South Point Update

In some distant, breezy January a century from now, the pundits will congregate along Ocean Drive to herald the 100th Art Deco Weekend. In the shadow of whatever remains of Miami Beach's architectural splendor, they will celebrate the colorful history of that narrow spit of land, the legacy of South Florida's grand tradition of hype, hucksterism, and as that era passed, of redevelopment.

And with an annoyed, dismissive gesture toward the hodgepodge of high-rises that comprise the southern tip of the island, one of the older scholars will tell the story of the legendary Marriott project.

As short-lived as it was grandiose, nothing better symbolizes late-twentieth-century Miami Beach's dreams of development glory than the Marriott Corporation's scheme to turn a good portion of a 255-acre neighborhood into the largest vacation resort in Dade County. The lavish complex never materialized, of course; the plan fell flat on its face after only a year of negotiations, but not before striking fear of eviction and demolition into the hearts of the hundreds of people who stood to lose their homes to the bulldozers.

The idea first surfaced in October 1989, after the city solicited bids for, of all things, a parking garage. Instead of a stopgap solution to the city's parking woes, Marriott proposed to raze eight city blocks and construct two hotels with a total of 3000 rooms, 2400 units of apartments, time-shares, and condominiums, and at least two retail shopping centers. The estimated cost: $800 million.

When local residents and property owners got wind of the plan, they also got organized, forming the South Pointe Association to stand up to Marriott and the City of Miami Beach. For anyone who lived in the area (bounded by Sixth Street and Government Cut, between the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay), the threat of eviction was immediate and very real. In 1973, with the blessing of the state legislature, Miami Beach commissioners had declared the area blighted and created a special "redevelopment district," in the process granting themselves the power of eminent domain, which allowed the city to seize private property. If city commissioners were enamored of Marriott's plan, they could force property owners to sell their land so the project could go forward.

For eight months city officials negotiated with Marriott and its partner in the venture, Rahn Properties of Fort Lauderdale. Administrators rejected the initial proposal, whereupon the developers reduced the scope of their project by two-thirds. But the plan finally fizzled on a humid afternoon in June 1990, as a Marriott vice president announced that the developers were unable to commit to a schedule for building the complex because they could not secure financing. While most of the players in the brief but big-time Marriott game agree that a lack of money was at the root of its demise, former Miami Beach city manager Rob Parkins says the vocal residents of South Pointe played a big part in killing the deal. "The people's objections significantly affected the ability of that deal to go forward," asserts Parkins, who left Miami Beach earlier this year to manage the affairs of Palm Springs, California.

"I was greatly relieved that the city would not try to condemn my home," recalls George Lowander, who attended the city hall meeting at which Marriott acknowledged its financial problems. Lowander moved to South Pointe from Coconut Grove more than six years ago. He bought an efficiency condominium at First Street and Collins Avenue, and liked the area so much he bought another apartment, and then the Diamond and Crystal apartment houses in the 100 block of Collins Avenue. All but one of his properties fall within the area that Marriott wanted for its resort complex.

As unrealistic as the Marriott project seems, it hasn't been the most outrageous plan ever proposed for the seaside redevelopment district. That distinction belongs to developer and Fontainebleau Hilton owner Stephen Muss, a member of the board of the redevelopment agency. Muss proposed transforming the area into a "New Venice" by bulldozing most of the 372 buildings and replacing them with 4300 hotel rooms, 2600 residential units, and 470,000 square feet of retail shops and entertainment facilities. And, of course, canals. The price tag: $1.2 billion. Not to mention the eviction of 6000 elderly residents to make room for the world-class resort that would be built atop the rubble of their homes. Fortunately for the residents, no master developer stepped forward. After a half-dozen years on the drawing board, the vision was scrapped.

By the end of 1982, fed up with the lack of progress and with the increasing ravages of time, grime, and crime, city commissioners fired the board of the Miami Beach Redevelopment Agency and appointed themselves in its place. They vowed to lift a ten-year-old moratorium on new construction and building improvements that had caused the neighborhood to deteriorate to an unprecedented degree. The following year Beach commissioners approved the South Shore Revitalization Strategy, which, despite Marriott's rude interruption, remains in effect to this day. That revision calls for boutiques and restaurants with a marine-related theme near the Miami Beach Marina on Biscayne Bay, a core of retail shops around Joe's Stone Crab restaurant on Biscayne Street, office buildings along Fifth Street, high-rise development along the waterfronts, and lower-density residential housing in the interior.

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