Demolition Ordinance Reignites Battle Over Historic Preservation in Miami Beach

There's a lot threatening Miami Beach's historic architecture right now: Sea-level rise. Billionaires. Any of the tropical systems whirling in the Atlantic. Limited liability companies and hedge funds buying up homes and replacing them with hulking mansions outfitted with escalators like at a shopping mall.

In the fight for historic preservation, Miami Beach residents say they see a new possible threat: a proposed city law they say could eliminate public input on rebuilds of some "architecturally significant" homes, as the city calls them, and make it easier for developers to raze them.

The city's land development rules require approval from the Design Review Board for new homes replacing historic homes built before 1942. The Design Review Board cannot deny demolition applications, but it can review design plans, require that homeowners or developers make changes before approval, and take public comments about the plans.

An ordinance now being considered would eliminate the review board process for homes that meet certain size requirements. City staff would take over the approvals instead.

Yesterday the Miami Beach Planning Board unanimously voted to recommend that commissioners reject the ordinance at their October 16 meeting. But although board members didn't go for it, the ordinance is still technically on the table.

If the ordinance is approved, residents say they fear it could take away their right to attend and speak at public meetings where decisions about the future of their neighborhoods are being made. Several residents who attended yesterday's planning board meeting questioned whether the ordinance would make it easier for developers to buy up land and skirt the public approval process to build McMansions.

"This isn't about people wanting to have their dream house on the property they own," one woman said during the meeting. "It's about people making money... We are losing our assets one by one. Don't trust developers to do the right thing."

Those concerns aren't without merit. In 2011, only three Miami Beach homeowners applied to demolish their pre-1942 homes. By 2015, the number had jumped to 34. Then came the spec houses.

Before yesterday's meeting, more than 300 people signed a petition demanding that the planning board vote no on the ordinance. Several planning board members questioned why the changes were proposed to begin with.

It turns out the ordinance was conceived by Matrix Consulting, a firm hired by Miami Beach to review the city's private development processes and make recommendations to streamline some of its regulations. The consulting group made 33 initial recommendations, one of which included the proposed changes for historic demolitions.

Miami Beach Commissioner John Aleman, who sponsored the ordinance, says the intent was to help a minority of homeowners save money and time by not having to go to the Design Review Board.

"We get a lot of complaints about how difficult it is to do business with the city, how laborious and expensive it is," Aleman says.

The commissioner says she thinks the ordinance was "miscast" as a measure that was being crammed through to skirt public scrutiny and foster McMansions.

"None of that is true," she tells New Times.

As currently written, the ordinance would allow city staff to review plans for residents who want to demolish their homes and build smaller ones.

Residents who attended the planning board meeting worried the ordinance could allow unscrupulous developers to do a bait-and-switch by obtaining staff approval, avoiding public comment, and then changing the plans. Aleman says the ordinance addresses this risk: Changing the design plans means the homeowner or developer would need Design Review Board approval anyway.

Daniel Ciraldo, executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League, says he doesn't think it makes sense to create a process to facilitate building smaller homes when that isn't the way Miami Beach has been developing. His concern is the elimination of a public hearing process that has been in place since the early 2000s.

"Miami Beach has always had a lot of public participation," Ciraldo says. "Even in how the Art Deco District was saved in the 1970s and '80s was because the public had a voice. Any effort to suppress the voice of the people, we oppose."

Another proposed ordinance would change public notice requirements for land-use board hearings from 30 days to 15 days. Planning board members unanimously voted to recommend that city commissioners reject that measure too.