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A property owner in a flood-prone Miami Beach neighborhood is challenging the city’s decision to designate the area as historic, arguing that officials ignored the threat of sea level rise and the impact the designation would have on property owners’ ability to prepare for rising water.
The Tatum Waterway in North Beach is home to dozens of postwar “Miami Modern” buildings, but it’s also one of the island’s lowest lying neighborhoods. The City Commission designated the area part of a historic district in May over the objections of some property owners concerned about flooding, including purely tidal flooding that soaks streets on some sunny days.
Now, a company that owns nine buildings in the area is asking a judge to overturn the city ordinance establishing the designation. The company, Ytech, argues that the City Commission “disregarded” the threat posed by sea level rise because of a pre-existing political agreement and failed to give property owners a “fair opportunity” to make their case.
As South Florida grapples with the impacts of climate change, which the Southeast Florida Climate Compact predicts will cause one to two feet of sea level rise by 2060, questions about what to preserve and what to rebuild have sparked controversy, especially in Miami Beach, where roughly a third of the homes are historic.
An expert panel from the Urban Land Institute, in reviewing Miami Beach’s resilience strategy, recently cautioned the city to be choosy in designating historic buildings because “everything may not be able to be saved.”
Historic designation, which protects buildings from demolition and requires property owners to get permission from the city’s Historic Preservation Board for major renovations, will make it harder for owners to prepare for the impacts of climate change, Ytech argued in its petition. The company said the designation will also affect its ability to get property insurance and sell the properties, ultimately reducing their value.
Although demolition and renovation requests are evaluated on a case by case basis, and all land use boards, including the Historic Preservation Board, are required to consider the impacts of climate change when making a decision, the historic designation typically sets a higher bar for demolition. That could make it harder for some property owners to build more resilient structures.
“There are buildings in excess of 50 years old sitting in water,” said Joni Armstrong Coffey, an attorney with the Akerman law firm, which is representing Ytech. “If you are a regular property owner and your basement flooded, you’d probably knock down the building and build something highly resistant to sea level rise,” she added.
Armstrong Coffey said Ytech hadn’t yet decided what it wants to do with its Tatum Waterway properties, but hopes to have various development options available.
One Tatum Waterway property owner, who isn’t affiliated with Ytech, bought a waterfront apartment building last year in the hopes of demolishing it and building a new structure with MiMo characteristics. However, the floor collapsed in one apartment because of years of water damage, and the historic designation could make it harder for the owner to tear down the apartment and rebuild.
But preservationists argue that the Tatum Waterway is home to historic MiMo gems that are worth the effort to save. The neighborhood, spanning both sides of the waterway between 77th and 87th streets, is also listed on the National Register District of Historic Places, a federal designation that does not provide any local protections.
Preservationists also stress that the Historic Preservation Board evaluates each case individually, considering many factors including sea level rise.
“Historic designation is not a death sentence,” said Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez. “We’re willing to work with developers. We just want to make sure that everything remains in scale and we preserve the aesthetic of the neighborhood.”
Preservationists also argue that saving historic buildings and preparing for the impacts of climate change don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The Miami Design Preservation League, the nonprofit that pushed for the historic designation of the Tatum Waterway, has hosted workshops on how to make historical buildings more resilient and has a Center for Resiliency and Sustainability to study the issue.
“We are always willing to work with everybody on an individual basis,” said Jack Finglass, vice chair of the Historic Preservation Board. “Everything is looked at individually so when somebody says being designated means you can’t do anything, that’s not true.”
Miami Beach is working to add resiliency criteria into the historic planning board’s approval process, said Laura Weinstein-Berman, a consultant for Vagabond Group Consultant who wrote her 2017 Columbia University thesis on the balance between historic preservation and sea rise readiness in Miami Beach.
“It is the exact opposite of blocking the adaptation of historic resources,” she said.
Some Miami Beach commissioners did question whether such a low-lying, flood-prone area should be designated historic. The Tatum Waterway was initially going to be included in the original North Shore historic district, but was removed from the proposal in 2016 over flooding concerns.
When preservationists later reached an agreement with developers and agreed to support a referendum to allow denser development in another area of North Beach, commissioners agreed to protect two stretches of buildings along the waterway. (The decision to support the referendum, which sparked controversy among Miami Beach preservationists, has caused a rift in the Miami Design Preservation League.) Although some commissioners expressed reservations about the designation, it passed unanimously because of the pre-existing agreement.
Ytech said the pre-existing agreement “deprived” property owners of “due process protections.”
Miami Beach City Attorney Raul Aguila declined to comment on the petition because of the ongoing legal proceedings.