South Beach wants to save Art Deco gems before the seas rise. One solution: Jack them up

Decades after preservationists saved Miami Beach’s treasure-trove of Art Deco architecture from developers and politicians looking to tear it all down, they’re confronting a dire new menace: The relentless rise of the oceans that threatens to swamp the resort city’s low-lying historic buildings.

Now a preservation consultant who has helped salvage historic structures around the country after catastrophic storms and floods is telling them there’s only one thing to do.

Jack it up.

Roderick Scott, a preservationist and a contractor specializing in flood-hazard mitigation, says raising homes and buildings on stilts or new foundations is not just eminently feasible, but the only sure way to protect them from the ravages of sea-level rise and the higher hurricane storm surge that results from it — not to mention rising flood-insurance rates. Scott predicts double-digit increases in the cost of federal insurance over the next several years that could render it unaffordable for those who take no action.

It’s all about feasibility. It’s more of an economic feasibility.”

Jason Devooght, owner of a company that elevates properties in the Midwest and New Jersey

Lifting whole buildings may sound drastic, he said, but it’s simply a reality that preservationists, property owners and city officials now must confront. If they don’t start planning soon, Scott argues, the Beach — all of which sits in a flood zone — risks losing the buildings that define the city and make it the heart of the region’s vital tourism industry. And the preservation movement, founded to safeguard the historic appearance of buildings, will have to be flexible, he said.

“All we’ve been focused on is the seas rising,” Scott said. “It’s all gradual. It’s a slow storm that’s building. Historic preservation is a little behind the curve. They don’t want to change these buildings. But all of these buildings can be elevated.”

A group of building-lifters who visited South Beach this week echoed Scott, saying that financing will be the more complicated part.

“It’s all about feasibility,” said Jason Devooght, proprietor of a structural moving company that has done work in the Midwest and on the New Jersey coast. “It’s more of an economic feasibility.”

Scott represents an association of these structural moving firms whose members say they can hydraulically lift large buildings without so much as a crack. He spent much of last week meeting with public officials, preservationists, architects and residents in Miami and Miami Beach at the invitation of the Miami Design Preservation League, the group whose battle to save the Art Deco historic district propelled the resurrection of South Beach.

The league’s leaders are worried that what they fought to preserve is now at risk from rising seas — and along with it properties and investments worth billions and the region’s tourism-dependent economy. As the city embarks on a long-range program to raise the level of many of its streets to ward off inundation, officials and citizens need to be thinking well beyond that, the league says.

Raising buildings is something worth seriously considering, said Daniel Ciraldo, the league’s executive director.

“We’re trying to offer ideas and solutions,” Ciraldo said. “There has been a lot of talk about resilience and raising streets, but not about the properties on those streets. If we can start now, maybe we can have a plan in place to extend the life of the city as much as possible.”

Feasibility and cost

Though lifting buildings to save them may sound radical, it’s only one of a panoply of sometimes wild-sounding concepts and plans under consideration along the U.S. coast as local leaders begin brainstorming on how to protect their towns and cities. Seas are predicted to rise as much as three feet by 2060.

In New York, work will begin this year on a portion of a massive U-shaped berm designed to protect lower Manhattan from a future Sandy. Other post-Sandy projects, all of them backed by $1 billion in federal funding, include building oyster beds to act as natural breakwaters off Staten Island and a flood-protection system in Hoboken, N.J., consisting of seawalls, berms and catch basins to block unusually high water.

In Miami, conceptual studies drawn up by planners have laid out ideas such as artificial islands in Biscayne Bay to protect PortMiami and artificial beaches to buffer the west side of Miami Beach, the lowest and most flood-prone area of the city, from storm surge and rising tides.

Scott says he and his colleagues have successfully moved or raised tens of thousands of structures, including 26,000 homes in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina that had to be lifted to meet federal regulations for post-disaster reconstruction. Powerful hydraulic lifts can lift even sizable structures such as small apartment buildings smoothly and evenly to prevent damage, he said.

As part of this week’s tour, Scott and a group of principals from structural-moving firms visited the Greystone Hotel, a 1936 Deco hotel in South Beach that is being restored. The inside has been almost completely gutted while all four sides are held up by a eb of steel beams.

Local engineers wondered how they could lift a historic structure while preserving parts of the building’s interiors, like lobbies and staircases, that are required by law to be saved. The building-lifters’s response: Raise the structure first, bracing critical interior walls and features, then rip out what’s unwanted after it’s elevated.

“It makes sense from an engineering perspective,” said Edward Fields, a building engineer and project manager for the Greystone, which is being renovated by Claro Development.

The cost varies widely depending on the type of structure being raised and its location. One contractor, Canada-based HG Underpinning, said the price of lifting a single-family home ranges between $80,000 and $100,000.

There are a few ways of financing a lift, including second mortgages and construction loans that can be converted into mortgages, Scott says. Properties in national-register historic districts, including the four in Miami Beach, can qualify for restoration tax credits. Locally designated properties may qualify for property-tax abatements.

But he and Ciraldo concede that raising thousands of homes, apartment buildings and commercial structures in the Beach would likely require government support and coordination, possibly through the creation of loan pools or legislation allowing the issuance of public bonds to finance improvements on private property.


Building engineer Edward Fields, left, talks with Jason Devooght, a a building elevation contractor based out of New Jersey. Fields is project manager for the restoration of the historic Greystone Hotel in South Beach, where he met contractors to talk about lifting historic structures.

Joey Flechas

Financial risk

The financial risk of doing nothing is stark even if the seas don’t invade for decades, Scott and others say. Properties that sit below or at the base flood level determined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency will see their federal flood insurance rates rise quickly to sky-high levels, Scott contends.

FEMA’s flood insurance program is $23 billion in arrears after borrowing to pay off claims from Katrina and Sandy, in part because current rates don’t reflect the true risk and don’t cover losses adequately, experts say. Most observers expect rates will rise after Congress reauthorizes the program later this year. FEMA will also redraw flood maps next year — a move that’s expected to raise base elevations. That means more properties will be left sitting within the high-rate zone.

But raising a structure above the base level will qualify the property for a lower, affordable rate for some years to come, Scott said, and provide owners a distinct advantage in case of a destructive hurricane strike. Just as they did after Sandy, federal regulations would require that heavily damaged homes be raised as they’re repaired.

Persuading property owners on the Beach that all this makes financial sense, though, might prove a tall order. Some are wary of the prescriptions offered by Scott’s association since its members stand to profit from doing lifting work.

Herb Sosa, a magazine publisher, preservationist and owner of a small 1927 apartment in the heart of the Art Deco district, said his flood-insurance rate has steadily increased for years, most recently about 20 percent in January. And while he believes that insurance hikes and sea rise are imminent threats, he said he would need to see an analysis of the risk to his building by government or an independent group before spending money to raise it.

“I want to hear from a neutral, credible resource before taking my hard-earned pennies and making such a huge investment based on interested companies, as well-intentioned as they may be,” Sosa said.

The city’s roadway-raising project, which envisions rebuilding at least half of Miami Beach streets, could also provide impetus for raising some homes and buildings. In many neighborhoods, streets will sit higher than homes and yards. Storm water that before would drain into the street could now pool on private property. The city plans to create a program where homeowners could, for a fee, connect to the street drainage system. A proposal for such a program is expected to be released this spring.

On a visit to one South Beach street that’s being raised, Eleventh Street, Scott and Ciraldo noted a potential issue. At the intersection of Euclid Avenue, apartment buildings occupying the corners now have lawns, entry doorways and equipment closets sit vulnerably below sidewalk level, with no clear way for rainwater to drain. One building owner had covered crawlspace vents with zinc shields to keep water out.

The observation underscores Scott’s contention that at least some of the onus to adapt will fall on individual property owners, a sentiment echoed in City Hall. Raising structures is “another important tool in our toolbox,” said Susan Torriente, the Beach’s chief resiliency officer.

New kind of preservation

Lifting buildings in historic districts raises myriad other questions. Would it rip the fabric that makes a place historic by radically altering its look, feel and functioning? If only some buildings are raised, would it create a ragged skyline where there is now a mostly consistent scale? How will raised buildings meet the sidewalk to preserve the Beach’s pedestrian allure?

Fields, the Greystone project manager, said the city would have to change its strict criteria for considering what’s historic and judging alterations. For instance, instead of requiring the Greystone’s terrazzo lobby floor to stay at its original, historic elevation, the city’s Historic Preservation Board could allow that lobby to go up with the rest of the building.

“There’s going to be a lot of give and take,” Fields said.

Sosa, the apartment building owner who is a former chair of the preservation board, said the piecemeal raising of buildings would ruin any neighborhood, not just a historic one.

“It just doesn’t work,” said Sosa. “It wouldn’t work for any urban setting.”

But the preservation league’s Ciraldo says the choice may be between preserving the buildings in altered fashion, preferably in accordance with a carefully considered plan, or ending up with nothing at all.

“Over time,” he said, “the historic properties will have to come up.”