public hearing, the town's commission voted six-to-one in favor of a resolution to leave Miami-Dade County's Historic Preservation Board. The issue now goes back to the county, where it already passed a first reading and will be taken up again at a committee meeting.

To preservationists, the vote is a warning bell for significant pieces of MiMo, or Miami Modern, architecture, a mid-20th century design style famously employed by buildings like the Fountainebleau and Eden Roc hotels that's characterized by a playful, tropical-inspired use of features like glass, mosaics and brise-soleis.

It was D'Amico, a prominent interior designer and longtime Bay Harbor Islands resident, who actually coined the term, along with a town planner named Randall Robinson; and because of its concentration of low-rise buildings featuring the style, the town's East Island was listed, in June, among the country's 11 most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Local historian Paul George told Riptide that while MiMo hasn't always had the best reputation -- critics have frequently derided the architecture, saying it's hardly worth preservation -- he sees a growing appreciation of the style.

"I just think as the years go on, it's going to become more and more important," says George, a historian at HistoryMiami. "Our appreciation of Art Deco didn't really get under way until the 1970s, and now we revere it -- I feel like MiMo's going to be a similar thing."

For months, a group of residents committed to preserving the buildings, led by D'Amico, has been at odds with members of the town commission, particularly vice mayor Jordan Leonard, who has pushed through legislation that would allow Bay Harbor Islands to dictate its own rules by leaving Miami-Dade County's Historic Preservation Board.

That effort, the preservationists say, amounts to an acquiescence to developers. "We know what's motivating him," said D'Amico, referring to political contributions Leonard received from people affiliated with developers.

Leonard has acknowledged accepting campaign money from developers but denied his push for preservation autonomy was in any way motivated by such donations, noting that his was council position was itself unpaid and he had often voted against projects from donors.

"I'll take a check from everyone," he says, "but the reality is I'm not going to sell the soul of my home, where my kids live. For what? ... The ability to sit on a council?"

Rather, the vice mayor maintains, the preservation split is about "home rule" -- allowing Bay Harbor Islands to decide issues without county input -- and actually protecting financial interests of middle-class residents who could be left unable to collect on their longtime property investment.

"We have a lot of small buildings that are owned by regular people," he said. "And guess what -- if you deem that property historic ... you're cutting their savings."

On Tuesday morning, after a long, emotional night following the latest vote, D'Amico said the result wasn't unexpected. But she was still disappointed.

"If it's done," she said of the resolution, "it's done for the wrong reasons."

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