Thursday January 24, 2008

The ugly side of historic preservation

Ugly house

Tuesday, we saw a stately, if not exactly iconic, house from 1913 gain historic status, and everybody cheered. Now we have this news: the Miami Beach city commission has declared the eastern half of Alton Road between 8th and 14th streets a Newly Minted Historic District. The above little house is one of a group designed by “prominent” [?] architect Robert A. Little in 1934 which is cited as evidence for the NMHD. These houses (see them all in this pdf) are located between 12th and 14th Streets; the argument for 8th to 12th streets is apparently much weaker.

Now, Alton Road is a busy commercial corridor which serves the residents of South Beach — unlike Washington and Collins, which are much more tourist-oriented. These houses, designed as single-family residences and now all pressed into service as businesses, are clearly a drag on the commercial potential of the immediate neighborhood. With their newly found historic status, this is what they will remain.

In passing the ordinance, one of the commissioners cited a study which found that 88% of the city’s residents considered historic preservation important. Well, of course we do, and Miami Beach has much architecture that deserves protection. But I think we like our preservation to include concessions to common sense. Here is a group of out-of-context buildings that are ill-suited to their surroundings, and are of widely varying aesthetic (and debatable historic) value. Miami Beach boasts many homes from this time period in, you know, residential neighborhoods.

By advocating for historic preservation in all cases and at all times, preservationists appear oblivious to the reality that without tearing down old buildings, the only development possible is on virgin land (hello, UDB). The positives of historical preservation ought to be weighed against its natural negatives — a drag on economic potential of a property, and a contribution to sprawl.

In the case of these particular buildings, the argument against declaring a few of them historical and allowing the rest to be torn down falls particularly flat. Preservationists argue for the need to preserve the “character” of neighborhoods. This is laughable in the case of these particular buildings, which could not be more out of character to the street they find themselves on today. It is in fact much easier to argue that the historic and aesthetic value of the couple of real gems in the group would be heightened if they were surrounded by the more contemporary, and higher-density, buildings the neighborhood needs.

Such is the case with the Coral House, which (the same article notes) is now thankfully in a much better position to be restored and preserved. It’s the case of Dr. Jackson’s Office in Brickell. Both are gems, and both were once surrounded with similar buildings built in a similar time. Would we wish that those neighborhoods were “preserved” as they were thirty years ago? Of course not. Only a packrat saves everything — the rest of us keep a few cherished mementos from the past and toss the rest.

I’m going to close with a dose of libertarian argument, because the Miami Beach commission did not just act like packrats. After all, these properties are not theirs to do with as they wish — they have actual rightful owners. What has actually happened here is that the property rights of these owners have been restricted. It’s of course necessary for society to do this under certain circumstances, but it needs to be kept in mind. Property rights, aesthetics, economics — here we have an act of historical preservation that is almost all downside.

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  1. Allen    Thu Jan 24, 01:26 PM #  

    Good writeup, definitely like the added opinion on this piece and it’s something that you should do more of if possible.

  2. Joe    Thu Jan 24, 01:49 PM #  

    Alesh, a lot of the support for that historic district is coming from the Lenox Avenue homeowners BEHIND the Alton Road houses you speak of. A good number of those Lenox homeowners are organized in opposition to ANY commercial development on the east side of Alton that would build multi-story structures behind their homes, and this historic district is simply a means to that end.

  3. alesh    Thu Jan 24, 02:29 PM #  

    Allen~ I should, I really should.


    You’ll be surprised to hear that my response to that is not “screw them.” They have a legitimate concern, and I actually considered mentioning something about that in the article — I think the new buildings should be no more then two stories tall. They may still bitch and moan about that, but that’s what the city commission is for — to weigh things like that.

  4. Joe    Thu Jan 24, 04:08 PM #  

    Yep, very true.

    My concern with all this (in addition to this particular Commission decision that you’ve highlighted) is that this is the beginning of a city-wide attempt by a relatively small number of vocal homeowners to put some seriously draconian restrictions on much of South Beach with the full assistance of the current Commission.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see an attempt to change the 5AM club closing time to 2AM.

    We’ll know soon, I guess.

  5. dreaming    Thu Jan 24, 08:19 PM #  

    if there were any commercial pressure to expand in this stretch of alton road, it would have happened by now. these little former houses are at their full potential now.

    every inch of alton doesnt have to be a strip mall. farther north on alton are a series of strip malls which are actually fairly rundown. let’s bring those to full potential first before making alton one long store front.

  6. Miami Danny    Fri Jan 25, 09:04 AM #  

    I think that you might have this wrong. I don’t think this historical designation would have had ANY chance of passing without Alton Road property ownwers’ approval. If they approve, then your whole conspiricay theory/property rights argument collapses like a house of cards. I agree with your fundamental principle, that sometimes historic preservationists may have ulterior motives, but I believe that is the exception FAR more than the rule. Additionally, to blame historic preservation for sprawl is both a specious and simplistic argument. Look at the new MiMo Historic District on Biscayne Boulevard. The commercial property owners worked with the neighbors to preserve the character of the neighborhood, and they will also reap tax benefits from the designation. They are also assured, like the property owners on Alton Rd., that hideous developments will not intrude upon their businesses, and that facades will be maintained. So it seems Historic Preservation CAN work for everyone, when everyone is involved in the process.

  7. alesh    Sun Jan 27, 09:52 AM #  


    Another excellent point — why haven’t those houses been torn down thus far? My guess is that they have had de-facto historical status and protection from demolition for quite some time. How else to explain the fact that they’ve remained there even as one high-rise after another fills up just blocks away?

    If you head one block west from Alton, you’ll find a nice little neighborhood, with cafes (ok, a Starbucks) restaurants, and etc. It’s all a little yuppiefied, but something like that I think Alton could use more of. Maybe a 2-story medical building for the doctor’s/dentist’s offices. So on…


    I thought I was being careful to say that there are situations in which historical preservation is the right thing, and I think I agree that Biscayne is a good example. I also think that doing what I’m suggesting — preserving a couple of the best of these buildings and building modern, reasonably-sized (two story?) commercial buildings to replace the rest — would be another example.

    If I understand it correctly, your argument re Alton is that the support for historical preservation indicates that there is no demand for economic development, since the very people whom the development would help are protesting it.

    I think this is wrong for two reasons. First, there are two very distinct groups living on the beach. There are the old-timers living in the houses between Flamingo Park and Alton. These folks have lived there often for decades, are older, more resistant to change, and more politically connected. The second group are the younger apartment/condo dwellers that live in the new high-rises and in apartments east of Flamingo (tho some of the old-timers live in those appts, too). The former group are doing everything they can to put the breaks on development. They are the minority, but with a disproportionate political voice.

    But secondly, even that former group would benefit from economic development if it were done right. I think they’re suffering from a lack of vision, but more from a fear that it will be done wrong — which, from the sight of the row of high-rises that stretch along the island’s southern and western edge, is not unfounded.

    To “blame historic preservation for sprawl” is indeed simplistic, and I would not want to take that argument to its logical extension. But I think you’ll agree that increasing density is key to fighting sprawl, and key to increasing density is to sometimes replace smaller old buildings with bigger new ones. The key is balance, and while I think this particular decision was boneheaded, I think the city and county are basically headed in the right direction.

  8. James MacAvoy    Sun Jan 27, 03:47 PM #  

    I was born in Coral Gables, and have always called it and Miami home. Nobody cares more about historic preservation in 83 yr old Coral Gables, and 112 yr old Miami. But I have some sad news for those of you who think that Historic designation will save anything. And that includes homes and landmarks that have achieved National Historic designation, as well as Historic Districts. I have witnessed examples of both destroyed by local officials who are in the back pocket of developers. These criminal elected officials will always find a loophole and a reason to replace the Historical landmark or homes, and get a fat check deposited into their backpocket by the developer. Money has always and will always be the BOTTOM LINE. This breaks my heart to no end. I have written many articles about this, but I have no clout and the community in general is apathetic! It will continue as long as we have Mayors and Officials in charge and have no roots here or even in this country. I was at the Orange Bowl “Goodbye” event yesterday, January 26,2008, just to see the old girl one more time. It is THE Miami landmark.
    Mayor Diaz is in pure blissfulness that he has brought down another American institution! Unless someone of real moral character steps up to the plate, we are looking at the future of Miami (and my Coral Gables). Sad!

  9. bitching pays...    Sat Feb 2, 07:02 PM #  

    Developer was successful in keeping the historical preservation away from 8th Street north to 11th and Alton. The commercial use intact, the land will be developed to its highest and best use. $$$