By: David Winker
What do the The Biltmore, Douglas Entrance and the Alhambra Water Tower have in common?
They were each slated for demolition at some point, with developers and elected officials arguing that “this isn’t worth saving”… “preservationists are out of control”… “we can’t stand in the way of progress.”
But these iconic historical structures were saved by Coral Gables residents who fought to defend these irreplaceable historic resources.
The saying goes “those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it,” and the fight over historic designation is ever present.
Similar to Miami Minimalism (MIMO) in the Upper East Side, and Art Deco on Miami Beach before that, whether 1208 Asturia Avenue should be historically designated is focused on whether a “new era” of architectural history is worth saving.
Designed in 1936 by renowned architect Russell Pancoast, who introduced Art Deco to Miami with his landmark Bass Museum, the avant-garde design of 1208 Asturia Avenue was without precedent at the time. The home’s rich Art Deco elements and innovative design received national press coverage for introducing a new architectural form to Coral Gables.
The contrary view was expressed by Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli, who dismissively described it as a “ranch style house” in an email he sent to the City Historic Board members and Commissioners lobbying them to vote against historic designation.
Whether you think 1208 Asturia is worthy of historic designation or should be demolished, what is important is the process that has led us to this point.
The City’s Historical Resource Department issued an exhaustive report outlining why 1208 Asturia easily qualified for designation under three criteria in the City Code and vehemently defended its recommendation at the public hearings.
Lourdes Valls, wife of the founder of the Versailles and La Carreta restaurant chains, who bought the house for her daughter Desiree Valls, argued that she had no idea the house was subject to historic designation. This despite the first line of the listing reading “Take advantage of the opportunity to restore this Art Deco 1937 gem to its original charm. This beautiful home may qualify for historical designation.” Her daughter Desiree, a licensed realtor at Century 21, representing her on the transaction.
The Valls, a wealthy and politically powerful family that has contributed thousands of dollars to the Mayor’s political campaign, brought their architect Ramon Pacheco to the hearing. Architect Pacheco, who did not submit a written report, did not refute the City’s Historical Resource Department three Code-based reasons for historic designation.
Rather than focus on the Code criteria, Architect Pacheco stated his personal distaste for the house and pointed out how difficult it would be to expand the 4 bedroom, 3 bath house.
Notably, he made a passionate argument against historical designation as a whole, and his remarks on the certified transcript are as follows:
You cannot make any house historical. The value has to go up, not go down. Today, in economic reasons that we have today, we have to make the houses to improve the prices, and I know it’s not this case at this time.
Architect Pacheco’s economic arguments against historic designation are not without basis- many argue that it infringes on property rights, impedes new development, and creates an economic hardship on owners.
But the Coral Gables Code provides clear standards regarding historical preservation. These Code provisions are not purely aspirational, they are prescriptive.
And yet, as we saw in this case as the City Commission ultimately denied historical designation despite vehement arguments from City historical staff and clear evidence that the conditions for same were met, these clear and unequivocal directives are increasingly being treated by elected officials as lofty ambitions that stand in the way of progress.
Much to the chagrin of constituents, the mandated policies and procedures to protect the character of Gables neighborhoods and provide community members a way to meaningfully engage in the historic designation process are being flouted by the very politicians they rely on to represent their interests.
And this willingness to ignore the City Code seems to increase when a politically connected owner, such as the Valls, is involved.
In this dysfunctional dynamic, those with greater access to power get to sidestep the rules that apply to everyone else, while the communities’ trust in the commitment of elected leaders to uphold the law erodes. This is the definition of cronyism.
But the story is not over yet. The neighboring property owner Vicky Cerdas has until Thursday June 25 under the City Code to appeal the decision of the City Commission.
But the City is vehement that regardless of her appeal, the Building Department is going to give the Valls a permit to demolish 1208 Asturia on Tuesday June 23 unless she can get a judge to order the City to hold off on demolition on Monday.
It is a seemingly impossible task, but I am proud to be representing her in this race to the courthouse and we are doing the best we can to show that this entire process has been marred by procedural irregularities that resulted in a contrary to due process and the City Code.