A LITTLE MIMO HISTORY — AND HISTORIC CHALLENGES
By Debby Stander
As 2017 gets underway, the MiMo Biscayne Boulevard Historic District and its Upper Eastside neighbors find themselves facing some sizeable challenges.
Fortunately, the ability to overcome challenges is our strong suit. In fact, you could say it’s one of our defining characteristics.
Historically, our first major challenge came in the form of the devastating hurricane of September 1926. The land boom which had swept the Miami area earlier in the decade was dealt a lethal blow as storm-battered homeowners pulled up stakes, cleaned out their bank accounts, and fled back North in droves. Construction of Biscayne Boulevard, which was begun in 1925 to link the brand-new development of Miami Shores to downtown Miami, was completed in 1927. But the ensuing real estate bust, Great Depression and years leading up to World War II brought construction of buildings fronting the Boulevard to a halt until the 1940s.
The war ushered in a new era in Florida, fueling a post-war boom that restarted the local economy. Americans were moving to the suburbs and the nation fell in love with automobiles and the automobile culture. What better road trip was there than a visit to gorgeous Miami, with its fabulous beaches, waving palm trees, technicolor sunsets and sublime winter weather? It was during this period that construction of buildings fronting Biscayne Boulevard began in earnest, culminating in the 1950s when the Boulevard boasted Miami’s largest concentration of motels and motor courts and reigned supreme as the Gateway to the Magic City.
Then came the motel price wars — particularly in the doldrums between the summer and winter seasons. Gaudy price signs and posters vied for motorists’ attention: Cut-rate lodgings of $2.00 per person, “Free TV,” “A/C in Every Room.” Laws had to be passed to crack down on motel operators because rates on signs were not being honored. Motel chains, which provided an automated central reservation system and a nationally recognized brand which assured consumers that rooms and amenities met a consistent minimum standard, gained in popularity. Along with the rise of the chains came a corresponding decline of the independent operators.
By the mid-1970’s and throughout most of the 1980’s, the decline was complete. So much so, that the stretch of Biscayne Boulevard between NE 79th Street and NE 60th Street was known in police parlance as “Sin Strip.” Drug dealer shootings were not uncommon; vice and crime were rampant; and civic spaces such as Legion Park became a haven for large numbers of homeless people. Residential neighborhoods on either side of the Boulevard had to fight back and fight hard. Neighborhood residents joined forces via homeowners’ associations to demand help from the City in safeguarding their communities. The Upper Eastside’s spirit of protecting and preserving its neighborhoods – a fierce flame that continues to burn brightly to this day – was born.
Reclaiming Legion Park from the homeless was finally accomplished in 1994 but the after-effects lingered on. Local residents had stopped using the park and it fell into disrepair. In 1997, a plan was put forward by the City to lease the building now serving as the park’s Community Center to a private corporation for use as a school for at-risk children, effectively privatizing the park and removing it from public use. Again, it was neighborhood opposition led by the Upper Eastside Miami Council that defeated the plan and saved and preserved the park for public use and enjoyment. Legion Park was reborn and today is one of our most treasured resources. Earlier this year, its place in the City’s history was finally recognized and Legion Park was officially designated as historic by Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board.
June 6, 2006 marked another landmark in the rehabilitation of the Boulevard. On that date, following years of collaboration between the City of Miami and Upper Eastside residents and business owners, the MiMo Biscayne Boulevard Historic District was created. It is said that “Nothing preserves like neglect,” and the buildings on either side of the Boulevard between NE 50th Street to NE 77th Street turned out to be no exception. Beneath their somewhat faded exteriors were gems of mid-century modern architecture begging for a little TLC. Incentives were provided by the City to building owners for preservation and restoration of their now historic properties and the resurgence of the Boulevard was officially underway.
What a difference a decade makes! Today, the challenge to the MiMo Biscayne Boulevard Historic District comes not from blight or neglect – although a few holdovers remain — but from their very opposite. Developers are increasingly setting their sights north of SR 112. How to ensure that new construction within and adjacent to the MiMo Biscayne Boulevard Historic District contributes positively to the overall character of our urban landscape? We have our safeguards – preservation ordinances contained in the City of Miami Code. But today’s developers have become accustomed to asking for, and getting, zoning entitlements that would not have been available in years past and projects are being built to squeeze maximum height and density out of every buildable square foot, with scant regard for surrounding neighborhoods or available infrastructure. This relatively new trend has been made painfully clear to those of us on the Upper Eastside who have been, as the MiMo Biscayne Association has, engaged in the effort to oppose the Legion District Special Area Plan which proposes a massive development along the southern boundary of Legion Park. That SAP, due to the fierce opposition with which it was met by the Upper Eastside community, is currently on hold pursuant to a 240-day moratorium which will end in November.
In 2017 the MiMo Biscayne Association will continue to work tirelessly to preserve the character and quality of life of our wonderful historic district. Our efforts will be directed towards the overall enhancement and beautification of historic Biscayne Boulevard and the health of its businesses. Threats to zoning integrity will be vigorously opposed. New projects that reflect and enhance MiMo’s urban context and improve conditions on the Boulevard will be heartily encouraged. Simply put, we will do everything in our power to help our unique community continue to achieve its potential as a thriving showcase of Miami Modern architecture for all to appreciate and enjoy.