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Critics say Florida's historic monuments are under threat with a new bill

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Many of Florida's most historic buildings are along its coastal areas. But what do you do if they're not up to code or deemed unsafe? The state Senate just passed a bill that would prevent local governments from blocking any demolition of those buildings. Supporters say it'll protect people from structures that are old and prone to flooding. But critics worry developers will swoop in and destroy iconic towns. Veronica Zaragovia of member station WLRN in Miami reports.

MELINDA BERMAN: Welcome to our Art Deco tour, sponsored by the Miami Design Preservation League.

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA, BYLINE: Each time Melinda Berman gives a tour of Miami Beach's brightly colored Art Deco buildings, she asks people to share where they're from.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Singapore.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Denmark.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: France.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Connecticut.

ZARAGOVIA: She points out features that make these buildings from the 1930s and '40s so recognizable.

BERMAN: The element of threes - the two symmetrical sides and the center rising taller in the middle. See those little shelves over the windows? We call those eyebrows to shade the rooms from the sun.

ZARAGOVIA: Berman volunteers with the Miami Design Preservation League. Activists want to keep these Art Deco structures intact, as does Miami Beach Commissioner Alex Fernandez.

ALEX FERNANDEZ: These are the buildings that housed World War II servicemen.

ZARAGOVIA: Including Clark Gable, who had already filmed "Gone With The Wind" when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942.

FERNANDEZ: It's American history that will be bulldozed with Senator Bryan Avila's bill.

ZARAGOVIA: Republican Bryan Avila sponsored the measure that Florida's Senate passed Friday. He says it'll target dangerous buildings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRYAN AVILA: We're certainly very appreciative of our history and historical structures, but not all these structures have a historical significance.

ZARAGOVIA: His bill would allow owners to tear down buildings in high-risk coastal flood zones mapped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency if they don't conform to FEMA standards for new construction or if local building officials say they're unsafe or if local governments want them to come down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AVILA: If a building is in one of these situations, it should be able to be rebuilt.

ZARAGOVIA: There's an exception for buildings on the National Register of Historic Places and for those older than 200 years. When demolition is allowed, new buildings don't have to resemble the old ones. They can be as tall or as big as the local rules allow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPENCER ROACH: I don't want to be the guy that goes down in history as putting up a skyscraper in Miami's Art Deco district or in St. Augustine Beach.

ZARAGOVIA: That's Republican State Representative Spencer Roach defending a version of the bill that he's trying to get Florida's House to approve.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROACH: It makes housing more affordable, increases property values, increases revenue to local governments, and it helps alleviate blight.

ZARAGOVIA: Critics worry about the potential influence of developers. A company called 13th Floor Investments gave $10,000 each to political action committees led by Roach and Avila around the same time the House and Senate bills were filed. 13th Floor, which has oceanfront parcels in Miami Beach, has said the donations weren't related to the legislation. Fernandez, the Miami Beach commissioner, says the measure would hurt tourism and erode the city's charm.

FERNANDEZ: That attraction is being stripped away from Miami Beach. And once you strip that away, we end up being just any other coastal community.

ZARAGOVIA: The House is set to vote on the bill next week. If it passes, it goes to Governor Ron DeSantis, who hasn't said whether he'll sign it.

For NPR News, I'm Verónica Zaragovia in Miami Beach. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Verónica Zaragovia WLRN
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