Are Miami Beach's Art Deco buildings in danger from developers?

Many of the historic Art Deco buildings that give Miami Beach its distinctive character may be vulnerable to demolition under proposals from three Florida legislators who critics say are using concerns about building safety and the need for affordable housing to help developers.

The Resiliency and Safe Structures Act was introduced in the state Legislature in March by Rep. Spencer Roach and Sen. Bryan Avila, both Republicans, as a way to replace unsafe buildings with stronger, “resilient” construction. The legislation would allow developers to replace historic buildings with massive towers and provide incentives for owners to stop maintaining historic properties, preservationists say. The act passed the state Senate but was tabled in the House shortly before the session ended in May. Roach told NBC News he is “fine-tuning” the language in his bill and plans to propose it again during the next legislative session in January.

In June, state Rep. Fabián Basabe, a Republican from Miami Beach, proposed letting developers demolish older residential buildings and temporarily relocate their tenants while safer, more modern structures are built. Basabe told Florida Politics his plan, which he appeared to put forward as a trial balloon ahead of the Legislature’s January session, is a creative way to bypass developmental gridlock and address safety concerns.

“Devastating,” said Dolly MacIntyre, a co-founder of the Dade Heritage Trust, Miami preservation nonprofit organization. “Most of our historic properties are in the coastal district of the state, and [the proposals] call for anything within a flood zone to be eligible for demolition if the owner so wished.” 

Daniel Ciraldo of the Miami Design Preservation League agreed. “The postcard of our whole South Florida region is all at risk based on these extremists’ proposals,” he said. 

A legislative aide to Avila said he has not discussed the possibility of reintroducing the bill. Basabe’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Developers who might benefit from changes to the current laws include owners of properties in historic Miami Beach, according to Ciraldo and MacIntyre. The proposals would override existing restrictions on development and create incentives to erect bigger buildings. A prime example is a vacant six-floor apartment building on Collins Avenue built in the Art Deco style in 1947. 13th Floor Investments, a Miami-based developer of residential and commercial properties, owns the complex, according to city planning documents. Under current law, the developer is limited to replacing the property with another six-story structure, but if the proposed bill goes through, it would be able to build a high-rise there.

MacIntyre, Ciraldo and others are particularly worried about the famed Art Deco row on Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue, home to the Greystone Hotel, the Breakwater Hotel and additional landmarks that contributed to the revival of South Beach in the 1980s and the 1990s. Only buildings on the National Register of Historic Places would be protected from demolition under the Resiliency and Safe Structures Act, and just seven buildings in Miami Beach are on the register. The historic Deauville Hotel, built in 1957 in the Miami Modern style, has already been torn down and is now a vacant lot. The Miami Design Preservation League believes the case is an example of demolition by neglect, in which a property owner lets a building fall into disrepair so it can be torn down and replaced with a bigger structure. The league tweeted that on the day the Deauville was demolished.

The owners of the Deauville when it was condemned in 2021 have denied neglecting the property, saying they had spent millions to preserve it. They did not respond to a request for comment.

It’s still unclear what’s in store for the Deauville site. In November, Miami Beach voters rejected a referendum measure that would have let Stephen Ross, the owner of the Miami Dolphins, build a luxury condo and hotel tower there. Ross bought the site in May 2022, and the condemned structure was demolished in November.

Alex Fernandez, who is on the commission that, with the mayor, governs Miami Beach, believes the Resiliency and Safe Structures Act is part of an attempt by Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature to strip local governments of their authority over land use and development. Fernandez points to another bill recently signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis that limits municipalities’ control over zoning codes. Called the Live Local Act and passed as a solution to the state’s affordable housing crisis, it lets developers override strict zoning codes if they construct more dwellings for people with lower incomes. However, the law mandates that only 10% of those new units be labeled as “affordable.

“In Miami Beach, increases in [building] density could only be approved by the electorate” before the law was passed, Fernandez said. “Then Tallahassee came in and not only stripped that power away from the local electorate, they pre-empted the will of our voters.”

Ciraldo believes the Florida legislators are using the catastrophic Surfside condo collapse in 2021, in which 98 residents of a beachfront tower just north of Miami Beach died, as an excuse to push the bill forward. “Unfortunately, that tragedy has kind of been used by some policymakers to say, ‘It’s time to redevelop all of the coastlines, and let’s knock everything down; we’ll build all luxury condominiums and then everything will be safe,’” Ciraldo said. “But that’s probably a false premise.”

Amid pushback from historic preservation nonprofit groups this spring, Roach and Avila added exemptions to their proposed legislation that would appear to protect certain communities over others. Some of the carve-outs include municipalities with populations of 10,000 residents or less and cities with at least three buildings over 200 years old. Miami Beach did not qualify for those exemptions. In addition, the bill exempts structures in communities labeled “areas of critical state concern.” The cities of Arcadia and Punta Gorda carry that label and are in Roach’s district.

Public records show that 13th Floor Investments donated over $10,000 to the Friends of Spencer Roach political action committee, as well as $11,000 to the Fighting for Florida’s Families PC, a political committee associated with Avila. 13th Floor Investments did not respond to an email seeking comment, and Roach did not respond to a request for comment about the impact of the exemptions in his district. The firm’s contributions to the two legislators were first reported by The Miami Herald. In a statement to the Herald, 13th Floor Investments said its donations were unrelated to the Resiliency and Safe Structures Act.

Several developers with their eyes on Miami Beach properties in Basabe’s district are also Basabe donors, public records show. Since 2020, Basabe has received at least $15,000 from real estate entities. One is David P. Wallack, who owns Mango’s Tropical Cafe, a restaurant and nightclub at 900 Ocean Drive in Miami Beach’s Art Deco District. In late 2020, Wallack was negotiating to buy three properties adjacent to the club on Collins Avenue, aiming to sell the buildings to a developer who would then construct a multiuse commercial complex, the Herald reported. The deal did not go through. Wallack and companies he owns contributed at least $5,000 to Basabe’s campaign in 2022. In an email, Wallack said he was unaware of Basabe’s redevelopment proposal.

Basabe also received a $5,000 donation from Dezer Properties, a prominent real estate company that owns buildings in New York and Sunny Isles Beach, a community north of Miami Beach. Dezer Properties is operated by Michael Dezer, a prominent donor to former President Donald Trump; the two worked together to develop two Trump Tower condo complexes in Sunny Isles Beach.

Another Basabe donor, Russell W. Galbut, is a prominent Miami real estate developer and philanthropist. He donated at least $3,500 to Basabe during the 2022 election season, mostly in payments of $500 from five different companies. Galbut submitted plans last year to construct a 20-story, 125-unit condo complex in North Miami Beach, according to The Real Deal.


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