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Murmurs

The Resident Mayor

By Helen Hill

Don't get Murmurs wrong here. The Miami-Dade County Communications Department is all right in our eyes, especially in the area of gathering information deemed by us as important at the time. Yet for every yin there is a yang and the Communications Dept.s yang is its strong need to send happy press releases about the latest happy deed county commissioners happened to do in their district. (EXTRA! EXTRA! Read all about it! Commissioner Dennis Moss distributes some water in Perrine!)

Yet Murmurs did take note of two recent releases sent our way by County Hall: One was a not-so-happy communique announcing Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler's immediate resignation sent by her District 3 staffers; the other, a cheerful release announcing the appointment and swearing-in on Tuesday, December 20 of El Portal Mayor Audrey Edmonson as county commissioner, an office she will hold until the September 2006 election

"Edmonson was born and raised in Liberty City and served on the El Portal City Council before becoming its mayor in 1999. She was re-elected by the Village Council in 2002 and 2003," the release reads. "The residents of El Portal made her the first resident elected mayor in November 2004."

What? The "first resident elected mayor?" Well, who else would be elected mayor of El Portal? Miami Shores residents? Charismatic types from Miami's Upper Eastside? We know the tiny enclave of El Portal, incorporated in 1937 with the goal of having really strict code enforcement, has only 500 or so families, but the population couldn't be so small that the town decided to never mind about residency requirements. Could that be why the village was known for its feisty politics where verbal exchanges and vendettas approached or surpassed those of even North Bay Village and Biscayne Park?

Strangely enough, North Bay Village had to specify in a recent charter amendment that those elected to public office actually had to live in North Bay Village throughout their term, instead of just six months prior to running for office. This realization occurred in 2004 when those not too crazy about NBV Mayor Al Dorne found evidence that he had a home in Boca Raton. North Bay Village activist Gabrielle Nash-Tessler, though, claimed Dorne was merely exploiting a loophole in a charter amendment and vowed to place a proposed charter amendment on the ballot to close it.

"Mayor Dorne is not actually breaking the law, but most certainly is skirting the law," Nash-Tessler said.

Dorne, who insisted he actually lived in NBV and the Boca house was just one of his "investment" properties, supported the charter amendment.

"I don't have any problem with what she's trying to do," Dorne said. "In fact it's the first good idea she's had."

Later that year, Dorne would swear never again to run for another term. But before making good on the promise, Dorne was arrested with a fellow commissioner for plotting to fire the city manager in a diner, a violation of state Sunshine Law.

What's Murmurs' point? That apparently there are municipalities out there that are fuzzy on residency requirements for their public officials.

Turned out, though, El Portal was not one of them. Jordan Leonard, the newly hired village clerk of El Portal, explained that Edmonson was the first resident mayor directly elected by the residents. Previously the mayor was chosen from among the council in a manner similar to Bal Harbour and Bay Harbor Islands.

So previous elected officials of El Portal weren't from, say, Boca? "No, no, no. That would be illegal," Leonard said.

No Mo, MiMo

Seems like only yesterday when Terri D'Amico and other preservationists held a sparkler demonstration in front of the Bel Aire in North Beach to call attention to what they deemed a need to preserve buildings constructed soon after World War II and up until the 1960s. The Bel Aire was torn down just a few days later, as were other structures D'Amico dubbed Miami Modern, or MiMo.

That was in 1998. But years after the wholesale massacre of MiMo structures in North Beach, journalists from the New York Times and even the London Financial Times pens regular articles on MiMo buildings (an excuse to visit Miami, Murmurs thinks), while photographers and writers publish books and photo essays on the subject of MiMo. A historic district was later created along the Collins Avenue, North Beach area. So popular is the MiMo concept that Internet Realtor Kevin Tomlinson uses it to sell units for the Bel Aire On The Ocean, the 18-story, Kobi Karp-designed tower that replaced the original late 1940s-era Bel Aire. "Experience the unbridled playfulness and ornamental geometry of the surrounding MiMo [Miami Modern] architecture, a revival of the 1950s glamour days juxtaposed to Bel Aire Miami Beach's fresh and simpler modernism," Tomlinson writes on his Web site, kevintomlinson.com.

So while Morningside activist Elvis Cruz tried to use arguments such as poor traffic conditions on Biscayne Boulevard and the ample room for multifamily projects still available in places meant for high-rise towers, e.g., downtown Miami, during a December 15 public hearing as reasons why the Miami City Commission should not build an 11-story, mixed-use project at 5220 Biscayne Blvd. (Cruz opposes construction of structures more than 95 feet high in the Upper Eastside area), Eric Silverman attempted to save what is now standing: The Maule Building, constructed in 1954 and designed by famed local architect Lester Pancoast. Part of the developers' plans, you see history repeating itself, don't you?, is to replace the Maule with a Kobi Karp-designed building named (drum roll) 5220 Biscayne Boulevard.

Silverman doesn't understand why the developers can't do what he is doing, i.e., renovate the original MiMo building. Silverman and his partner are redeveloping the Vagabond, a circa-1950s hotel at 7301 Biscayne Blvd. Silverman loves MiMo, so much that he asked 5220 Biscayne's representatives, who included architect Kobi Karp, to spare the Maule Building. "The building is really a work of art," he said. Opined Coconut Grove activist Judith Sandoval: "We have no business tearing down one of these buildings. It is not quite the Fontainebleau, but Lester Pancoast is a key architectural player."

While not buying Cruz's 95-foot maximum-height argument, Commissioner Johnny Winton asked City Attorney Jorge Fernandez if there was any way the city could require preservation of The Maule Building. "None whatsoever," Fernandez replied, eliciting a muffled cry of "Yes!" from a woman seated next to Karp. The building isn't in a historic district or declared historic, Fernandez replied, rendering any requirement to preserve it illegal. This inspired Winton to ask city planners to look into the feasibility of creating a MiMo historic district somewhere in Miami.

Such a district, even if established along the Boulevard, will come too late for The Maule, as the Miami City Commission unanimously approved the plans for 5220 Biscayne Blvd. That is fine with Geraldine Uzan, the "yes" woman. Uzan lives near The Maule and calls the now-abandoned building an "eyesore" and wants to see it gone. "I can't believe they called that building an architectural asset," she said.

Giving to History

Meanwhile, in the form of the Community Redevelopment Agency, the Miami City Commission approved the allocation of an additional $438,564 to renovate The Ward Rooming House at 249 NW Ninth St. in Overtown. This brings the total price tag to restore the Ward Rooming House, built in 1925 but currently little more than a shell with no roof, floors, windows or other infrastructure, to nearly $1.04 million. The Ward has been "under emergency shoring and bracing since August 2003," according to a report from CRA Executive Director Frank Rollason. Incidentally, the building is not designated historic. "Although there is no question that the building has historic significance to the Overtown community, the Historic Preservation Ordinance also requires that a property possess, integrity of design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association, in order to qualify for designation," Rollason wrote in a September 2003 memo. That means, at the very least, that the structure has to be stable, something the Ward still isn't. What will the building be used for? Rollason is not sure, yet. "I told you so," Commissioner Joe Sanchez said even before Rollason started his presentation. Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones was more constructive in her criticism, suggesting that next time the CRA "have a plan" before embarking on such an undertaking with taxpayer money.

Rollason, though, defended the CRA's rush to save Ward Rooming House. "It is an historic landmark," he said, and if the CRA had waited until it was decided what would be done with a renovated Ward House, it would have likely been just plain history.


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