Historian Paul George gives us some history while activist Bill Fuller, who is in the middle of restoring the Tower Hotel, talks about bringing the hotel back to its early splendor when it was built in the 1920s.
Jose Fernandez remembers holding his grandmother's hand a half century ago as they crossed the Flagler Street bridge from his East Little Havana neighborhood to shop in downtown Miami, then a vibrant shopping area.
A lot has happened since. Downtown Miami is not the vibrant shopping destination it once was and many Little Havana buildings some of which date back to the Great Depression have fallen on hard times.
Now, spurred by memories of more prosperous times, Fernandez is on a mission to preserve the historic character of his childhood neighborhood.
He's helping organize a grassroots movement to persuade Miami city officials, planners and property owners to create a historic district for East Little Havana, similar to the Art Deco district in South Beach. The district could be bounded by Southwest Eighth Street, Northwest Seventh Street and West Fourth and 17th avenues. A historic designation could prevent property owners from demolishing many neglected buildings and bungalows. Instead, preservationists want investors to restore and maintain buildings with facades and the architectural details that give East Little Havana its character.
During the recent real estate boom, developers demolished several buildings of historic value to assemble land for condo projects, some of which were never built. The vacant half block on Southwest Eight Street and 12th Avenue once planned for a mixed-use project and now the future home of a CVS pharmacy is an example of how development can corrode the character of the neighborhood in the absence of historic preservation laws, activists say.
Bank Project Targeted
The grassroots group is fighting a rezoning application aimed at demolishing a vacant 82-year-old building to make way for a TD Bank. Activist Corinna Moebius recently launched an online petition supporting the preservation of the property at 1204 SW Eighth St.
"Little by little, you could easily replace the whole area," said Fernandez, one of the area's largest property owners.
Attorney Ines Marrero-Priegues, who represents the owner of the property facing rezoning, said she was "flabbergasted" at the activists' efforts to save a property that has no apparent historic value.
"Just because a building is old doesn't mean it is historic," she said.
She said her client's property only needs an administrative approval to proceed with demolition. Last week, she successfully asked the city to rezone an adjacent two-story home to accommodate the bank's drive-through facility.
Marrero-Priegues said she supports preserving "beautiful historic properties" but trying to save a building with no historic value is a "disservice to the preservation effort."
"Some people use historic preservation as a way to stop development," said Marrero-Priegues, a Holland & Knight partner.
TD Bank spokeswoman Judith Rusk said the bank works closely with local official to make sure its branches fit with the character of a neighborhood.
TD Bank received approval from the Florida State Historic Preservation Office to develop the branch, she added.
"The SHPO determined that while the buildings in question do not have historical significance, it did request that we make pictorial documentation of the inside and outside of the buildings prior to demolition, and we are committed to doing that."
A Key Setback
Until two years ago, the Latin character of Eighth Street was protected by the Latin Quarter Overlay, which dictated the type of roof tiles and architectural design new buildings had to follow. For example, McDonald's at Southwest Eighth Street and 14th Avenue was built 27 years ago with a Spanish-style barrel tile roof, arcades and other elements to fit the Latin character.
The overlay went away when the city adopted a new zoning code, Miami 21, in 2010.
Now, Jose Montes, who owns that McDonald's, plans to demolish it next month. A more generic McDonald's would open in October, he said.
Montes built the Hispanic-looking building following the city's vision to turn that portion of Eight Street into a Latin Quarter, just as New Orleans has the French Quarter. But the plan never materialized, and he ended up with a "highly-inefficient" store, he said.
Now, it's time to build an "efficient, beautiful and contemporary" McDonald's with a double-lane drive through, he added.
He won't preserve any of the Latin character of the existing building; the new code doesn't require him to do so. He said a building built across the street from his store has nothing that resembles Hispanic architecture. And he pointed out at other examples.
"The brand new Marlins Stadium is in the heart of Little Havana and what does that have of Hispanic architecture?"
Activist Bill Fuller, co-founder of the Little Havana Merchant Alliance, isn't happy with Montes' plan.
"Now, we can have all of these major companies come in, demolish and build whatever they want, and we would lose the character very quickly," Fuller said.
South Beach Experience
Fernandez knows preserving his childhood neighborhood is a big task that won't happen overnight. He learned that in the 1980s, when he was part of a movement in Miami Beach to create the South Beach historic district. It took preservationists nearly a decade to accomplish that goal. At the time, he was part of a group of investors buying and restoring low-rise multifamily buildings. Other investors, like Tony Goldman, bought and restored hotels and commercial properties.
"During the years that I worked on the beach, it was very satisfying to see the evolution of the area," Fernandez said. "I remember walking on Lincoln Road when it was empty and Ocean Drive when it was awful and people wanted to stay away from it. And look at it now."
The nearly year-old group is following the same steps South Beach activists took more than two decades ago.
"They are asking for something that is realistic," said Miami attorney Neisen Kasdin, a former Miami Beach mayor. "The cornerstone of the revitalization of South Beach was the preservation and recognition of the historic architecture and its uniqueness."
South Beach is now an international tourist destination, and East Little Havana could be one too, said Fuller, who together with partner Martin Pinilla II is one of East Little Havana's largest property owners.
The neighborhood has become more of a tourist attraction with buses each day dropping hundreds of visitors off on Eighth Street, also known as Calle Ocho and the area's main commercial road.
Last year, 19.6 percent of visitors to Miami-Dade County visited Little Havana, according to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. Less than 5 percent of Miami-Dade tourists visited Little Havana in 2002, according to the tourism agency.
Fuller and Pinilla, founders of Miami-based Barlington Group, are re-adapting older properties for new commercial uses. Last year, they bought an 87-year-old, 17,000-square-foot building at 982 SW Eight St. The newly restored retail space houses a Goodwill store. While a Goodwill outlet may not attract tourists, the duo maintained the character of the building, helping preserve the vintage feel of the area.
"We didn't have to demolish the property or make special accommodations," Fuller said. "On the contrary, we maintained the character that existed there for the last 80 years."
Barlington has also adopted other older spaces into art galleries and shops along Calle Ocho.
But the partners' largest contribution has yet to come. In May, they acquired the 92-year-old Tower Hotel. The 50-room hotel was being rented to lower-income residents on a weekly basis. They plan to invest more than $1 million to restore the building, construct a pool, and add restaurant and meeting space.
Fuller says the preservationist movement has gained traction because longtime owners of commercial properties are finally ready to sell. That was the case of the Tower Hotel, which hadn't changed hands in 60 years, and the Goodwill property, which hadn't sold in 40 years, he said.
"The problem here is that many owners owned these buildings for many decades and the properties have severe deferred maintenance," Fuller said.
New investors would most likely focus on preserving buildings, rather than tearing them down, because zoning codes would limit the size of replacement structures.
"Little Havana in general is very dense neighborhood," Fuller said. "So a lot of times, when you demolish these properties you are losing a lot of building. So it makes financial sense to restore them."
That's how Fernandez is pitching preservation to investors and developers seeking to enter the East Little Havana market.
While Fernandez seeks to preserve multifamily buildings and Fuller focuses on restoring commercial buildings, Tony Garcia is leading an effort to preserve bungalow-style homes in one of Miami's oldest residential neighborhoods.
Garcia saw many bungalows torn down during the recent real estate boom to make room for two-story apartment buildings. He wants to keep that from happening again as the economy improves and investors turn their attention to areas like East Little Havana that are close to downtown Miami.
Garcia and community activist Karja Hansen are drafting design guidelines and building standards to help investors who want to convert bungalows into apartments while preserving architectural details such as facades and porches.
Fernandez and Fuller are meeting potential investors to share Garcia's preliminary guidelines, said Garcia, co-principal of The Street Plans Collaborative, an urban planning and research-advocacy firm in Miami.
"Many developers that we talked to showed interest," Garcia added. "They just don't know how to make it work from the planning side … and that's when we come in."
Garcia doesn't expect to save every wood-frame house but is targeting groups of bungalows on the same block.
Garcia hopes his guidelines will persuade investors to seek historic designations for properties before re-developing them. Benefits from a historic designation include not having to comply with current parking, setback and other zoning requirements.
"What we are saying is that if you keep what makes a bungalow the bungalow and use the rest of the lot to develop, you only need to include as much parking as you think is feasible for your project," he said. "You have more land to work with."