It was a two-story house, periwinkle blue with white window frames and a mottled stone chimney facing the street. It was built in 1926 on NE 68th Street in a neighborhood called Elmira, so named for the upstate New York town from which its first residents had come. It, along with the dozen or so other houses lining the shady, narrow road off Biscayne Boulevard, was protected as a part of the Bayside Historic District.
But on Thanksgiving weekend, the house at 660 NE 68th Street was demolished, leaving an empty dirt lot, the still-standing chimney, and a local residents group furious at the loss. Shane Graber, the former president of the Bayside Residents Association, says the demolition of the historically preserved house was completely illegal.
"It's an outrage," Graber tells Riptide. "It's a big issue for the neighborhood. It's a travesty."
But Paul Greco, who owns the property, says that he didn't break any laws. He claims he pulled the house down after a contractor had found that its wood was rotting. All of that, he says, was done with the city's full approval and knowledge.
That's not what the city's Building Department claims, however. Unsafe Structures inspector Cedric Mar says that he went to 660 NE 68th Street on Wednesday to try to stop the demolition, only to find that he was too late.
"They probably should not have demolished that," Mar says. "They have to get approval from the historic board."
Megan McLaughlin, a historic preservation officer for HEPB, did not return a call seeking clarification on the demolition. Mar told Riptide to contact his boss, Ray Benitez, for more information. As of press time, Benitez had not responded to a request for comment.
The Bayside Historic District, which stretches from NE 68th Street to NE 72nd Street between Biscayne Bay and Biscayne Boulevard, is one of over 100 sites and neighborhoods overseen by the Historic and Environmental Preservation Board. It's the board's job to make sure that historic buildings are kept in good condition and not replaced, unless deemed necessary. To that end, the board must give approval to any construction or demolition project.
According to county records, the property at 660 NE 68th Street was sold in February 2012 to Greco, who rents a house just a few hundred feet from the site. He had plans to move into the squat little house once he'd put an addition in the back, and the city gave him a permit to do a partial demolition. But in the process of tearing down the back of the house, he discovered that the front walls were in poor condition. The decision to demolish the whole property, he says, was done reluctantly, but he stresses that it was legal. To that end, he produced demolition plans, which he says were approved by the city.
Graber says that, partial demolition permit aside, Greco had no right to tear down the whole house. He's particularly upset that the job was done on Thanksgiving weekend, during a government holiday, which he believes kept the city out of the loop.
"Neighbors called the police, but they don't do code enforcement," Graber says. "The city will cite them, but it's too late."
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According to Mar, Greco will likely be cited for the full demolition, but didn't know if anything more would be done. When he came to the site, all he could do was take some pictures of the lot and affix a stop-work order to the chimney.
Graber believes that a citation won't make a difference. He's concerned that the demolition could have implications for other historic sites, such as Morningside, MiMo, and Spring Garden. As is, it's already had an immediate impact on this quiet street in Bayside.
"They've got to get tougher laws and penalties, either criminal charges or severe fines," Graber says. "Otherwise, why bother having a historical district?"