A quiet South Beach neighborhood tucked away near bustling City Hall and Lincoln Road has become a battleground between preservationists and homeowners who want more freedom over their properties.
Residents of the leafy Palm View neighborhood are divided over a push to repeal the area’s historic designation, which protects the neighborhood’s Mediterranean Revival homes and low-rise apartment buildings from demolition. It also limits property owners’ ability to build more resilient structures, however, and residents say flooding in the area is getting worse.
It’s an issue that has sparked conflict in other historic areas as Miami Beach grapples with the challenges of protecting itself from rising seas while preserving historic neighborhoods. South Florida is expected to see one to two feet of sea level rise by 2060, according to a projection from the Southeast Florida Climate Compact.
In Palm View, a triangular area bounded by Dade Boulevard, Meridian Avenue, 17th Street and Lenox Court, some residents say that being able to build newer, more resilient structures has become increasingly important. The neighborhood, which has been a historic district for two decades, borders the Collins Canal.
“We see development all around us,” said Richard Silverman, a doctor who lives in a Mediterranean Revival home that was built in the 1930s. From the end of his street, Silverman can see the newly renovated Miami Beach Convention Center, which was revamped to meet the latest environmental standards, and other new construction.
“They’re being built for the future,” Silverman said. “We’re sitting ducks in a crumbling museum being told ‘you can’t change anything.'”
The pace of development in the surrounding area is exactly why other neighbors say it’s important for Palm View to preserve its historic architecture.
“We really came to this neighborhood because it was like an oasis,” said Peter Freiberg, who has lived in Palm View with his husband Joe-Tom Easley since 1996. “We liked the architecture here. It just was a very pleasant, relaxed neighborhood.”
Easley said he worries that if his neighbors are able to repeal Palm View’s historic designation, which would require a citywide referendum, it could set a dangerous precedent for other historic districts.
“The stakes are very high and they’re much higher than just Palm View because if this is successful, what is not vulnerable to this sort of thing?” Easley said. “You get a handful of landowners with dollar signs in their eyes and they’re out to cash in at the expense of the neighborhood.”
Palm View became a historic district in 1999 after a group of residents petitioned the City Commission. An evaluation written by the city’s planning department noted that the area was home to ten different architectural styles as well as buildings designed by prominent architects. The most common style is Mediterranean Revival, which is characterized by stucco walls and terra cotta tiled roofs that evoke Italian and Spanish architecture.
“In just a few short blocks, this area represents the whole span of Miami Beach history as well as its evolution of low-scale residential architecture,” the planning department wrote. “It would be difficult to find a neighborhood more worthy of historic designation.”
But around the time the neighborhood was designated historic, the city also instituted more restrictive zoning laws mandating single-family homes in most of Palm View. The combination of the historic designation and the zoning changes disrupted plans some residents had for their property. Rather than saving the neighborhood, they felt, the city was infringing on their property rights.
Historic districts protect buildings from demolition and require property owners to get permission from the city’s Historic Preservation Board for major renovations. While projects are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and the board is supposed to consider the impacts of climate change when making a decision, the historic designation typically sets a higher bar for demolition.
Rita Starr and Ivor Rose bought multiple properties in the neighborhood before the designation and planned to turn them into townhouses. Those plans came to a halt with the down-zoning and historic designation, and Starr said they are now stuck with “old, decaying buildings” that cost a fortune to maintain. The properties border the canal and are susceptible to flooding, she said in an email. They’ve seen “water coming up even through the floors” in some apartments.
Another neighbor, Luz Latorre, bought her home in 1976 and planned to one day build a low-rise apartment building for her extended family. Now, Latorre said, she deals with flooding when it rains, but can’t afford to elevate her small Ranch-style home and can’t knock it down to build something new. She wants to pass the house down to her children but worries that it won’t be worth much when it’s time to sell.
“Hopefully I’ll die in my house, but I want to have an inheritance for my kids,” she said.
Silverman said he was counting on selling his property to pay for retirement. Now he worries that the historic designation and restrictive zoning laws will scare away potential buyers and lower property values. According to county property records, Silverman’s $1.3 million home is now worth roughly $100,000 less than it was 15 years ago.
Jay Levy, a real estate broker who lives in the neighborhood, cited Multiple Listing Service data showing that the last time a property sold in the section of Palm View limited to single-family homes was May 2016. Since then, according to the data, 10 properties have been put up for sale and either haven’t sold or have been taken off the market.
“It frightens off potential purchasers into the neighborhood,” Levy said. “It imposes undue financial and administrative hurdles to do anything to your property.”
Preservationists argue that preserving historic buildings and preparing for sea level rise don’t have to be mutually exclusive, however.
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. One solution proposed by preservationists involves elevating a property’s foundation, which is prohibitively expensive for some homeowners but keeps the building intact.
Daniel Ciraldo, the preservation league’s executive director, said that there are also smaller, less expensive steps property owners can take to stay dry, like raising their heating and air-conditioning systems above flood level.
“I think if we can all work together and really just think for the long-term greater good of the neighborhood, we could come up with a path forward,” he said.
The city has also taken steps to balance historic preservation with preparations for sea level rise.
In 2017, the City Commission added climate change and resiliency to the criteria the Historic Preservation Board has to take into account when it considers proposals. Miami Beach is also in the process of developing resiliency guidelines for historic districts, said Debbie Tackett, the city’s chief of historic preservation.
When these issues came up during recent discussions about whether to make North Beach’s Tatum Waterway a historic district, Tackett explained that many resiliency measures, like flood-proofing buildings or installing impact windows, likely wouldn’t require approval from the Historic Preservation Board. The historic designation also doesn’t necessarily make it harder for property owners to get permission for major renovations, she said, because buildings outside historic districts still have to get approval from a city board.
The City Commission has enlisted consulting firm KCI Technologies to study Palm View and help the city come up with a long-term plan for the neighborhood. The consultants have held two meetings with residents but, as previously reported by the news site RE: Miami Beach, neighbors remain at odds over their vision for the area’s future.
One compromise preservationists might be willing to support, Ciraldo said, would be zoning changes to allow some townhouse development behind single-family homes as long as the homes remain intact. The zoning changes would require approval from the City Commission and possibly voters if they increased density in the area, Tackett said.
But if a compromise can’t be reached and Palm View residents manage to get the area’s historic designation put on the ballot, the disagreements between neighbors could get ugly.
“We’re hoping it does not get on the ballot, but if it does there’s going to be a nasty, disruptive fight within the city,” Freiberg said. “We think we’ll win, but it will not be good for the city and it would certainly be very divisive.”