To Save Miami’s Historic Church Building, Developer Would Put Rooftop Garage

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The entrance to the First Church of Christ Scientist located on Biscayne Boulevard. The church is considered one of Miami’s finest buildings, but developers are proposing changes to the property that don’t know how to best utilize the underutilized space.

NICK SWYTER

MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The former Christian Science Church on Biscayne Boulevard, a neoclassical masterpiece by an august boom-era architect that many consider one of Miami’s finest buildings, is in pristine condition. Yet it is isolated, unused and threatened with demolition.

Now a developer has come up with an unusual proposal for the Biscayne and 19th Street site that has curators tied in knots.

The good news: The developer, Fifteen Group, would retain the 1925 First Church of Christ Scientist, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, renovate it inside and out, retain nearly all of its original architectural details, origin and would convert its splendid dome. retail sanctuary. The group would also apply for a local historic designation, meaning the building would be legally protected in perpetuity.

The unequivocal news: to do this, the developer is also proposing to sink columns through the old church, but not the sanctuary, to support a large glass-covered car park and a swimming pool terrace that would be suspended above. . The garage would be attached to a rounded residential tower that would rise on a strip of land beside and partially above the historic building.

Since the church building takes up most of the property, there is no other way to accommodate the 478 parking spaces needed to make the project work, the developer’s architects said.

When architects ADD Inc./Stantec and preservation specialist Richard Heisenbottle presented the plan to the Miami Historic Preservation Board last week, he split the panel down the middle, with some members appearing to have choked on their corn flakes.

It was not so much the concept, which the board narrowly and tentatively approved after failing to agree on stronger ratification, but the size and positioning of the garage that some conservatives on the dais and in the audience had difficulty swallowing.

As the Curbed Miami website put it, in architectural renderings, which usually depict a plan at its best, the seven-story garage appears to “crush” the old church, which is the equivalent of three stories with its grand entrance staircase and portico and six soaring Ionic columns.

“It reminds me of Carmen Miranda, who was a pretty girl, but she had this big hat with fruit on it, and I would forget she was a pretty girl,” board member Hugh Ryan said in reference to the middle of the 20th. Brazilian singer of the century, drawing roars of laughter from the public concerned about the preservation of Miami’s City Hall.

And yet, the project may be the best hope for preserving and resurrecting the church building, considered one of the best designed by prominent Miami architect August Geiger. In the 1920s and 1930s, Geiger, who was the favorite architect of Miami Beach developer Carl Fisher and the official architect of the Dade County School Board, not only collaborated on the Dade County Courthouse, but also designed at least half a dozen other significant local buildings which are on the National Register – a remarkable record for any architect.

“Geiger was amazing,” Heisenbottle told the preservation board.

The redevelopment plan is the result of an unusual legal circumstance.

The inclusion of the church in the national registry does not confer any legal protection. But in the 1980s, the Miami City Commission — which then made preservation decisions that are now made by the preservation board — rejected the historic designation after the Christian Science church objected. .

Because that rejection was a final decision and not appealed, Assistant City Attorney Rafael Suarez-Rivas wrote in a memo, that means the city cannot designate it now without the owner’s consent – which is not required for historic designation under normal circumstances. And it probably doesn’t matter legally that the church, which sold the building in 2013 to another investment group, no longer owns it, Suarez-Rivas wrote.

The new owners, who bought the building late last year from the investment group, are not only keen on the idea of ​​preserving it, but have gone to the city with a proposal to have it designated as historic , as long as the Preservation Board approves a compromise along the lines of what they presented last week.

The developer’s architects told the board that they sketched many different designs and met several times with planners before defining their current proposal as the best possible version. City Preservation Officer Megan Schmitt recommended that council approve the plan.

According to their plan, the garage is raised above the roof of the church building and set back 16 feet from the front to create a clear separation between the two, they said. The garage would be sheathed in translucent glass to give it a light look and conceal its interior.

“We’re trying to strike a balance here,” ADD Inc. Miami director Jonathan Cardello told the board.

Cardello and Heisenbottle said the tight land constraints left them with no other good alternative to simply demolishing the historic building – which they said the developers did not want to do as they believed maintaining the old church would greatly increase the value and appeal of their project. The developers say a grocery store they won’t identify is interested in the space, even though there’s a new Publix a block away, suggesting it could be a Trader Joe’s.

To accommodate the 46-story tower, the developer would demolish the former Christian Science Reading Room next door, a later structure that is not architecturally significant, and use surface parking at the rear. The footprint of the tower would be too narrow to accommodate a parking deck, they say.

The developer has no room to expand as a relatively new mixed-use complex directly to the south fills the rest of the block.

The script left conservatives in a dilemma.

“We’re stuck in a tough spot,” said Daniel Ciraldo, preservation manager for the Miami Design Preservation League. “I don’t really know what else could be done.”

It was clear from the hearing that, had the building been designated historic previously, the project would likely not pass council’s scrutiny in its current form. Although most council members were receptive to the idea of ​​combining old and new, several said the garage appeared to overwhelm the historic building, damaging its architectural integrity – an essential standard in historic preservation.

“This garage has a huge impact on the integrity of a building that everyone knows and is super qualified for a historic designation,” board member Jorge Kuperman, an architect, told Cardello. the applause of the audience. “It’s a big effort, but you can do better. When you look up, it’s a garage above the church. It’s not true.”

Kuperman and others said they might be willing to take on the project if the size of the garage was reduced and the new structure moved further away from the edges of the historic building to lessen its impact. They also requested additional renderings showing what the combination of the church building and garage would look like from a pedestrian’s perspective.

After a motion to move forward with the plan failed on a 4-4 vote, the board then voted 5-3 to ask the developer to come back with a revised plan for reconsideration. Cardello said he would modify the design, but also warned that he was unlikely to return with a drastically different scheme.

Some other local buildings designed by architect August Geiger:

The Alamo (original Jackson Hospital), Miami

Chase Federal (Banana Republic store), Lincoln Road Mall, Miami Beach

Home of Miami Beach Developer Carl Fisher, Miami Beach

Villa Serena, home of William Jennings Bryan near Vizcaya, Miami

Miami Women’s Club

Hindu Temple House, Spring Garden, Miami

Shenandoah Middle School and Coral Way Elementary School, Miami

This story was originally published February 10, 2015 6:39 p.m.

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