Historical Overview of the City of Miami and the Influence of Women in Miami Commercial Real Estate

April 29, 2019
Written by: Susan Cumins, CREW Miami member since 1998

Presented at CREW Miami’s Luncheon Meeting, April 18, 2019

Laura Weinstein-Berman, Managing Director, Vagabond Group Consulting
Panelists:     Ashley Abess, Partner & Creative Strategist, MVW Partners
Carie Peñabad, Founding Principal, Cúre & Peñabad Architects
Christine Rupp, Executive Director, Dade Heritage Trust

Moderator Laura Weinstein-Berman reviewed Miami’s development and showed the architectural styles that marked the evolution of our relatively young city. Weinstein-Berman, who is managing director her firm’s historic division, sees respect for historic structures as forward-looking rather than as a view to the past. She noted that women have played key roles, from Julia Tuttle, who persuaded Henry Flagler to extend his railroad to Miami, to environmental activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who championed protection of the Everglades.
Christine Rupp of Dade Heritage Trust (DHT) recognized the women who kick-started Miami’s preservation movement. Sally Jude, Arva Parks, and Dolly McIntyre formed organizations that continue to work to overcome Miami’s boom-and-bust mentality. “At DHT we strive to preserve historic areas and buildings for future generations by increasing civic engagement and community awareness. More property owners today are saying ‘Yes, we can save these buildings.’” DHT follows and supports government policies on historic districts, but doesn’t make policy, Rupp said. It focuses on educating people to understand the importance of historic structures and places. “Elected officials and owners need to recognize historic buildings as valuable assets rather than teardowns.”  
Architect Carie Peñabad, who directs the University of Miami’s Bachelor of Architecture program, understands architecture in terms of a place, a city. At UM, she researched early 20th century wood buildings conceived by Marion Manley, Miami’s first registered woman architect. “Manley’s buildings were scheduled for demolition, but we kept them because we learned that they tell the city’s story,” said Peñabad, who later co-wrote a book on Manley and her work. “History helps people care about the places they build,” she said, and urged the audience members to lead by example and choose to work with clients who share their approach and principles.
For fourth-generation Miamian Ashley Abess, Miami’s history is personal; she knows about it from family stories. Her company has assembled 20 acres in Miami’s Little River where they’ll employ adaptive reuse to reshape the neighborhood that is not far from St. Mary’s Cathedral. “Buildings create the fabric of a neighborhood, even when individually they are unremarkable,” Abess said, and she interviews people who were raised there to understand how it worked decades ago. “We got rid of the drug dealers and chop shops and can invest in what we care about. To prevent sprawl in the middle of the city we’ll create grocery stores, restaurants, shoe repair shops—everything people need—before building residences.”  
Women architects and urban planners are still shaping Miami.   Just as Marion Manley mentored the next generation of architects, Peñabad described how Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Dean of UM’s School of Architecture for 20 years and a founder of New Urbanism, has been a force for sustainable development. Plater-Zyberk and husband Andres Duany wrote the Miami 21 building code, an effort to move Miami forward in real time. In the 1940s and 1950s Elizabeth Virrick changed Miami’s urban housing landscape. Confronting commissioners and planning officials about substandard housing in Miami’s black neighborhoods, she instigated reform by appealing to a larger public. Virrick and her friend Marjory Stoneman Douglas advocated for affordable housing for social reasons, and Plater-Zyberk and others continue that.
Weinstein-Berman asked panelists about situations and places they find personally noteworthy.
Rupp said DHT works to protect significant historic places from insensitive redevelopment, but economic forces can work against preservation. “Lack of consensus in a neighborhood can be problematic, as are the misconceptions about the negatives of historic preservation.” In 2017 the National Trust for Historic Preservation supplied expertise that has the potential to preserve Little Havana’s historic fabric; a study of Miami’s Shenandoah area is under way. DHT is helping residents of Brownsville, a historically significant African American community north of Downtown, get a National Trust grant to survey its historic sites. Timing is critical, Rupp said, because “due of its high elevation, Brownsville is being targeted for expansive redevelopment. Positive neighborhood change and growth is good for cultural and economic reasons, but not when it comes at the expense of long-time residents who risk losing the places that help tell the stories of their community and represent the neighborhood’s cultural and architectural heritage.”
“Public spaces are the ones you remember and rally around,” Peñabad said, “and Miami has too few.” She described a project Dacra CEO Craig Robins asked UM architecture students to undertake--a kiosk in the Design District near a grove of oak trees. “We used durable materials to design an outdoor room that created a public space while preserving the oaks. We gave Craig much more than he expected.”  
Abess’s goal for Little River is to avoid sprawl in the middle of the city while responding to a shift in residential tastes. “We want to create a walkable neighborhood that’s near everything people need. Young people want historic houses to restore and bring back; they want energy and areas with ethnic and career diversity.”  
As the city’s density increases, successful preservation efforts will ensure that the essence of Miami endures for all those who call it home.