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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
June 2019

The battle for the Babylon is over, but the zoning war continues

FBabylon_1ifteen months ago the Miami City Commission shot down a recommendation to make the Babylon, the first multifamily building designed by renowned Miami firm Arquitectonica (and its second project ever), a historically protected building.

As a result, the 37-year-old Babylon, which was once owned by a banker who was sent to prison on racketeering charges, will be demolished sometime before July.

And very soon, that same city commission will decide if the narrow, 15,000-square-foot property at 240 SE 14th St., near Brickell Bay Drive, should receive a massive up-zoning that would allow construction of a 24-story tower -- where only a maximum of 12 stories is now permitted.

In spite of protests from dozens of Brickell residents, and even murmurs of concern from City of Miami planners, the Planning Zoning and Appeals Board (PZAB) supported the up-zoning by a vote of 6-3 at its May 1 meeting. The city commission could vote on Babylon’s future zoning as early as June 13.

A 24-story building would be shorter than some of the towers now located, or slated to be built, in the Brickell neighborhood, including the 70-story, 785-foot-tall Four Seasons tower; the recently completed 82-story, 862-foot Panorama; and the proposed 81 story, 1049-foot skyscraper project known as The Towers by Foster. It would certainly be taller than the faded, six-story Babylon, built in the ziggurat style of a stepped pyramid that, as of deadline, still stands between the 15-story Commodore Bay condo and the 26-story Emerald at Brickell condo.

PZAB member Andres Althabe voted with the majority to recommend the zoning increase. Althabe, who is also president of the Edgewater area’s Biscayne Neighborhood Association, sees the up-zoning as a compromise. The Babylon’s current owner, Francisco Martinez-Celeiro, originally sought zoning that would enable the construction of a tower that’s between 48 and 80 stories, Althabe points out. The PZAB recommendation caps future development rights on the Babylon site at 24 floors.

“Forty-eight floors would have been disproportionate for the area,” Althabe says. “I thought that 24 floors was an adequate transition because there are buildings that are lower [than 24 stories] in that area, and there are some that are much, much higher.”

Babylon_2But nearby Brickell residents feel the PZAB’s decision is trampling on their rights for a walkable neighborhood that will be further burdened with additional traffic generated by the future tower.

That feeling is particularly strong in Point View, a subdivision of condos and co-ops between Brickell Bay Drive, SE 14th Street, SE 15th Road, and Brickell Avenue where the Babylon is located.

“It’s unsustainable to have that type of development when you look at it from a global perspective,” says Eddy Leal, president of Bayshore Place and vice president of the Point View Association. Leal views the PZAB decision as “disappointing.”

Julie Santos, president of the neighboring condo association Emerald at Brickell, says that besides the traffic, she isn’t looking forward to a massive high-rise being built right up against her building. “You have a small parcel, and on this parcel [Martinez-Celeiro] wants to create what cannot be created here. That’s the problem,” she says.

But it isn’t just Brickell residents or Point View homeowners who are uneasy. Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, an architect and urban planner who helped the city create the Miami 21 zoning code, is worried that the Babylon up-zoning will set a new standard and enable property owners to seek greater building rights than what is currently allowed.

“Potentially, it creates a bad precedent,” says Plater-Zyberk, a co-founder of Arquitectonica when the firm designed Babylon 40 years ago.

Andy Parrish, a Coconut Grove developer who was one of the three dissenting votes on the PZAB, says if the city commission backs the up-zoning recommendation, there’s nothing to stop other property owners from asking for similar zoning increases.

“I don’t think it’s the right thing to do because it does mean that once you do it for one, other people are going to ask for the same thing,” Parrish says. “It’s a slippery slope.”

Babylon_3Miami 21 stipulates two ways for landowners and developers to obtain more building rights, and value, for their land. There’s the special area plan, or SAP, method, in which property owners with control of about nine acres of land can submit an application for a master-planned, mixed-use community.

Developers of proposed mega-projects like Magic City Innovation District, Eastside Ridge, and the Miami Produce Center have submitted their plans to the city through the SAP process.

The other way is to seek a zoning change. However, under Miami 21, landowners are more limited on what they can ask for.

“You don’t have abrupt changes across major categories,” Plater-Zyberk explains. “You step up from one category to the next.”

The Babylon property is now zoned T6-8-R, which allows for the construction of an eight-story residential building or a 12-story building if a developer provides what is referred to, in the Miami 21 zoning code, as “public benefits.” Those public benefits can include employing neighborhood residents or paying for road improvements, parks, or affordable housing.

Contending that the T6-8-R designation was a technical mistake regarding the Babylon property, the city’s Planning and Zoning Department suggested changing the zoning to the next category up, which would be T6-12-O, which allows a 12-story mixed-use building (commercial and residential) or up to a 20-story building with public-benefit bonuses.

Since 2014, however, Martinez-Celeiro has been seeking a three-category jump from T6-8-R to T6-48-O zoning, which would allow towers between 48 and 80 stories.

Melissa Tapanes Llahues, a land-use attorney representing Martinez-Celeiro, argues that her client would have had such zoning, like properties immediately north of the Babylon, if it weren’t for “powerful people in the neighborhood” pressuring to keep the Babylon zoned at T6-8. By the May 1 PZAB meeting, Llahues had modified the up-zoning demand to two categories, from T6-8-R to T6-24-B-O, allowing her client to build a mixed-use residential and commercial project up to 24 stories without public benefits or up to 48 stories with public benefits.

Llahues told the PZAB that Martinez-Celeiro would agree to a cap of 24 floors. However, if the city didn’t grant the zoning request, she promised she’d sue the city for harming her client’s property rights under the state’s Burt J. Harris Act. (Llahues did not return a phone call or e-mail from the BT by deadline.)

Plater-Zyberk thinks Llahues was bluffing. “Not allowing something to be up-zoned is not a taking [of property rights], at least not as long as I have understood the [legal] definition,” she says.

Plater-Zyberk also contends that the T6-8-R zoning for the Babylon wasn’t a mistake. “We looked at the whole neighborhood very carefully at the time of the mapping of the code, with many city staff eyes on it,” she insists.

Babylon was actually built during a time when Point View was transitioning from an area of older single-family homes and vacant lots into a realm of soaring multifamily towers.

The Point View subdivision used to be partially submerged by Biscayne Bay until it was dredged by former St. Louis banker Locke T. Highleyman in 1913 and turned into an affluent suburb of the City of Miami. Highleyman built and sold homes at Point View, too, including a mansion at the site where the Commodore Bay Condo now stands. In 1916, the house was sold to cough syrup magnate Aubert Fay, according to an article posted on Miami-History.com.

Thereafter, Highleyman used his same dredging technique to create Palm and Hibiscus islands in Miami Beach.

But by the late 1940s, the large houses and mansions that once served as winter homes for the wealthy were being converted into rooming houses, and real estate developers asked the city for zoning that would enable them to build offices, apartments, condos, and co-ops in the Brickell area.

Starting in 1948, the city began enacting a series of variances that paved the way for such development. The stately homes that once dominated Brickell were knocked down and replaced with condos, offices, and retail plazas.

Within Point View, some mansions were razed for new multifamily buildings, but usually the lots remained vacant for decades. The mansion that once stood on the lot where the Babylon now stands was torn down in 1969, but its neighbor, the old Fay Mansion, managed to survive the demolition spree in its new incarnation as the Commodore Rowing and Sailing Club -- until it, too, was demolished in 1988. The Commodore Bay Tower itself wasn’t built until 1994.

Local historian Paul George says he used to work as a researcher inside the city-owned James Jackson House at 190 SE 12th Terr., just a couple of blocks from the Babylon, during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He remembers the Point View area as a desolate place. “There wasn’t anything,” George says. “It was just a lot of open space.”

Nor was there much building activity at Point View -- that is, until Pacific Developer Corp. hired Arquitectonica in 1978 to build a small condo on the narrow property beside the rowing club.

Now headed by husband-and-wife Bernardo Fort-Brescia and Laurinda Spear, Arquitectonica is headquartered in Miami and renowned for its striking and innovative building designs around the globe. Its local credits include the Atlantis Brickell condominium, with its 37-foot-long “sky court” cube cut within the 20-story block building, the AmericanAirlines Arena, Aventura City Hall, and the Miami Children’s Museum.

But in 1978, Arquitectonica was still an up-and-coming Coral Gables firm. Babylon was its second building, the first being the 6900-square-foot single-family home known as Pink House, on the Miami Shores waterfront, created for Spear’s parents. Even before Babylon was completed in 1982, Progressive Architecture, a respected architecture and design magazine, bestowed an award on the design renderings, which alluded to the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Despite the acclaim accorded to the Babylon’s design, condo sales there floundered. In a November 1983 Miami Herald article, architecture writer Beth Dunlop described the Babylon as “a fine building, with a few flaws (and most of them in the construction, not the design).” Casey Piket, an amateur historian who publishes the Miami-History.com blog, says a friend who once lived in the Babylon described it as a cramped place. “You look down the hallway and it seems like it was closing in on you,” he recalls the friend telling him.

By 1981, Ray Corona, head of the family-owned, South Miami-based Sunshine State Bank, owned the Babylon and Commodore properties. Two years later, he asked the city for a zoning variance that would allow him to “run a sophisticated international bank” on the bottom floors. Following opposition from Point View homeowners, a restrictive covenant was forged that, among other things, allowed the association to have final say on redevelopment of the property, and the office variance was approved.

The bank never opened inside Babylon, and Sunshine State Bank came under increased scrutiny by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation for its lending practices, including transactions related to the Babylon between Ray Corona and Sunshine State Bank, according to a March 1984 Miami Herald article. By May 1986, Sunshine State Bank was declared insolvent and shut down. By June 1987, Corona and his father, Raphael, were sent to federal prison on racketeering charges, after prosecutors proved that the father and son bought Sunshine State Bank in 1978 with $2 million from marijuana smuggler José Antonio Fernandez, also known as La Mentirita (the Little Lie).

Ray Corona was sentenced to 16 years, during which he gave the Drug Enforcement Administration a sworn statement that he’d also laundered money for infamous cocaine smugglers Willie Falcon and Sal Magluta, according to a February 1992 Miami New Times story.

Online records indicate that Martinez-Celeiro, a former Spanish spaghetti western movie star, and his son, Francisco Martinez-Miyashiki, dissolved the building’s condo association in 1999. Further details on the Babylon could not be obtained by deadline.

Arquitectonica’s connection to the Babylon, as well as the building’s striking appearance, were the primary reasons the city’s Historic Environmental and Preservation board sought to designate the building as historic in the summer of 2016, even though the building was less than the required 50 years old and was declared an unsafe structure by the county the year before. But during a January 2018 Miami City Commission meeting, Commissioner Joe Carollo used the Babylon’s association with drug smuggling, as well as Ray Corona’s reported 1980s-era cocaine habit, to argue that the Babylon should be knocked down.

“To try and preserve a place that was built on the cheap by a guy that was high most of the time that he didn’t know what was coming or going, not to the extreme as the real Scarface in the movie, but, boy, it’s amazing to me that we’re discussing this 35 years later,” Carollo stated during the January 2018 meeting. “This is not a historic building.”

Carollo later added, “I don’t think anybody wants to glorify and make historic this kind of building that was built with these kinds of people.”

The commission voted 4-1 against protecting the Babylon. Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district includes Brickell, was the lone vote in favor of historic preservation.

Julie Santos of Emerald at Brickell says many of her neighbors were supportive of historic designation. But now that this is no longer a possibility, Santos wants to see it demolished.

She says the Babylon, which was full of tenants when she moved into the Emerald 13 years ago, has been steadily deteriorating since 2009, and has been abandoned since 2014. Santos also notes that the building was regularly used as a shelter for vagrants and defaced by graffiti artists until, after several complaints from Point View residents, a perimeter fence was finally put up in mid-2018.

As for what replaces the Babylon, that may be in part up to Point View residents. Parts of the covenant that Corona signed, in exchange for the office-use zoning, are still in effect, and that means the Point View Association has to sign off on any new development project. So far, the Point View Association isn’t willing to release the Babylon’s owner from the covenant, and they’re steadfastly opposed a T6-24 up-zoning, says association vice president Eddy Leal.

Cherlin Duran, president of the Point View Association and president of the Brickell Shores Condominium, says she’s lived in the subdivision for more than 30 years. “We enjoy a good quality of life and we know all our neighbors,” she says. “It’s going to be very hard for them [Martinez-Celeiro and his attorney] to do this.”

And should the city commission grant the Babylon’s owner a T6-24 zoning, or even a T6-12 zoning, Duran predicts there will be a backlash, not just from Point View’s 800 households, but from other Brickell condominiums as well.

“We will cause trouble,” Duran promises. “I don’t know if we’ll sue or not sue, but we’re going to call all the newspapers, and we’re going to cause trouble.”

 

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