Leading land use attorney wants to build luxe home in South-of-Fifth, but historic preservation board not so sure

Stephen and Gerri Helfman propose three-story home with terraces and rooftop pool

Stephen and Gerri Helfman (Credit: WSH Law, Spotlight TV News)
Stephen and Gerri Helfman (Credit: WSH Law, Spotlight TV News)

Nine months after plunking down $785,000 for a dilapidated, fire-damaged house in Miami Beach’s South-of-Fifth neighborhood, a prominent land use attorney and his wife want to replace it with a glassy, ultra-modern abode.

Stephen and Gerri Helfman went before the Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board last week seeking permission to demolish a three-bedroom home at 819 Second Street, which was built in 1923 and was designated as a “contributing structure” to the Ocean Beach Historic District in 1995.

The property, which is located one block north of Joe’s Stone Crab between Washington Avenue and Alton Road, has been in a state of disrepair since 2010. What’s more, the city’s building official condemned the structure in 2015 following a fire that caused extensive damage, according to city documents filed with the Helfmans’ application.

In its place, the Helfmans want to build a three-story house featuring overhanging balconies, a large terrace that runs the length of the building on the third floor and a rooftop pool. The new structure’s primary finish materials will consist of concrete, painted stucco, louvers and a lot of glass, according to a Nov. 8 letter of intent that the zoning attorney submitted to the historic preservation office.

However, during a contentious hearing that lasted more than three hours, the board demanded the Helfmans tweak the design so that it pays more homage to the historic district. “I was disappointed we didn’t get an approval on the first try,” Stephen Helfman told The Real Deal in a recent phone interview. “We are going to make adjustments and I am confident [the historic preservation board] will approve it.”

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During the meeting, an exasperated Helfman pleaded with board members to give him clear cut direction about what they didn’t like about his proposal. “I spoke to each one of you and everybody had a different idea about what they want,” he said. “I have to guess as to what will make five people happy. I can’t do that. I have an application and I would like to have it voted on please.”

Board member Nancy Liebman complained about the new building’s facade color and its height. “The color doesn’t by any [stretch of the] imagination fit into that street,” Leibman said. “If that building was built somewhere in Miami Beach that wasn’t a historic district and not replacing a contributing structure, it might work.” She also said the rooftop terrace looked like a fourth floor, giving the impression the new home is taller than it is.

Her colleague Jack Finglass expressed skepticism that the existing home had to be completely demolished. “I am not assuming the building is going to go,” he said. “It has been a very heavy-handed approach that it must go.”

Finglass also criticized the design as being too vanilla. “It does look like it could be anywhere,” he said. “It doesn’t give homage to Miami Beach or anything that is around it. I also think the new building doesn’t particularly respect the design and scale of historic district in any way.”

In his follow-up interview with TRD, Helfman said he left the hearing believing he now understands the changes the board members are seeking. “At the ground level, we are going to put in more glass openings,” he said. “My sense is that they are looking for something that is more visible from the street. I am anxious to build it.”

According to a hardship statement the Helfmans submitted, they bought the 1923 house from Bank of New York on May 24, 2017 for $785,000 and they will lose in excess of $1 million if they cannot redevelop the property.

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