Florida Keys News
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Historic home rules compromise safety, FIRM says

Key West's keepers of the historic district's architecture unanimously agreed Tuesday to hold a workshop Dec. 4 in response to safety concerns raised by the nonprofit Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe (FIRM).

FIRM's president Heather Carruthers sent a letter to the city over the summer calling the city's historic guidelines for Old Town "way behind the times and obsolete."

For example, Carruthers wrote, the city's insistence that windows in many homes remain wood with putty glazing is "counterproductive to the preservation of life and property."

The Historic Architectural Review Commission (HARC) voted 6-0 Tuesday to hold the workshop, with one member voicing concerns of his own.

"The motive behind this I'm quite certain is insurance premiums," said architect Michael Miller, who led Tuesday's meeting at Old City Hall in the absence of HARC Chairman Rudy Molinet.

"I want to guard against it being a wholesale change to our guidelines in order to accommodate insurance," said Miller. "It's not our fault. The issue is the insurance companies."

FIRM's letter, which applauds HARC and Key West for its diligence in preserving historic buildings, says that its research shows that the local guidelines in question are not required by state and federal laws.

HARC's rules ignore technology and historic preservation standards accepted across the nation, Carruthers wrote.

At the same time, wrote Carruthers, who is also a county commissioner, windstorm rates in South Florida have grown to "crisis" dimensions. Storm-rated windows have also come a long way in looking very much like wooden ones, she added.

HARC members Theo Glorie, Maggie Gutierrez, Janet Hinkle, Richard Logan and Patrick Wright agreed to schedule the workshop.

"I'm very familiar with this issue," said Hinkle. "There may be ways for us to reach both our goals: protecting our heritage as well as opportunities for people to get credits in insurance."

City planners have been through this subject before.

"Many come here and ask for windows that are not approved by HARC," said Enid Torregrosa, the city's historic preservation planner. "There are a lot of concerns in the general public regarding these windstorm policies."

The workshop will start at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 4 at Old City Hall, 510 Greene St.

In an Aug. 23 letter responding to Carruthers' July 30 FIRM letter, City Manager Bob Vitas said he would ask for a workshop.

Miller, despite his reservations over FIRM's motives, agreed with the consensus to hold the city-wide discussion over HARC guidelines.

"I'm not against a workshop, but I would be disappointed if it comes down to us being 'old fashioned' because we won't put in high tech materials," said Miller. "It's not just windows, it's also siding. Should we allow plastic siding instead of wood siding?"

Miller cautioned the principle of historic preservation may be at stake.

"The fact is, an old antique house is just that: an old antique house," said Miller. "It is given that designation for one reason: It is valuable enough to preserve just as it is."

Escalator approved

Key West will definitely see the arrival of its second escalator.

Approved by a 4-2 vote the installation of an escalator inside Clinton Square Market, one of Key West's oldest standing buildings, dating back to 1861 when it was built as a coal shed.

Architect Tom Pope told the commission that the original building didn't even have a floor. Instead, a train track from the docks ran through it.

Today, the administration building to the Navy, then the Lighthouse Authority and finally the Coast Guard, is the island's sole enclosed shopping mall, with a staircase and an elevator.

In addition to the escalator, the plans include renovations of the second floor that include exposing the original brick and other materials.

"We're trying to upgrade the quality for the tenants in the building and increase the quality of tenancy on the second floor," said Pope. "To do that, we need an escalator to bring people to the second floor."

City Planner Don Craig said he personally researched the application and concluded that the "modern element" of an escalator will make the historic preservation of the building possible by increasing its "economic life."

Work crews have already torn out the staircase, having obtained a demolition permit in error, Craig said Tuesday.

Planners learned of the staircase removal from the a Sept. 29 story in The Citizen by reporter Mandy Miles, and a stop work order was issued, Craig said.

"The contractor got ahead of himself and I'll leave it at that," said Craig.

Dissenting were Maggie Gutierrez and Patrick Wright.

The vote came after historian Sharon Wells told the commission the escalator is too intrusive.

"I'd be in favor of reinstalling a staircase," said Wells. "That's more in keeping with the character of the building."

Wait for Yates

Also on Tuesday, HARC postponed two items related to artist Debra Yates' plans to demolish the one-story house at 717 White St. and replace it with a contemporary design that features two pavilions and a swimming pool. Yates asked for the continuance, which was granted, said Torregrosa.

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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