Miami Beach's Art Deco dominates the skyline on Collins Avenue (photo by Veronica Zaragovia / WLRN )

FL - A battle over the soul of Miami Beach: Will developers destroy or save Art Deco?

Miami Beach is known for its colorful Art Deco buildings. But more and more, only real estate developers are willing to spend the money it takes to preserve them — if they can build a tall, high-end residential tower on the property. This strategy saves at least part of the old buildings but changes the skyline forever.

WLRN's Verónica Zaragovia reports on the simmering tensions over historic preservation in an evolving city — throughout the last century and today.

A conflict over the future of Miami Beach

Cities around the world have landmark buildings, like the Sydney Opera House or the Empire State Building in New York.

Miami Beach doesn’t have just one, but hundreds of Art Deco buildings — so many that they define the look of the city.

This is something LIFE magazine noticed as far back as December of 1947, when it published 12 pages showcasing the glamour of Miami Beach's Art Deco hotels. The spread included an aerial shot of the Raleigh Hotel, at Collins Avenue and 18th Street.

The world-famous hotel has been shuttered since 2017 because of damage from Hurricane Irma. A plan is underway to reopen and save it — by adding a condominium tower near it, close to the beach side.

But preservations worry this will change the city's picturesque, postcard-like skyline.

The push to redevelop the Raleigh and two other historic hotels nearby became the focus of a September 2020 meeting of the Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board.

"This project brings the Raleigh back to its former glory, opening up the cupola, opening the Raleigh pool," said Alfredo J. Gonzalez, an attorney for the real estate development company SHVO, one of the owners of the Raleigh and its two neighboring buildings. "The Richmond and South Seas have an opportunity to have a better development than has been proposed in the past."

Close-up view of the South Seas (left) and Marseilles (center) on Collins Ave. in Miami Beach circa 1969.

The new owners of the Raleigh, the South Seas and Richmond hotels wanted to construct a glass condominium building near it on the property. It was a controversial proposal: to build an angular tower in a city known for its curved lines.

This proposal by a developer to buy a historic but rundown Art Deco building to restore some portion of the original structure and also build a lucrative condo tower alongside it, is happening again and again.

Matias J. Ocner/The Miami HeraldBEFORE: This is an aerial view (from left to right) of The Raleigh, Richmond Hotel and South Seas Hotel near Collins Avenue and 18th Street on July 29, 2022, in Miami Beach. Developer Michael Shvo has a partial demolition of two of the hotels underway.

Like the Faena House next to the Faena Hotel, which used to be the Saxony, on 3201 Collins Ave., or a restoration project underway at the Versailles Hotel, 3425 Collins Ave., which will include a condo tower alongside it. The Setai, at 20th Street and Collins Avenue, already has a 40-story condo tower by the boutique hotel from 1936.

Historic buildings cost a lot to repair, and if a wealthy developer doesn't do it, possibly no one will.

"The purpose of having this [condo] building is to save the Raleigh," said Nancy Liebman, who was a Historic Preservation Board member at the time.

But others who lined up virtually to speak via Zoom during the meeting warned that development like this would destroy what makes Miami Beach special.

"People don’t come here to film big glass towers. They come here to film the historic buildings," said Miami Beach resident and preservationist Herb Sosa. Architect Steven Avdakov, who also lives in the city, put it this way: "It’s not preservation. It's demolition."

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