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In North Beach, rising seas could price out history, longtime residents

Sea level rise could be the breaking point for quirky, diverse, low-key North Beach.

The rising seas threaten not just the historic MiMo-era apartment blocks stretching from 71st Street up to Surfside, but their longtime residents, many of them immigrants and hourly employees who are clinging to their homes in Miami Beach’s last affordable neighborhood.

In other words, the “character” of North Beach.

At last night’s meeting at the North Shore Park Youth Center, neighborhood residents, developers, and city employees and politicians debated about what is worth preserving as climate change knocks on their door, pushing up insurance rates — and as a planning firm prepares to unveil its “master plan” for North Beach on June 7 that could dramatically redraw the neighborhood. Editor’s note: This paragraph was edited to correct the name of the meeting venue. 

In a grim diagram, Jeffrey Oris, the Miami Beach employee overseeing the North Beach master plan, showed a worst-case scenario map revealing that the clubhouse of the Normandy Shores Golf Course is one of the only spots that would remain above the waterline.

What history is worth saving?

Low-slung, multi-unit 1960s apartment buildings take up block after block of North Beach. Depending on who you ask, they’re either charming and historic or outdated and an economic drag. What everyone knows for certain is that few of them were built to withstand the water that is seeping onto the streets.

They’re structurally endangered and at a certain point, owners will have no choice but to make changes to help them remain sound and safe, particularly if streets around them are raised like they have been on South Beach. But those changes are expensive and making them is going to drive up costs — and likely drive out the people who live there today.

And yet, only a couple of people at Monday night’s meeting were talking about that outcome. Much more time was spent discussing how to balance historic preservation with the need to update buildings. The city is only beginning to have that conversation, said Deborah Tackett, Miami Beach’s design preservation manager.

On one side are fierce preservationists, who believe that the character — a word that comes up a lot in this debate — should be preserved at any cost.

On the other extreme are developers who believe that asking them to maintain historic property in light of the rising seas is completely unreasonable, particularly given insurance costs. That “has no economic viability,” said North Beach developer Matis Cohen.

The city falls somewhere in the middle, with assistant manager Susy Torriente explaining that they will have to make choices about which buildings are worth preserving and which ones should be let go.

Priced out by sea level rise

But historic preservation isn’t just about picture-perfect MiMo buildings. It’s also a way to ensure affordable housing, said Kent Harrison Robbins, a Miami Beach property lawyer. Those older buildings are in a price range no new development will come close to.

“There are a lot of people hidden from our view on Miami Beach. They live in small apartments and houses they’ve owned for many years. What concerns me is the failure to recognize that historic preservation has been one of the partners preserving what we have… and the people who live there,” he said.

Few of them are going to be able to afford any new homes built, regardless of whether they’re in “character” or not, he added.

“The new construction is so out of reach for so many people,” said Daniel Ciraldo, a historic preservation officer with the Miami Design Preservation League. “When you knock down and build anew, that adds even more to the cost.” Editor’s note: This sentence was edited to correctly reflect Ciraldo’s affiliation. 

But the city of Miami Beach is focused first and foremost on staying above water — both literally and financially. They have to convince banks and insurance providers that the city is serious about surviving sea level rise. That’s pricey.

“People will just have to raise their properties as we raise the streets,” said Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez. “Miami Beach is going to become a very expensive place to live.”

Planning firm Dover, Kohl, and Partners will present its master plan for North Beach on June 7. If you’ve got opinions on the future of North Beach, you should be there.