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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
September 2017

The old bayfront building housing the historic Miami Woman’s Club could be brought back to life -- if it’s not too noisy

TClub_1he brown, boat-tailed grackles watch their insect prey scurrying in the grass. Sometimes the birds swoop down from trees. They don’t seem to fear the white-haired man with sunglasses, beige shorts, and a black-collared Miami Dolphins shirt walking among the trees. But the man isn’t here for birdwatching. He’s here to raise alarm bells about the future of the nearby Miami Woman’s Club, a 91-year-old Mediterranean revival building at 1737 N. Bayshore Dr., which looms over these trees. He’s concerned about the trees too.

The man is Christopher Hodgkins, CEO of Miami Access Tunnel Concessionaire LLC, the company that built the $1 billion PortMiami tunnel. For the past ten years, he’s been a resident of the DoubleTree Grand complex towering next door to the club. A year ago, Hodgkins also founded a neighborhood activist group called Omni Bayshore Citizens Action.

Hodgkins is fighting a developer’s current plans to refurbish the historic Miami Woman’s Club, which include the creation of a rooftop restaurant with an outdoor deck, the placement of chilling towers surrounded by 13-foot walls adjacent to the DoubleTree Grand, the expansion of the club’s paved parking lot, and the removal of 19 trees. Some of those trees, Hodgkins contends, were there before the club broke ground in the early 1920s.

“This is a treasure,” Hodgkins says. “It’s one of the first historically preserved buildings in the City of Miami. It was the leading women of Miami who founded this. We need to pay attention to our historic heritage -- and they don’t.”

By “they,” Hodgkins means the members of City of Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board. In June the HEP Board unanimously approved the redevelopment plans of the Heafey Group, which has a lease of up to 90 years with the non-profit philanthropic club.

However, those plans are now in limbo because Hodgkins appealed the HEP Board’s decision. As a result, the Heafey Group’s plans will now be judged by the Miami City Commission. The commission is tentatively scheduled to hear Hodgkins’ appeal on September 28.

Hodgkins says he dreads the noise that will be generated by the air-conditioning towers and the rooftop restaurant. And he opposes the loss of trees to make room for a private parking lot.

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His activities aren’t appreciated by Linda Joseph, president of the Miami Woman’s Club. She argues that Hodgkins filed his appeal too late to challenge the HEP Board approval. She also notes that the Heafey Group has promised to invest more than $8 million renovating the building in exchange for the right to open two restaurants there. “After all, what good does it do to preserve an historic building, if we can’t share it?” she writes in an e-mail to the BT.

Carmine Zayoun, vice president of the Heafey Group, says his company may invest up to a stunning $30 million redeveloping and fixing the Miami Woman’s Club. As for Hodgkins, Zayoun claims the DoubleTree Grand resident routinely opposes whatever the company tries to do. “Hodgkins is constantly on the attack,” Zayoun says.

Regarding Hodgkins’ worries about noise, Zayoun insists that the rooftop restaurant isn’t a nightclub and will be 80 percent enclosed. In fact, he explains, both proposed restaurants at the Miami Woman’s Club, one of which will occupy the building’s first two floors, are renowned establishments. “They have restaurants all over the world,” he says, declining to name them.

As for trees, Zayoun says his company will replant the trees, not cut them down. “There are some trees that are getting moved around to accommodate the parking,” he says.

But Hodgkins asserts that “removal” is tantamount to a death sentence for ancient trees. “You can’t [replant] a 100-year-old banyan or cypress tree,” he says.

Hodgkins simply doesn’t trust the Heafey Group, a company headed by Canadian developer Pierre Heafey that owns 80,000 square feet of retail space in the DoubleTree Grand. By way of example, Hodgkins notes that Heafey ran the existing 80-space parking lot at the Woman’s Club as a commercial off-street parking operation, and leased the club’s front lawn to a tow company, which used it to store trucks and towed vehicles.

“It looked like a cargo lot in Medley,” Hodgkins recalls, “in front of the historic Woman’s Club.” The front lawn was strewn with debris and trash as well, he adds.

For two years, Hodgkins says, he tried to talk to the Heafey Group about the condition of the lot and the lawn, only to be ignored. “Finally, I wrote them in April,” he tells the BT. “I said, ‘I need to ask your advice, Carmine Zayoun and Pierre Heafey. Everyone is concerned about this. We’re thinking of filing a code violation. You think it might be smart for us to sit down first?’ Ignored.”

So Hodgkins reported the company to the city’s code compliance department. When the club was cited, the parking machines were shut off, the tow trucks were removed, and a cleanup got under way. “They took four truckloads of trash out of here about two months ago,” he says.

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Zayoun says his company thought off-street parking was allowed under the city’s code. When they learned it wasn’t, they moved to rectify the situation. As for the debris, Zayoun says, it came from the building when it was being gutted. Many of the items were historically significant, and were saved. “We found some interesting things,” Zayoun adds.

The Miami Woman’s Club started out as the Married Ladies’ Afternoon Club in 1900. Besides discussing the issues of the day, club members collected books. By 1903, they had more than a thousand books, which attracted the attention of railroad tycoon and developer Henry Flagler. He became a supporter of the club and, in 1909, donated land in downtown Miami for the club to build a headquarters -- but on the condition that it also serve as Miami’s first public library.

By 1923, the club outgrew its downtown address and bought today’s location, a two-acre parcel by the bay. Christened as the Flagler Memorial Library and Woman’s Club, the five-story building was designed by noted architect August Geiger, who also designed the Dade County Courthouse. Completed in 1926, the club would continue to serve as a library until the county built a new main branch at Bayfront Park in the early 1950s. (The main library moved to its current location in the Cultural Arts Center in 1984.)

For decades the club helped guide Miami’s development. Besides starting the city’s, and later the county’s, library system, the Woman’s Club also helped form the Dade County Blood Bank and advocated for schools and parks. In the 1950s, one of the club’s leaders, Margaret Pace, fought to keep eight acres of land just north of the Miami Woman’s Club as parkland. That land is now known as Margaret Pace Park.

But by 1966, the club’s finances were getting so tight that its members decided to lease part of its building to Miami International Fine Arts College, a for-profit institution founded by Sir Edward Porter that, according to Porter’s Miami Herald obituary this past March, “became a force in South Florida’s fashion, film, and interior design industries.” The college would continue to operate at the Miami Woman’s Club until 2006. (Now called Miami International University of Art & Design, the school is located at 1501 Biscayne Blvd.)

Membership at the club, though, continued to fall, from a peak of 900 in the 1920s to approximately 45 today. And while the arts college may have helped the bottom line, some club members claimed that students damaged the building’s interior over the years. Other news accounts faulted the ravages of time and saltwater air.

Whoever or whatever is to blame, the club’s interior and exterior were falling apart by 2005, according to various media reports. In March 2005, a faction of members even tried to sell the club to developer Haim Einhorn for $15 million. The deal was overturned by the rest of the membership three months later.

Then, in the summer of 2009, the members embarked on a $12 million renovation project. The club snagged $3.75 million from the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency to restore its crumbling exterior, an effort that was undertaken by the respected Coral Gables firm RJ Heisenbottle Architects. The interior, meanwhile, was stripped down in preparation for renovation.

The exterior renovations were completed, but the club failed to raise the funds to finish the gutted interior. In 2014, a court ordered the club to pay Beauchamp Construction $650,000 it was owed for work on the building.

Club_4It was around this time that the club’s members sought bids from developers willing to complete renovations. In June 2015, the majority of the membership picked the Heafey Group, although its selection was controversial. Some members preferred the bid of Avra Jain, a developer who renovated the Vagabond Motel on Biscayne Boulevard, the Miami River Inn, and a number of other properties around Miami.

“It’s a fabulous building both inside and out, with a good Miami story,” Jain states in an e-mail to the BT. Jain says she would have built a small parking garage adjacent to the club with maybe a “hotel component” on top if the city were to approve it. As for the existing building, Jain says she would have proposed a restaurant and an event space “with one floor being the renovated Woman’s Club space so they could continue their community work.”

Club member Kathryn Kassner would have preferred an arrangement that would have allowed most of the building to be available for club members and the general public. Instead, only one floor has been reserved for the Miami Woman’s Club membership and events. “Ideally, this building would be restored to its original beauty, but now it’s going to be primarily used for purposes other than club use,” says Kassner, who is president of the Bay Oaks Historic Retirement Residence in Edgewater.

Club president Linda Joseph is confident that the Heafey Group will do a great job. She says, “There will be two world-class restaurants in the building, along with the Miami Woman’s Club, who will maintain their organization in the property as they have since the 1920s.”

Andres Althabe, president of the Biscayne Neighborhoods Association, says his organization, which represents the interests of residents in the Omni and Edgewater areas, is tentatively supportive of the company’s transformation of the Woman’s Club. “There is now new information and based on that new information, we are in favor of this project if the right conditions...are met,” Althabe states in an e-mail to the BT. “The 80 percent coverage of the restaurant roof was critical.”

Hodgkins says he’d like to support the Heafey project, too. But for that to happen, the developers would need to communicate truthfully to the community at large. “I can say this: As the CEO for the PortMiami tunnel, we had a billion dollars’ worth of activity going on, and whenever any neighbor or concerned citizen called us, I got back to them right away,” Hodgkins says. “I have said to them that they need to be transparent with the community. All we have asked for is a community meeting, and they never agreed to have one.”

Zayoun insists that the last thing the Heafey Group wants to do is redevelop the building in a way that would harm the neighborhood, pointing out that he and Pierre Heafey have lived at the Grand part-time for 25 years. “What we want is to see the club rejuvenated,” Zayoun says. “We want to see it brought back to life.”

 

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