Opinion: Process Matters… Whether You Think 1208 Asturia Ave Should Be Preserved Or Demolished

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.

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19 thoughts on “Opinion: Process Matters… Whether You Think 1208 Asturia Ave Should Be Preserved Or Demolished

  1. In response to The Biltmore, Douglas Entrance and the Alhambra Water Tower supposedly being “public” properties: whilst that may be true today it certainly was not true when they were slated for demolition.

    The Alhambra Water Tower was privately owned by Consumer Water Company. The City of Coral Gables purchased it in the 1950s after resident outcry, including one young girl who said her “princess lived there” and a little boy that “used the towering structure as “a guide to find his way home.” Children had to rally the City Commission to save the Alhambra Water Tower! Imagine that! That a way, kiddos! I think it’s wonderful you recognized the value in the built environment at such a young age.

    When it comes to the Douglas Entrance, it was owned by a supermarket that planned to demolish it to build a PARKING LOT in the 1960s! A group of ladies that later became The Villagers led the march to save it.

    The Biltmore was the only one that was publicly owned when it was saved.

    So, what do all of these properties have in common? They were all slated for demolition and saved due to resident outcry. Two of the three were privately owned, just like the Pancoast Ranch at 1208 Asturia. Let’s throw in La Palma Hotel.. that was another one that was privately owned when it was saved. The list goes on, and on, and on. My point: the vast majority of historic structures in Coral Gables were and still are privately owned.

  2. To clarify a previous comment about “public” properties, the historic preservation ordinance makes no distinction between private and public properties under review for landmark designation.

  3. IT IS NOT OVER YET!
    Preservation wins. For now.

    PANCOAST PROPERTY UPDATE 6/23:
    From the attorney: “The Court ordered the City ‘show cause why the above styled Petition for Writ of Certiorari should not be granted as prayed.’ The Court temporarily stays the City of Coral Gables’ issuance of a demolition permit, pending the filing of the Response.”

    MOST RECENT ARTICLE RECAPPING THE ISSUE:
    https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/coral-gables/article243737327.html

  4. stop this garbage. the house was purchased as is. not the next monstrosity of a gigantic vila.

  5. My 2 cents- This ongoing unfortunate situation seems avoidable. Coral Gables and all such municipalities could establish or use the existing baseline historical assessment criteria (Style, Age, Architecture, Architect, Location, Village, and other significant traits) and use this criteria on all existing Gables properties. Current owners of such historically qualifying homes can be given the “Option” to take the historical designation and benefits & responsibilities or not, but future sales would have the historical designation. This will make it clear to realtors and prospective buyers of what they are responsible for and getting into. Once a sale has been made the horse may have already left the barn – leaving the City, neighbors, realtors and specially the buyers in a pickle. This upfront historical designation will ensure that buyers are aware and are a good fit for the loving care of such a historically significant property and actually take pride in its future.

    I am not sure of all the legal ramifications, but it may be worth exploring upfront historical designations as opposed to a step in a construction/demo permit process.

    Thanks

  6. Sadly, history repeats again.
    Fauli is back with the concrete termites, destroy the architectural history of the city, for their financial gains.
    No surprise, sickening.

  7. “What do The Biltmore, Douglas Entrance and the Alhambra Water Tower have in common?”

    They were *public* properties.

  8. Do not demolish. Political connectivity or wealth of owners should not be a factor.

  9. Shame on the city of Coral Gables, instead of destroying a piece of history why not enhance the beauty of the Art Deco design, which is such a big part of Miami’s architectural history. I am sure the Valls have enough money to hire a good architect that can do just that. Instead what are they going to build? I hope is not another horrific modern white box with gray roof.

  10. Money buys power and influence and it seems that is exactly what happened here. Money buys Power and Power corrupts. Just take a look at the new Coral Gables skyline along US1. Mr. Merrick is tossing and turning in his grave. I remember the term, NIMBY (not in my backyard), this is that as long it does not affect me or my family, it is someone else’s problem. It is everyone’s problem.

    There are better ways of preserving the historical landscape than tearing it down.

    In Washington DC in the 80’s, many buildings were preserved by gutting them to modernize while keeping the historical facade. Today you walk around the many streets and you see the beauty of this type of preservation, while enjoying the modern comforts of the day.

    Keep the City Beautiful beautiful

  11. This is a Russell Pancoast building, which is to say, a seminal architectural structure, and a work of art. Ridiculous to think it is just ‘A ranch house”. It needs to be preserved, either as a city-owned structure like Merrick House, or in private hands subject to the Historic Building rules of structural preservation.
    – Dr. Paul Posnak

  12. Home is not historic case closed. Due process has been more than had. The Preservation board and nosy neighbors such as your client are ruining Coral Gables. Every home in Coral Gables is NOT historic. The Board has even attempted to make trees historic. I speak for the majority of CG residents that are sick to death of this topic! Ramon Pacheco will create a masterful home that will add to the value of our majestic city.

  13. I am a former member of the Coral Gables Historic Preservation Board having served for eight years, one of those years as Chairperson. I own my home which is in an historic district. Here is some factual information about the historic designation ordinance. 1. Not every 50+ year old house/building can or will be designated as historic. 2. The subjective terms “cute, pretty, plain and/or ugly are not addressed in the ordinance. 3. The Coral Gables Historic Preservation Ordinance adheres to Federal Standard and Guidelines generated by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. (i.e., we didn’t just make up the rules ourselves.) The local ordinance may be stronger but not not weaker than the Federal standard. 4. Our ordinance under the Coral Gables Zoning Code states in Section 3-1104 C3, “…If after a public hearing the Board finds that the proposed local historic landmark or local historic district meets the criteria set forth in Sec. 3-1103, it SHALL (my emphasis) designate the property.”
    I was present when the designation report was presented to this Board. It was exhaustive. It would have been close to impossible for a conscientious board member to not agree that the property in question met the criteria for designation. If they felt it did not meet said criteria it would have behooved them to present their well founded reasons for such disagreement. I heard no such reasons. I heard no such reasons from the “witnesses” who spoke against the designations.
    As a member of that Board in the past, I do not remember that to recuse ones self from voting on an issue then conferred the right, privilege and/or opportunity to lobby the remaining, voting members of the Board.
    Further, because the buyer/owner of a property may be considered by some as an important or influential or high profile, etc., etc. person does not mean that there is another set of standards applied to their situation.
    Finally, I also recall the statement, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” In this case not only was there a clear statement in the real estate flyers regarding the possible historicity of the property, it falls on the realtor to be mindful of this probability when dealing with older homes in Coral Gables.

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