A New York developer vows to proceed with a new Lincoln Road retail project beside a 95-year-old historic church after a lawsuit that sought to derail its construction was dismissed last week.
But the fight may not be over, as an appeal is under consideration.
David Edelstein, principal of TriStar Capital, said he hopes to start construction on a contemporary 15,789-square-foot, two-story tall retail building in 16 weeks on land his company leases from the Miami Beach Community Church at the corner of Drexel Avenue and Lincoln Road.
“It’s a fantastic corner and it’s probably the most heavily foot-trafficked block on Lincoln Road,” Edelstein, developer of the W Hotel, told The Real Deal. In the last two years, Edelstein bought a two-story building at 530 Lincoln Road for $30 million and, along with Aby Rosen’s RFR Holdings, bought the ArtCenter South Florida’s 800 Lincoln Road building for $88.2 million.
But Daniel Ciraldo, historic preservation officer for the Miami Design Preservation League, a Miami Beach-based group that sued the developer and the city of Miami Beach in an effort to stop the project, said his organization is “exploring options for an appeal.”
“We are surprised and upset about the decision,” Ciraldo told TRD.
The Miami Design Preservation League opposes the project, Ciraldo explained, because it will be built on top of a “garden” of a historical church that was built in 1920 by Miami Beach founder Carl Fisher and designed by prominent local architect Walter DeGarmo.
“Children do Easter egg hunts there. There are weddings and sermons in the winter months. It has just been a vital part of Miami Beach’s history for nearly 100 years,” Ciraldo said. “Now it’ll probably be replaced with an Abercrombie & Fitch.”
Edelstein said he doesn’t have a tenant in mind for the future structure that will be designed by Touzet Studios, the same Miami firm that designed the new Apple Store on Lincoln Road. “It’s going to be a gorgeous building,” Edelstein promised, “a flagship property.”
Edelstein insisted that the retail project is a benefit for the historic church and not a detriment. Rent paid to the church will enable the congregation to fund its restoration and maintenance as well as its food pantry and homeless programs. “It will be endowed for the next 100 years,” Edelstein said.
Added Stephen Maher, a Shutts & Bowen attorney representing Miami Beach Community Church: “There is $2.5 million in escrow as a result of this settlement to preserve the sanctuary of the church. Why are they [MDPL] opposing it?”
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Bronwyn Miller’s ruling, made on April 28, and reported by The Next Miami, is the latest twist in a 17-month long saga that began in December 2013 when congregants of the Miami Beach Community Church voted 79-to-9 to approve a long term lease with TriStar. The lease, Edelstein said, is “over 80 years” in length. But he declined to go into further detail except to say that the church has already received $3 million — with $2.5 million of that amount committed to “restoration and repairs.”
In spite of opposition from Miami Design Preservation League, the city of Miami Beach’s Historic Preservation Board unanimously approved the project on May 13, 2014. Three months later, the HPB narrowly rejected a petition from MDPL to rehear the case by a vote of 4 to 3.
A month later — September 5, 2014 — the Miami Design Preservation League appealed the case to the city’s historic preservation special master. MDPL argued that because a $500,000 payment from TriStar to the church was never disclosed to the Historic Preservation Board, it violated Miami Beach law. Although church officials insisted that the $500,000 was a nonrefundable rent payment, Special Master Warren Bittner agreed with MDPL and sent the case back to the Historic Preservsation Boar.
That’s when the church and Tristar sued the city and the Miami Beach City Commission intervened. On March 15, 2015, a settlement agreement was crafted requiring TriStar to shore up the historic church prior to construction of the retail building and to alter its floor plan to minimize the aesthetic impact on the historic church. In exchange, the commission nullified the special master’s ruling.
A month later, MDPL sued the developer and the city. MDPL contended that the commission didn’t have the power to do that and sued to have the settlement overturned. “We feel it’s a clear case that the process that the special master required was circumvented,” Ciraldo said.
Judge Miller disagreed. In her April 28th ruling, Miller stated that the city charter gives the city commission the ultimate say on a project’s approval. City officials are also empowered to mitigate settlements in cases where its citizens are potentially exposed under the Florida Land Use and Environmental Dispute Resolution Act. “…To deprive a municipality of the right to effect a mutually agreeable settlement under FLUEDRA would necessarily expose the municipality to the prospect of incurring mounting legal bills without recourse,” Miller wrote.
Ciraldo contended that the project circumvented the original builder’s true wishes. “Carl Fisher donated that land to the church and he had a deed restriction on it that said [no one] could ever put a [commercial] structure on the [vacant site],” Ciraldo said.
Unfortunately, that deed restriction was eliminated by the 11th Circuit Court in the 1950s at the church’s request, Ciraldo admitted. At the time, a small movie theater was contemplated for the site. “They ended up not doing that,” Ciraldo said.