Community Voices, Politics

Opinion: Move a Historic Grove Mansion? Why not?

Anthony Parrish is a current member of the City of Miami Planning Zoning & Appeals Board and past chair of the Historic & Environmental Preservation Board. He has developed new Bahamian-styled housing and commercial buildings in Little Bahamas for several decades. He wrote this opinion piece for the Spotlight.

In September, Miamians learned that multi-billionaire Ken Griffin had purchased the four-acre bayfront property on Brickell Ave. near Alice Wainwright Park formerly owned by Miami philanthropist Adrienne Arsht. Included in the sale was Villa Serena, the 1913 mansion built for three-time presidential candidate and orator William Jennings Bryan. The December 18 Miami Herald article about the possibility that Griffin is exploring the possibility of relocating Villa Serena to a new location was a shock, to say the least. Two of Miami’s most respected preservationists, Dr. Paul George and Architect Richard Heisenbottle, were incredulous.

But should they—and we—be shocked? Let’s try to look at this from a couple of different angles.

First, it appears that Griffin is willing and more than able to spend whatever it takes to move the two-story structure, in two or more vertical parts, to a new site to be determined, where, hopefully, he would also pay for restoration of any and all damage caused by the move. Further, he is willing to donate the structure to a public (or not for profit) entity so that it can be “open to the public” for viewing, inside and out.

Second, where Villa Serena now stands, it is not in an historic district but stands alone. This is important because in most cases it is only in historic districts that neighbors, other than immediately abutting property owners, have standing to protest demolition or alteration of “contributing structures.” The general public usually gains nothing from City historic designation of a private home except the right to peer through a fence and look at the building.

Third, historic designation by the City of Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board (HEPB) generally designates only the exterior of structures, although what took place inside any building, and who were the previous owners, often does play a significant part in the designation. This is the case most notably and recently with the Coconut Grove Playhouse.

Fourth, national historic designation and placement on the list of historic places is honorific and gives no added protections against demolition or alteration, other than the dishonor of losing that designation.

With the above in mind, let’s now look at Villa Serena with a practical and, because Villa Serena is in Miami, jaundiced eye when it comes to historic preservation.

Demolition, alteration or removal of Villa Serena will undoubtedly come before HEPB. HEPB’s decision, if a denial, is appealable by the owner to the City Commission. The Commission’s decision, if overriding HEPB, is subject to veto by the Mayor. Anyone calling themselves a preservationist should not discount the politics involved.

The general voting public, if they care at all about a structure they have never seen or been allowed to view except at a distance, might well prefer Villa Serena be relocated and opened to public viewing, much like Vizcaya. Of course, there would be much discussion of where the new location might be, who would pay for that land, and which entity would be on the hook for maintenance and administration.

While preserving structures where originally located is always preferred by preservationists, it sometimes is impractical, as when the land value significantly exceeds the value of the structure. However, HEPB is usually very lenient in allowing additions and modifications to accommodate owners willing to save historic properties, especially where, as with Villa Serena, the magnificent bayfront location and views undoubtedly played a crucial part in William Jennings Bryan selecting that location to build his home.

There is nothing in Chapter 23 (the Historic Preservation part of Miami’s Code) to force an owner of an historically designated property to open any or all of the home for viewing by the general public, although Sec 23-11 can provide, for qualifying properties meeting all conditions, a significant real estate tax exemption if the owner allows public access to 65% of the property at least 52 days per year. To his credit, Griffin appears to be offering an alternative to demolition if the house is moved, which under Chapter 23 usually revokes historic designation but not if the house, including its past history, allows HEPB to continue approving its designation.

In sum, if Griffin is seriously considering the relocation (or demolition) of Villa Serena, it’s likely he will be able to do so, no matter what the HEPB decides. Furthermore, some members of the City Commission are already on record that preserving individual “private property rights” trumps the constitutional balancing of “community rights” that is the basis of all zoning law.

Anthony Parrish, a frequent contributor to the Spotlight, is a current member of the City of Miami Planning Zoning & Appeals Board and former chair of the Historic & Environmental Preservation Board.

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