South Beach urgently needs a new fire station. The problem is finding a place to put it

The fire station serving most of South Beach has been falling apart for years.

The building was constructed in 1967 and has major electrical and mechanical problems, according to city officials. A 2015 evaluation commissioned by the city warned that the station sits below the federal government’s flood elevation standards and could become “inaccessible” after a major storm, preventing rescue crews from providing emergency assistance to surrounding neighborhoods.

The fire department has also outgrown the station, said Fire Chief Virgil Fernandez.

“If you visit the station, the equipment barely fits in there and one of the things that we’re hoping to address is the future growth of the department,” he said.

Now, after voters approved a $439 million general obligation bond program to fund public projects, the city has $10 million earmarked to replace the fire station. Fernandez said he envisions a state-of-the-art facility capable of withstanding a Category 5 hurricane with room for the fire department to grow.

The problem, however, is finding a place to put a new station in a densely populated section of Miami Beach. The fire station serves South Beach up to 16th Street, an area packed with hotels and condo buildings that includes an entertainment district frequented by tourists.

The last time city commissioners discussed replacing the fire station, in 2016, they couldn’t find a location that residents approved.

The city initially considered five publicly owned parcels — including the site where the fire station is currently located at 1045 Jefferson Ave. — as well as the possibility of buying privately owned land. But the current site is too small for the facility the fire department had in mind, and private property available in that section of South Beach is too expensive. Residents opposed building the station on the site of a dog park at 225 Washington Ave., protesting that it would be too noisy and take away park space. The fire department determined that another potential site would have resulted in longer response times.

City commissioners eventually zeroed in on a parking lot at the southern entrance to Flamingo Park, which is across the street from the current fire station, even though residents also objected to building on that site. The Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association argued that the fire station would block views and diminish the open feeling at the park’s entrance. Drawings of a possible configuration that included a three-story fire station and a parking garage to compensate for the loss of the parking lot cemented the opposition.

“It was laughably out of context and out of scale,” said Mark Needle, a member of the neighborhood association, who said the drawing showed a “three-story urban building stuffed into a park.”

Neighbors also worried that moving the station closer to the park would create a safety hazard.

“We just don’t think emergency vehicles and children at play mix,” said David McKinney, who lives in a building behind the station. The recreation center in Flamingo Park hosts many of the city’s after-school programs and summer camps.

Plans to build a new fire station were eventually shelved, in part because the city didn’t have funding earmarked for the project. But now that voters have approved the bond program, replacing the fire station is at the top of the city’s list of priorities.

“Now that we’ve got the money in place I think ultimately we’ve got to have these tough conversations and we need to figure out what makes the most sense for the city moving forward and then pursue that option,” Eric Carpenter, the assistant city manager who oversees parks and building projects, said at a recent bond oversight committee meeting.

The city hasn’t yet picked a location for the new fire station, Carpenter told the Miami Herald. First, city staff will review all of the information collected in 2016 and determine whether any new sites are available. Any city-owned property in a location that wouldn’t slow the fire department’s response times is a possibility, Carpenter said.

“We are always concerned with what the constituents may like or not like about any project, but I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to find something that everybody can live with because this is so important to our community,” he said.

The fire chief said that ideally he’d like to keep the station in the same neighborhood because residents purchased their property knowing there was a fire station nearby. If the station relocated to another part of South Beach, he said, “we’d be introducing something into the community that hasn’t been there before and there’s a chance it may not be welcomed with open arms.”

Flamingo Park residents say they still won’t welcome a new fire station on the park site, however. Instead, said Scott Needelman, who manages the neighborhood association, the city should go back to the drawing board and look at privately owned land on a busier road that is not in a residential area.

“Our whole objection is that for something that’s a 50-year project, do it right the first time even if there’s a little more cost involved,” he said.

It will ultimately be up to the City Commission to decide on a site for the new fire station, which will go through a lengthy approval process. It could be three or four years before a new station is built, Carpenter said.

In the meantime, however, the fire station will continue to deteriorate. If the project continues to be delayed, Fernandez said, the station may reach a point at which firefighters have to move out and set up temporary trailers or rent space elsewhere.

Other projects could also be delayed if the city can’t find a location for the fire station.

Miami Beach plans to move its 911 call center into the new fire station to free up space in police headquarters, where the call center is currently located, but in the meantime city staff has recommended that Miami Beach wait to do some renovations at police headquarters. Delays could also put plans to replace Flamingo Park’s recreation center on hold. The bond program includes $30.5 million to replace the facility, which could go on the same site as the fire station, if the station is located in Flamingo Park, in order to free up more green space, Carpenter said.