Hot Properties

The condo kings at Crescent Heights say they're changing the face of Miami Beach. They certainly are.

The comment is affirmed with nods and harrumphs from the seven men who have pulled their chairs into a discussion-group oval. ("For fear of retribution," none of the men wanted their names used in this article. Only Irving was willing to go public under his first name.) Most of the Ocean Pavilion's current residents are elderly; several of these men have lived in the 23-year-old building since the early Seventies.

"They took away our card room," Irving says ruefully. "They took away our social world." As part of the company's renovations, he explains, Crescent Heights cordoned off a conference room the men had used as a meeting place, forcing them to relocate to their present location. The men grumble about other disruptions to their lives, particularly the noise and constant commotion in the lobby, not to mention the grand opening celebration. "It was like a circus," snaps a stern-faced man in a baby-blue tennis hat and matching trousers. "The people were queuing up like it was the hit picture show showing for free."

All these hassles, the residents admit, are minor inconveniences next to the biggest dilemma they now face. With the Ocean Pavilion's imminent condo-ization, they must now decide whether they'd rather buy their units or move out. A big outlay of capital at such a late age doesn't make great business sense, the men agree. But to relocate is difficult for anyone, particularly an elderly person. While nearly all the men say they will buy their units A it's the path of least resistance A they maintain that purchasing is not a viable option for many other residents, who scrape by on interest from savings and don't have any money to spare.

Under Florida law, residents of a building undergoing a conversion may agree to buy at a price set by the developer, before the unit is put up for sale. If they refuse, those who have lived in the unit for more than six months may stay for the duration of their lease or nine months, whichever is longer. (Newer residents get only a six-month extension.) But Irving and his friends are suspicious that Crescent Heights is not acting in good faith and that the company simply wants to clear out the old to make room for the new. A few tell of how Crescent Heights sales employees quoted them several different prices on the same unit. "A lot of people in the building will pay the increased price because they don't want to indulge in the negotiations," says Irving.

These men, and the hundreds of other elderly Beach residents who have been caught in the Crescent Heights machinery, have the ear of Miami Beach Commissioner Nancy Liebman, which seems to function these days like a radar dish for Galbut-related news. "I have the concern that they're bringing in second-home vacationers, not the kind of people who are going to be involved in the Beach," Liebman says of Crescent Heights. "The saddest part of the whole picture is that we'll never have that recognizable element we had in the Sixties and Seventies: the old people. There are no more aluminum chairs. We worked very hard to create what Miami Beach is today and now, I guess, we're facing the realities of success."

"The reality is that nothing ever stays the same forever," Russell Galbut counters. "Nothing forces anybody out. Tenants have the right of first refusal, they have the right to buy their apartment for the lowest price." Galbut says the company has never violated its statutory obligations to existing tenants and any misquotes of price may have been a misunderstanding because prices were upped after the Ocean Pavilion's one-day grand opening sale. (He offered to review the individual case files if the men were willing to give their names.) "There's nothing we won't do to make a current tenant happy. But the reality is there are people who have a philosophy of rental that will never change. That's the way they were inbred, and all they're interested in is renting. So we find buyers."

Most of those buyers, Galbut admits, are in the 30-to-55 age group. "We've brought in a much more international, cosmopolitan group of residents from Europe and South America and we've brought in some very well-known stars," he insists, though he refuses to supply the names of any luminaries who have invested. He says that in the apartment buildings Crescent Heights has converted, about ten percent of the residents buy their units; the figure is closer to twenty percent in the Ocean Pavilion.

Beyond the changing demographics, Liebman and other officials have voiced their concern about the effect that condo conversions are having on the supply of hotel rooms in the city. Two years ago Commissioner Neisen Kasdin suggested slowing down the conversion process by seeking an increase in minimum size for a living unit. (Under current zoning laws, a new apartment must have a floor area of at least 550 square feet if it is to contain a full kitchen and be technically considered a living unit. A rehabilitated property, such as a condo conversion, must have a floor area of at least 400 square feet.) "The point of my proposal was to prevent conversion of hotel rooms into apartments," Kasdin says, "to keep the hotel stock up and to prevent the creation of undersized living units, thereby preventing slum conditions. Typically a slum comes about with undersized units. Apartments get subdivided, more people cram into smaller units, and an area becomes less desirable."

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