Preservation board denies protection to Bal Harbour church

Renderings of upgrades to Bal Harbour Shops
Renderings of planned upgrades to Bal Harbour Shops (Credit: Zyscovich Architects and Whitman Family Development)

After a contentious hearing that lasted more than three hours, the Miami-Dade County historic preservation board on Thursday voted 6-3 against protecting Bal Harbour’s Church by the Sea from the wrecking ball.

A majority of the board members were reluctant to cast aside Miami-Dade historic preservation chief Kathleen Kauffman’s conclusion that the building, which is the oldest structure in Bal Harbour, did not meet strict special preservation criteria that applies to churches.

The congregational church has an agreement to sell its property to the Whitman family, owners of the neighboring Bal Harbour Shops. Over the last couple of weeks, the congregation moved out without first finding a new home and removed the building’s stained glass windows even though demolition permits had not yet been obtained.

During the hearing, board member Enid Pinkney made a motion to direct staff to begin the process of designating the church a historic structure despite Assistant County Attorney Ed Kirtley informing the board that it could not take any action without a favorable recommendation from Kauffman.

“When I came back to Miami in 1953, congregational churches would not let any black people attend,” Pinkney told The Real Deal after the meeting. “Church by the Sea was the exception. Its pastor would preach to us. That is part of Miami’s history.”

Nevertheless, six board members did not feel comfortable going against Kauffman and the congregation. A majority of the church members approved the deal with the Whitman family, who plan to expand the Bal Harbour Shops on the land where Church by the Sea is located.

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“We have to go by the recommendations presented by staff,” said board member Rick Cohen. “If our staff says it doesn’t meet criteria, I don’t think we can go forward.”

However, the sale of Church by the Sea to the Whitman family has divided congregation members. Daniel Torres, a resident and churchgoer who formed Bal Harbour Neighbors Alliance to stop the demolition, pleaded with the board to save the building.

“It is a magnificent piece of architecture that’s been here since Bal Harbour began,” Torres said. “I believe that means something.”

The Whitman family recently attacked the alliance as a front group for Bal Harbour Shop’s competitors Aventura Mall and the Miami Design District, according to the Miami Herald.

Following the hearing, alliance attorney and former state legislator J.C. Planas said the fight is not over. “We disagree with the staff’s interpretation and we are going to look into seeing if the board can redo its motion,” Planas said. “We appeal to the church not demolish anything as of yet.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified and quoted Roger Carlton as a board member. Rick Cohen was the correct board member.