It sounds like a rare victory for common sense in Miami: After hours of debate, city commissioners voted last week to declare that a 66-year-old church surrounded by Brickell skyscrapers is a historic structure. What kind of a monster wouldn't want to save a tiny old church?
Well, for starters, the vast majority of parishioners and church leaders. A tangled web of developers and millions in air rights suggest there's more than civic goodwill at work at St. Jude Melkite Catholic Church.
"With all the dirtiness and vehemence, there is something more than just the historic designation," says St. Jude's pastor, Rev. Damon Geiger.
St. Jude's Historic Preservation Vote Could Be a Smokescreen for Developers
Geiger says there are many reasons to oppose the designation. It would cost the church tens of thousands of dollars because insurance rates would go up, and repairs would be subjected to a lengthier, costlier process.
But despite those protestations, powerful brothers Shadi and Wasim Shomar brought a petition before Miami's historic preservation board in February.
"At some point, a group of us parishioners thought that this is a good time for us to move ahead," Wasim Shomar says. "I care about it deeply." (Geiger says Shomar is not a parishioner. Shomar admits he has not attended St. Jude much lately.)
When that motion came up April 11, the vote fell one short. The Shomars appealed, though, and last Thursday the city commission voted 4-0 to overrule the board.
So why the strong push from two powerful brothers who aren't even St. Jude parishioners? Geiger points out that plans for the Echo Brickell — Miami's tallest residential tower — were announced the same day the historic preservation board voted on St. Jude. "They are not zoned for 60 stories," he says of the Echo Brickell. "They are going to need air rights."
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Under the Miami 21 zoning code, historically preserved buildings may be granted rights to the unused real estate above them. These "air rights" can then be sold to developers for use on nearby projects.
Shomar, who as chairman of Lynx Equity Group in Coral Gables has experience in real estate, insists he's not involved in the Echo Brickell or any other project that could benefit from St. Jude's air rights.
(Kevin Maloney, founder and CEO of Property Markets Group — the developer building the Echo Brickell — could not be reached for comment.)
Regardless of his motivations, St. Jude's leaders plan to keep fighting. "We were thrilled with this loss," St. Jude board member Suzanne Stonbely says. "Now we are free to appeal in a court of law."