Historic Deauville hotel should be demolished, Miami Beach official rules

·6 min read

Miami Beach’s building official has issued a demolition order for the historic Deauville Beach Resort following an inspection of the deteriorating hotel complex last week. But skeptical city commissioners on Thursday questioned the city’s reliance on an engineering study paid for by the hotel’s owners.

Commissioners were informed in a morning memo that Building Official Ana Salgueiro had “declared the demolition order for the unsafe structure of the Deauville Hotel,” a 1957 building that famously hosted The Beatles, Frank Sinatra and John F. Kennedy.

Salgueiro, an engineer who inspected the building Friday along with a team of experts, confirmed the findings of an engineering report submitted by the Deauville’s owners, who have sought to tear down the building. The owners’ engineering report found the building had exceeded its lifespan and could only be repaired through the widespread replacement of structural elements that would require extensive shoring, an “extremely high cost” and the risk of collapse.

“A building is deemed unsafe once it has gone to that point when you need to do heroic measures to save it,” Salgueiro told commissioners Thursday at City Hall. “In order to try to save the building you would have to pretty much rebuild it bottom-up.”

Assistant City Manager Eric Carpenter told the Miami Herald following the announcement that the city wants the demolition to take place prior to the start of hurricane season in June, in line with the recommendation in the engineering report. Carpenter said the city will review a demolition permit that the Deauville owners submitted. The review could take 30-60 days.

If the permit is approved, the building owners, Deauville Associates, LLC, would be required to go through a roughly two-month process of preparing the building for demolition, Carpenter said.

Salgueiro’s order is the latest development in the fight over the hotel, which has become a cause for preservationists determined to save a piece of history.

In an extraordinary move, especially after the June 24 Surfside building collapse led to heightened awareness of building safety, city commissioners on Thursday publicly questioned Salgueiro’s determination, focusing on her reliance on the findings of an engineer hired by the owners of the Deauville. The commission voted unanimously to seek an independent engineering report, which would likely be possible only with a court order to permit access to the property.

Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez said the city should appeal Salgueiro’s demolition order to the Miami-Dade Board of Rules and Appeals — although county staffers who administer the board confirmed the findings of the report, according to Thursday’s memo on the demolition order.

“You know the entire world is watching us demolish an iconic structure?” Rosen Gonzalez asked Salgueiro at the meeting.

Salgueiro, who told commissioners two independent consultants took part in last week’s inspection, said in other cases where there are conflicting engineering reports, her practice is to rely on the more conservative findings in favor of “life safety.”

“You can take it to the Board of Rules and Appeals, and they can reverse my decision but, no, I can’t break with what I normally do,” Salgueiro said.

The hotel has been closed since an electrical fire in 2017. The city took the owners to the county’s Unsafe Structures Board in 2018 to compel them to make repairs and in 2019 sued the owners for, among other charges, violating a city law mandating minimum maintenance requirements for historic buildings. The judge in the case ordered the owners to file for a demolition permit and for the city to review it.

Following recommendations from the city’s Historic Preservation Board, Carpenter said the city issued a letter to the owners urging that they preserve historical elements, such as chandeliers, hotel signage and architectural structures.

Whether anything is salvaged might depend on the owners’ willingness to cooperate with the city, he said. Prior to the inspection last Friday, the owners objected to the city’s invitation to a preservation-minded architect to take part in the site visit, he said.

“The owners have been very difficult, and I believe they will continue to be very difficult,” Carpenter said. “They have fought us at every turn. I hope that they have a change of opinion or a change of approach, but I am not overly optimistic.”

If the building is demolished, city code gives the Historic Preservation Board the power to require the replication of the original structure and that the new building have the same height and density of the previous structure. City officials said the city has begun the process of creating a 3D model of the building for future use, but that the owners of the Deauville did not allow city inspectors to photograph the interior fixtures.

At its meeting on Jan. 11, the Preservation Board urged the city to bring on an independent structural engineer with historic-preservation experience to conduct a survey and to save any architecturally significant elements if the demolition permit is issued.

Carpenter said the hotel owners’ cooperation with the city will impact the board’s decision to approve any new plans for the site if the building were to be demolished.

“We’re hoping that everybody tries to make the best of a bad situation,” he said. “I am concerned that we may not get any more cooperation than we have gotten in the past.”

The demolition of the Deauville, which was foreshadowed in a Jan. 7 memo, has angered preservationists, who questioned the haste of the decision and whether the city’s preservation laws were strong enough to prevent the so-called “demolition by neglect” of a historic building.

Planning Board Member Tanya Bhatt alerted her followers to the demolition order in a Thursday morning email, saying the order should not be issued until an independent engineer could conduct a separate survey of the building.

“This cannot be allowed to proceed,” she wrote.

Despite later voting for the independent inspection, Mayor Dan Gelber said in an interview prior to the discussion that the building official has independent authority over demolition orders so elected leaders without engineering degrees are not tasked with making those decisions.

“This has to come from our building official. If she makes an independent judgment, we don’t second-guess her because the worst thing would be to keep an unsafe structure in the community where in fact something terrible and tragic could happen,” Gelber said.

Gelber said the city administration is disheartened by the decision but has fought the Deauville owners in “white-knuckled litigation” — the city requested that a judge appoint a receiver to take control of the property — and levied about $1.7 million in fines.

“We’ve obviously been trying to stop the neglect of the building, but at the end of the day, if the building has fallen into such disrepair that it is unsafe we can’t obviously leave it up,” Gelber told the Herald. “So something’s going to have to happen, likely a demolition.”