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Oct 22nd
Painting Over History PDF Print E-mail
Written by Francisco Alvarado, BT Contributor   
October 2019

Miami’s city commission ignores MiMo Historic District guidelines

FMiMo_1or nearly two years, the vibrant creations of Miami artist Claudia Labianca have adorned the exterior of Organic Bites restaurant and Karma Carwash in the city’s Upper Eastside. A painting of a blue-haired woman on a bicycle, along with an image of the Organic Bites logo, extends across the top of the restaurant’s façade on NE 70th Street and Biscayne Boulevard.

In the outdoor car wash area, which shares the same lot as Organic Bites, there’s another mural featuring the same woman and her bicycle. And a third wall is decorated with two ladies festooned with tattoos and sporting bandanas over their faces.

Despite the murals’ ornate beauty, the artwork represents the latest sign of friction between commercial development and preservation efforts in the MiMo Biscayne Boulevard Historic District. They also attest to the harsh difficulties community activists face in establishing and maintaining historically significant centers of commerce.

Amid the controversy surrounding the unauthorized painting of an enormous Puerto Rican flag on the building that houses La Placita, a restaurant three blocks away, the city’s Environmental and Historic Preservation Board, responding to complaints, ruled that the murals at Organic Bites and Karma Carwash were painted without board approval and violated MiMo Historic District guidelines. The HEP Board staff recommended and board members agreed that Labianca’s murals should be painted over.

MiMo_2Cecilia Renes, owner of Organic Bites, and her landlord, Todd Leoni, appealed the HEP Board’s decision to the Miami City Commission, which voted to overturn the ruling and allow the art installations to remain on the buildings -- despite a ban on murals in the MiMo District.

“The murals, both at the Organic Bites restaurant and at La Placita, were painted without permission,” seethes Caroline Defreze, an Upper Eastside homeowner who lives across from the Puerto Rican restaurant. “Both entities have found ways to cheat the system, and both have been rewarded for doing so.”

A former community liaison official with the City of Miami Beach, Defreze for the past year has been a consultant for the Miami Design Preservation League, a non-profit organization that fights to save architecturally significant buildings and historic neighborhoods, primarily in the island city.

“The city commission is not the mural police,” Defreze adds. “City leaders have undermined the dedicated work that professionals, historians, and preservationists have put into creating a MiMo destination in the Upper Eastside for over ten years.”

Restaurant owner Renes did not respond to phone and e-mail messages seeking comment. Leoni argues that the mural ban doesn’t make sense because art installations help attract people to the MiMo District.

“I think murals add character to the neighborhood,” Leoni says. “It’s the preservation board and the MiMo Biscayne Association that don’t like them. They are hard to work with.”

The MiMo Biscayne Association is a group of property owners, business operators, and local residents who aim to enhance the historic district, which stretches along both sides of Biscayne Boulevard from 50th Street to 77th Street. Association president Alisa Cepeda says things are running smoothly in the MiMo District. “Almost all of the area property/business owners, except for a select few, comply with the district’s guidelines without issue,” she writes in an e-mail, declining further comment. The association also recently petitioned Miami-Dade Circuit Court to reverse the city commission’s approval of the Organic Bites murals.

MiMo_3Nancy Liebman, who formerly served as president of the MiMo Biscayne Association and as a Miami Beach city commissioner, played a central role in developing and protecting the Beach’s historic Art Deco District. She says Miami city elected officials are ignoring the intent of the strict development guidelines approved more than a decade ago to maintain the retro, mid-20th-century character of the MiMo District.

“After all these years, they don’t get it,” Liebman says. “If you are going to have a historic district with guidelines, you don’t just cut them out or plow through them the first chance you get.”

There are not many commercial districts in Miami-Dade that have historic designation. According to Sarah Cody, the county’s historic preservation chief, the Cauley Square Historic District near the Redland is the only such designated district in the unincorporated area. “It’s an old railroad area, and they have an historic train car there and a bunch of wood-framed cottages that are used as artists’ shops and a restaurant,” Cody says. She notes that Homestead and Coral Gables have designated portions of their respective downtown areas as historic.

Miami-Dade’s largest commercial historic area is Miami Beach’s Art Deco Historic District, which includes Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue, Washington Avenue, and Lincoln Road. In recent years, Ocean Terrace, in the city’s North Beach area, was designated a commercial historic district to preserve Art Deco buildings that are now part of a major mixed-use redevelopment project by builders Alex Blavatnik and Sandor Scher.

The Art Deco preservation movement started because residents and activists in Miami Beach understood the value in having historic neighborhoods, Liebman explains.

“We elected a few people to the Miami Beach City Commission who got it,” she says. “Owners knew that their properties would be designated historic and were afraid they wouldn’t be able to use their buildings in a viable way.”

Daniel Ciraldo, executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League, says the Art Deco preservation movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s transformed South Beach into one of the world’s premier tourist destinations.

“Developers and the community worked together on how to make these historic buildings viable and create an impetus for economic development,” Ciraldo says. “One of those ideas was to allow for cafés and restaurants on the ground floor that brought an energy that wasn’t there at the time, and that have encouraged owners to invest in their buildings.”

In 2006 Liebman was recruited by neighborhood activists in the Upper Eastside to help craft development guidelines and historic preservation protections for the mid-20th-century motels and commercial buildings on Biscayne Boulevard. Two years later, then-City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff persuaded his colleagues to approve the regulations and create the MiMo Biscayne Boulevard Historic District, she adds. Today it is the only commercial district in Miami designated historic by the city. (Downtown Miami is on the National Register of Historic Places but doesn’t have local historic protections, says the city’s chief preservation officer, Warren Adams).

In the past decade, developers such as Avra Jain and Michael Comras have bought and remodeled buildings in the MiMo District that are attracting hip restaurants and small retail shops, such as cell phone providers and fashion boutiques. “Some of the renovated buildings are really making MiMo look like a historic district,” Liebman says. “There is nothing else like it in the City of Miami.”

Yet some MiMo landlords like Leoni believe the historic designation of Biscayne Boulevard has made it difficult for owners and investors to maximize the use of their properties. “We don’t have anything that draws people here other than restaurants,” Leoni says. “We need something dynamic but are heavily restricted with what we can do.”

Leoni, who bought his first property in the MiMo District in 1990, grouses that a 35-foot height limit in the MiMo District essentially wiped out owners’ property rights. The city does have a program that allows MiMo District landlords to sell their properties’ “air rights” to other owners of land and buildings in neighborhoods with less stringent zoning regulations. To qualify, landlords must improve and renovate their MiMo buildings or construct new structures that incorporate the distinctive Miami Modern style.

“The city makes it very difficult to get [air rights] and sell them,” Leoni says.

He complains that attracting new tenants is difficult because of the limitations the city enacted. “The old buildings are beautiful,” he says. “The frustration is that we can’t add to them.”

Yet when the city commission overturns the preservation board’s enforcement actions in the MiMo District, that defeats the purpose of the historic guidelines, says Defreze, the Upper Eastside activist.

“City officials are elected to make sure the will of the people is heard,” she says. “If the commissioners want to bypass the community and associations that they serve, it marks a dangerous precedent and, I would imagine, paves the way to many more lawsuits against the city.”

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