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How selling rights to the sky keeps Miami’s historic buildings alive

Square buildings, neatly arranged in colorful rows, stacked side-by-side like jelly beans. Italian-style villas, ornamented with bronze sculptures and terrazzo floors. Rounded towers and two-story motels, accented with blinking neon signs.

These are the architectural styles that define Miami, a city that was born glamorous, indulgent, and fun.

There’s no doubt that Miami is in the midst of a preservation boom. The Biscayne Boulevard corridor in the 60s and 70s is filled with iconic MiMo hotels getting a facelift, joining well-established preservation sites on Miami Beach, Downtown, and Coconut Grove, where they intertwine with shiny glass buildings and concrete towers.

Developers in Miami first began comprehending how lucrative the retro appeal of modern and deco buildings could be in the late 1980s, and set out to revitalize iconic architectural structures, many of which had once operated as glamorous hotels.

But doing so is a labor of love. The process of refurbishing a historic property is ridden with bureaucracy and hidden costs, particularly in this city dominated by glassy new construction. Here’s how they made it possible, even appealing, to those willing to put in the time.

Giving preservation teeth

Historic preservation in Miami only began to take shape in the late 1970s, when county officials woke up to the danger that rampant development might end up demolishing the city’s most iconic properties and residential neighborhoods. In 1981, the county issued the Dade County Historic Preservation Ordinance to try and stop it.

Under the ordinance, owners of historic buildings were prohibited from significantly altering a historic structure unless they obtained a recommendation by the Historic Preservation Board. That board, comprised of seven members – architects, historians, engineers, lawyers, and community members – determined whether the suggested renovations allowed the building to maintain its original historical significance.

If they got the OK, the Historic Preservation Board would issue a Certificate of Appropriateness to allow the renovations. In its ordinance, Dade County required all municipalities to adopt their own ordinances by the following year.

This was a huge boost for Miami Beach, where iconic deco buildings were in danger of becoming extinct as they were razed in favor of newer, more luxurious structures – in spite of the fact that the Miami Design Preservation League had managed to register the Beach’s Art Deco District in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places nearly two years before. The ordinance gave preservationists legal backing to stop the knock-downs.

 

In the architecturally unique, albeit worn, deco buildings, League founder Barbara Capitman saw the importance of preserving Art Deco architecture, and started lobbying for designations of more historic districts.

“Barbara Capitman really wanted to spruce up these properties and show people what art deco is all about,” said Daniel Ciraldo, a preservation specialist at the Miami Design Preservation League. “She convinced the community that we really could make Miami Beach a destination again.”

What that means for development

Today we have 12 historic districts in Miami Beach alone, which has had major repercussions for developers seeking to enter the island – most Miami Beach buildings are now automatically protected from demolition.

“Every single property in a local historic district is subject to the historic preservation ordinance, regardless if it’s a vacant lot, a building built in the 1920s or one built in the 1980s,” says Debbie Tackett, a preservation and design manager in the Planning Department the City of Miami Beach.

It’s a long, winding process that Tackett’s team is responsible for guiding projects through. Developers often try to hire architects who have been through the process before in hopes of increasing their chances of approval.

“We get hundreds of permits a month,” Tackett says, “and some are minor but others require a larger intervention.” Tackett’s team can administratively approve a project depending on the proposed updates.

“Let’s say you’re renovating a hotel, and the rooms are dated and you want to gut the interior finishes and re-do the plumbing, those approvals can be done administratively by my office,” Tackett says. “But if you’re adding an addition or you want to demolish or reconfigure, that has to go to the board.”

According to Tackett, the road to appropriateness isn’t always easy.

“A lot of local architects have experience working in Miami Beach, and they know what’s going too far and what’s not going far enough in terms of restoration,” she said.

“Sometimes we don’t come to an agreement,” she added. “Sometimes the client and the architect are very adamant about the design, and feel strongly it should be something else. At that point, we just let the plans go to the Board, and that’s ultimately their decision about whether the project can move forward.”

Making it pay off

Re-development of historic properties is catching on across Miami, partially thanks to incentives provided by the City of Miami – allowing property owners to sell their so-called air rights to the highest bidder.

Many buildings own not just the square feet of their property and whatever is built on it, but a certain number of feet above the roof as well. With historic properties that developers won’t or can’t build up because they are prohibited from doing so, those air rights go unused.

In 2012, the City of Miami enacted Miami 21, which allowed developers to sell that unused space to other developers, who could tack it on top of their existing air space to give them more room to build up.

One of the most recent successful examples is the MiMo District’s trendy Vagabond Motel on 73rd Street and Biscayne Boulevard, which was reopened in 2014 after decades of lying in disuse and disrepair. Developer Avra Jain took advantage of Miami 21.

“With the Vagabond, Jain wouldn’t have been able to build up because she was prohibited from doing so under preservation laws,” Ciraldo said. “So the City allowed her to sell those additional ‘floors’ as an incentive to redevelop the property.”

History can be a moneymaker

Such incentives are needed, because renovating these historic structures in a way that stays true to their original form is costly and time-consuming. It is usually cheaper to build anew than to refurbish, as evidenced by the speed at which shiny new skyscrapers go up.

But some developers say the benefits often outweigh the costs.

“You hear all the time from people that it’s sometimes a lot cheaper to build ground up, than to deal with trying to retrofit a building that’s already built,” says Jonathan Bennett the managing director of Nakash Holdings and the developer behind Hotel Victor and The Breakwater, two iconic Art Deco properties located on Ocean Drive.

“My answer to that is location, location, location,” says Bennett. “These buildings are situated in the hotspots, they’re on the best streets. You can’t knock them down, and from a certain perspective it would be a crime to knock them down.”

And these buildings, which are representative of the Miami the rest of the world wants to see, are a huge draw for tourists, Bennett adds.

“The truth is, we love these properties because everything works together. You have this amazing architecture, people like to stay in the buildings, people like to look at the buildings,” he says. “It’s important to maintain that authenticity.”

The same is certainly true for Jain, whose Vagabond Motel has been lauded for its mid-century modern design that harkens to a glitzier era of the now downtrodden strip along Biscayne Boulevard.

Since the Vagabond’s opening, Jain has purchased and announced plans for various historic MiMo buildings, including the Bayside Motor Inn, the International Motel, and the Royal Motel, adding celebrity chefs and modern technological touches but keeping the essence of each property intact.

Other developers are taking note of the area’s up-and-coming status. “I’ve definitely looked at a few buildings there,” Bennett says.

Miami may be growing faster than ever, but a commitment to preserving its roots is undoubtedly coming into play. While new construction is constantly underway, city leaders and preservationists stress that a mix of modern and historic is welcome across Miami.

“We don’t reject that. In fact, I think we embrace modern architecture. We want to have the best of both worlds,” Ciraldo says.

 

By Nicole Martinez
Nicole is a freelance writer and crop top enthusiast based in Miami Beach. A lifelong 305-er, she loves finding new stuff to love in her city everyday.