Despite flood concerns, Miami Beach approves historic designation for Tatum Waterway

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Despite opposition from property owners concerned about flooding, Miami Beach designated the Tatum Waterway a historic area in an effort to protect dozens of postwar “Miami Modern” buildings.

The decision to make the Tatum Waterway part of the North Shore historic district, unanimously approved by the City Commission on Wednesday evening, marks a win for preservationists who have argued that even in flood-prone areas, preserving historic buildings and preparing for sea level rise don’t have to be competing goals.

The Miami Design Preservation League has argued that the Tatum Waterway is unique in its concentration of waterfront “MiMo” buildings and worth the effort to protect.

The decision was also the result of an agreement struck last year between developers and preservationists, who joined forces to support a referendum to allow higher-density development in another area of North Beach after commissioners agreed to protect two areas with historic buildings.

“Today is the realization of a great compromise,” said Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez on Wednesday evening. “This really was an effort of preservation and development working together for the first time.”

Some property owners implored the commission to reconsider ahead of Wednesday’s vote, however, arguing that the designation could make it harder for them to prepare for the impacts of climate change, which they say are already being felt in the flood-prone neighborhood — one of the lowest lying in Miami Beach.

The historic designation, which applies to 105 buildings along the waterway between 77th and 87th streets, requires property owners to get permission from the city’s Historic Preservation Board for demolitions and any major renovations. Although proposals are evaluated on a case by case basis, the designation sets a higher bar for demolition. Some resiliency measures, like flood-proofing buildings or installing impact windows, likely wouldn’t require approval.

“The waterway is flooding and the historic designation may exacerbate the effects of that flooding and effectively paralyze property owners’ ability to address that flooding,” said John Breistol, president of Ytech International, a real estate company that owns multiple properties along the Tatum Waterway.

Breistol urged the city to defer the historic designation until additional studies of the possible economic and resiliency impacts could be completed. “Otherwise you risk not only alienating stakeholders of constituents, but you also turn your back on your own noble sea rise and climate change initiatives,” he said.

Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán echoed some of these concerns. She reminded the city that a panel of experts who completed an outside review of Miami Beach’s sea level rise solutions last month advised the city to be more selective with its historic choices.

By approving the Tatum Waterway designation, “We said, ‘Forget it, we’re saving everything’ and that’s the action that we’re going to take now,” Alemán said.

Preservationists tried to ease these concerns, pledging to take resiliency into account when evaluating proposed changes to buildings in the area. The Miami Design Preservation League has hosted workshops on how to make historical buildings more resilient and has a Center for Resiliency and Sustainability to study the issue.

“We’ve all signed on to show leadership on sea level rise, not only on Tatum Waterway. We know what we’re dealing with. We live with the water,” said Kirk Paskal, a Tatum Waterway property owner and a member of the Historic Preservation Board. “We are all trying to work together to take a reasonable approach.”

Last year, the Miami Beach City Commission added climate change and resiliency to the criteria the Historic Preservation Board has to take into account when it considers proposals.

The Preservation League is a proponent of elevating the foundations of historic buildings to protect them from rising water — an expensive solution, but one that keeps the building intact. Commissioner Ricky Arriola has proposed creating a fund to help property owners in historic districts pay for the costs associated with making their buildings more resilient.

As Miami Beach grapples with the threat of sea level rise, the Tatum Waterway likely won’t be the last neighborhood where the desire to build newer, more resilient structures pits some property owners against preservationists eager to protect the island’s Art Deco and MiMo buildings.

“We all know it’s important that developers don’t use resiliency as an excuse, but similarly that people who care deeply about preservation don’t ignore it in a way that’s unfair,” said Mayor Dan Gelber. He noted that city staff are working on updating guidelines for existing historic districts in areas that are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise. “Finding that balance is very difficult,” he said.


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