A Taste for Trouble

When Ed Resnick agreed to help negotiate the Portofino Agreement, he never figured he'd become South Beach's public enemy #1

Things were looking grim in the war room. It was June 3, 1997, the day Miami Beach citizens were to vote on the so-called Save Miami Beach amendment. Inside the Fifth Street storefront office that housed Miami Beach Citizens Against Higher Taxes, the atmosphere was apprehensive. Veteran campaigners, all gray hair and cuff links, worked the phones in English, Spanish, or both. Fresh-faced young gofers in white T-shirts scribbled messages and scurried about.

Precinct results trickled in. Gradually it became clear the amendment this humming political machine had worked so hard to defeat was going to win -- and by a wide margin. This meant a citywide vote would be required whenever officials sought to increase the zoning density of waterfront property.

The controversial Portofino Agreement, negotiated over the previous two years between the city and developer Thomas Kramer to govern his development of the South Pointe neighborhood, depended upon just such a zoning increase. Thus Kramer had poured $1.5 million into funding this battalion of mercenaries. They had directed a ferocious campaign against the amendment, all for naught.

By 9:00 p.m., with the outcome assured, TV reporters began to fill the office, waiting for the group's spokesman to make his concession speech. At about 9:30, Edward S. Resnick made his entrance, his battery-powered wheelchair rolling over a wooden plank that allowed him to cross the storefront's threshold. The retired attorney looked drawn and a bit hollow-eyed in his coat and tie as he gently nudged the chair's joystick forward with his good hand, the right one. When he came into view of the troops, they showered him with applause. This seemed to brighten his countenance as he manuevered to his desk at the back of the office, preparing to face the cameras.

His assessment: "We couldn't overcome the anti-high-rise sentiment of the city, and we couldn't overcome the personality." The "personality" he was talking about was the well-publicized ill behavior of Thomas Kramer. But many Beach insiders were griping about Resnick himself.

Unlike the other members of this organization, Resnick was not a hired gun. He was, and still is, an activist. He maintains to this day that he became the spokesman for the Kramer-funded group out of his fervent belief that the Portofino Agreement -- a deal he helped negotiate -- was the best the city could do.

Ironically two years earlier Resnick had been a staunch opponent of the Portofino Agreement, voting against it on a community advisory board and writing a position paper detailing the complex deal's shortcomings. He then went on to represent South Pointe residents (without pay) in negotiations to restructure the agreement.

By helping to broker a new pact, however, and later joining forces with the widely loathed Kramer to oppose the Save Miami Beach amendment, Resnick became a lightning rod for activist ire, the ultimate citizen turncoat. His apparent about-face still infuriates Beach politicians and other activists. "That was the day of my downfall," Resnick says now of the election, only half joking. "I went from being a good guy to a bad guy in Miami Beach."

In keeping with his personality -- stubborn, irascible -- the 72-year-old Resnick remains unapologetic about his opposition to the referendum: "If I weren't willing to stand behind what I was a part of, I would be in effect saying I'd wasted my time and we hadn't accomplished anything."

Ed Resnick, who is not related to Abe Resnick, the late developer and city commissioner, moved with his family to Miami Beach from Connecticut in 1936. He attended public schools but dropped out of Miami Beach Senior High School to join the Navy in 1943. After a three-year tour, he enrolled at the University of Florida and eventually obtained undergraduate and law degrees.

He married his wife Phyllis in 1950; their daughter, Patricia came along shortly thereafter. After doing some mortgage work early in his career, Resnick became a full-time real estate lawyer. Just as he was establishing his family and his law practice, his life changed forever. "In February of 1953, I managed to get polio," he deadpans.

Resnick remembers being in an iron lung for six weeks as the disease ravaged his body, paralyzing his legs. He could barely move his left arm; his right was better but still impaired. "There are stages with these things," he says. "I forget how it goes: 'Why me?' Then anger, then despair, then you finally start to accept it." Resnick remembers going through all these in less than a year. "The fact that I was a lawyer was pretty good," he notes. "I had limited use of my hands, but I could use them well enough. I mean, I was in the hospital with a guy who was a doctor, a surgeon. That's a major life change."

In continuing to pursue his career, Resnick got both literal and figurative support from Phyllis, now 66 years old. He didn't get his powered wheelchair until 1992. "My wife has had lots of years of pushing," he smiles. "She basically totally took care of me. I mean, now I have a man who comes by in the morning and gets me up out of bed, but that's because I've gotten heavier, and we've all gotten older."

By the time he retired in 1982, Resnick had built a reputation as a hard-nosed advocate for major developers throughout South Florida. He spent the first decade or so of his retirement at Turnberry Isle in North Miami-Dade. In 1988 the Resnicks returned to Miami Beach, purchasing a unit in the brand-new South Pointe Tower.

The hulking condominium rested squarely within the South Pointe Redevelopment District. By the time Resnick moved into his new condo, though, the city's attempts to spur development had been largely botched, resulting in two successful lawsuits against the city by developers. South Pointe remained one of Miami Beach's rougher neighborhoods.

"It was a slum," Resnick recalls. "And if you walk two blocks away from here, it still is." By plunking down a quarter of a million dollars for the Tower condo, Resnick was banking on a renaissance. And he didn't just sit around waiting for it to materialize. In 1992 the Miami Beach City Commission re-established the South Pointe Advisory Board (SPAB), a group of residents who could counsel commissioners on how best to rejuvenate their neighborhood. Resnick chaired this new advisory board from its inception until October 1997.

Soon after SPAB was reconstituted, Thomas Kramer began buying up vacant tracts of land on the bay side of South Pointe. Because some of those parcels' previous owners had successfully sued the city, most of them were zoned for extremely dense high-rise development. Which was exactly what Kramer wanted to build, as the construction of Portofino Tower next door to South Pointe Tower in 1994 evinced.

The prospect of being hemmed in by such monoliths frightened many residents. The city was worried as well, so officials began negotiating with Kramer's company, Portofino Group, to come up with a compromise plan for the land he owned. In January 1995, the first draft of this plan, which would eventually come to be known as the Portofino Agreement, was submitted to SPAB for a recommendation. Eight members voted for, four voted against. One of the "no" votes came from Resnick.

What gave him pause was the proposal to change the zoning of the bayfront "Alaskan" parcel, so called because it had once been owned by a Native American corporation in Alaska. The land, along with a couple of other slivers, is adjacent to South Pointe Park and is zoned for low-rise, marine-recreational use. The first draft of the agreement called for increasing the zoning on these parcels to permit tall, Portofino Tower-type buildings.

In a four-page position paper, Resnick insisted that "the requested change in zoning on the 'Alaskan' parcel ... should never be approved." He proposed either allowing Portofino to build something small, at the current zoning levels, or having the city buy the land and add it to South Pointe Park as open space.

His paper concluded that "the city can make a much better deal than has been presented." Resnick, who had made a career out of arguing for major developments, was not averse to tall buildings per se. He says he simply thought that the city could squeeze more concessions from Portofino Group.

The principal author of the first draft of the agreement, then Assistant City Attorney John Dellagloria, thought Resnick had a point. When the time came for another round of negotiations with Portofino, Dellagloria says, he asked Resnick to join the city's team.

Resnick sits in his wheelchair, leaning on his left arm. He's parked in the TV room of South Pointe Tower, a cramped, octagonal space painted in muted shades of purple. In his tenth-floor condo upstairs, his daughter and two grandchildren await the beginning of a week of fun with grandpa.

Outfitted in black slacks and a gray-and-black checked shirt, Resnick relates the tale of his role in the rise and fall of the Portofino Agreement with a hint of weariness. He talks at a deliberate pace, his bald pate rocking slowly back and forth as he speaks -- a persistent effect of his illness. When his face itches, he props his right arm up slightly with his left and leans his head down to scratch his face on his thumbnail.

His physical frailty, though, belies both a lucid analytical legal mind and a fierce will. These qualities, along with his knowledge of land-use issues, led city officials to tap him as the community adviser to the Portofino Agreement negotiating team.

Now, several years removed from the deal, Resnick notes that his efforts have won him mostly enemies. This is especially true of his former allies on the South Pointe Citizens Coalition, a group of community activists who pushed for historic designation and preservation of the neighborhood. "The primary force in that group was Ilona Wiss," Resnick recalls. "We were friends then. I'm still her friend. She just doesn't talk to me. But then, a lot of people don't talk to me any more."

A former realtor and South Pointe property owner, Wiss says the reasons for the rift were fundamental: "We were challenging the underlying premises of the agreement, and he just accepted them. All of a sudden the ideas from his position paper were just gone. He became an advocate for the plan."

Resnick insists that the reason for his shift was simple: He hadn't known the extent of the city's financial obligations. The lawsuits Miami Beach had lost required the city to build parking facilities and perform some environmental cleanup, undertakings which were projected to cost up to $18.5 million. City attorneys at the time believed that the lawsuit settlements also gave the property owner (now Kramer) the right to build a boat-storage dry stack next to the Miami Beach Marina. If Kramer built that, the city would have to purchase property on the other side of Alton Road to build the required parking garage, pushing the total cost as high as $40.5 million. The Portofino Agreement would bring the city's costs down to about $13 million. "When I really understood the finances involved, I changed my mind," Resnick declares.

Commissioner Martin Shapiro, a consistent critic of the Portofino deal, insists there was an "unholy alliance between the city government and Portofino. Somehow Resnick became a figurehead for that. Ed sort of appointed himself spokesman for all of South Pointe, but I really think he was being used by the city and Portofino."

But John Dellagloria, now city attorney of North Miami, contends that it was Resnick, with his years of experience as a development attorney and his relentless negotiating style, who shaped the final version of the agreement. "Going into the negotiations, the transaction weighed more in favor of Portofino than the city," Dellagloria says. "When Ed was finished with it, the final document weighed evenly, maybe a little more in favor of the city."

Frank Del Toro, then with the city's planning department, remembers Resnick as a constant presence at city hall throughout the negotiations. "He was in John Dellagloria's face every day," he relates. "Ed had a lot of stature in city hall. He could go in unannounced and get to see [City Manager] Jose Garcia-Pedrosa. Any other person, Jose would make him wait, but he would always drop everything for Ed. That, to me, is power."

Resnick clearly relished the role he played those months in 1995. "It was fun," he admits. "It was important, it was meaningful, it was interesting, the personalities were unbelievable, the politics were incredible. And the sheer negotiating! Heinrich [Hanau, then-CEO of the Portofino Group] and I were at odds every day. I'd start out, 'Portofino has to pay for these improvements.' He'd say, 'Absolutely not.'"

The final Portofino Agreement that emerged from this wrangling did call for a zoning-density increase of the Alaskan site, which Resnick had once believed to be inviolable. Resnick emphasizes now that the other benefits the city would receive -- seven acres of open land north of the marina, more than six million dollars in improvements to city streets -- were worth it. "That's what I had gotten out of the negotiations," he says.

Still, by attaching his name to it and feuding openly with naysayers like Wiss and fellow South Pointe resident Mark Needle, Resnick found himself increasingly painted as an advocate for Portofino -- and, by extension, the odious Kramer.

Needle says that characterization is unfair, but that at one point Resnick made it clear he would brook no criticism of his dealmaking skills. "After one of those commission meetings, I told him honestly that I felt he had given up too much too soon, and he just went ballistic," Needle remembers. "Called me a 'goddamn punk,' something like that, just went ballistic."

Resnick continues to dismiss his allies-turned-detractors as misguided. "I really tried, always tried to arrive at consensus. I finally realized that was impossible with Mark and several others. If you waited for consensus with them, it would go on and on for the next twenty years."

Yet even neutral observers believe Resnick got too close to the process. "I think Ed fell in love with the Portofino deal," says Mayor Neisen Kasdin, who at the time was a city commissioner. "Although I never questioned the sincerity of his beliefs or his motivations, I think that, after he had worked so hard to make it a better deal, he lost his objectivity about it."

The staunch anti-Portofino crowd in South Pointe felt that the deal had gone down without their input. Many believed that Resnick, to use the vernacular of the Sixties, had gone from being part of the solution to being part of the problem. At a mid-1996 commission meeting at which the deal was discussed, Mark Needle warned commissioners that the people would not stand for it.

He, Wiss, and other activists against development in South Pointe went on to organize a petition drive to amend the city charter. The proposed amendment required every increase in waterfront zoning to be put before the public in a referendum. This proviso cut into the guts of the Portofino deal, in which the city had agreed to increase the zoning on the Alaskan parcel.

Resnick scoffs at the amendment and the petition drive that led to its being put on the ballot: "They stood outside the polls during the [1996] presidential election and said, 'Would you like to stop the high rises on Miami Beach?' Anybody could have done that."

What bothered Resnick more than the aggressive tactics was the referendum's unmistakable goal of trying to undo the deal he had worked so hard to secure for the city. Kramer and his attorneys also recognized the charter amendment as a potential deal-breaker. When Resnick formed a political action committee to oppose the amendment, called Miami Beach Citizens Against Higher Taxes, Kramer funneled nearly $1.5 million into it.

If the source of that pile of money bothered many Beach residents, they were even more outraged by the way the cash was spent: hundreds of thousands of dollars for scare-tactic ads, relentless telephone polling, and heavy-hitter political operatives. As many enemies as Resnick made while negotiating the Portofino deal, he made far more in leading the fight to defeat what came to be known as the Save Miami Beach amendment.

"I think most people accepted that Ed was doing what he thought was right, all the way up until the referendum," Ilona Wiss says. "When he allied himself with that, allowed himself to be part of strategies that were used, I wondered, How low will he go?"

Resnick continues to deny that he is or was "Portofino's point man," as the weekly SunPost dubbed him during the referendum campaign. He chuckles at the assertion that he was somehow paid off by Kramer to lead the fight against the referendum. "Oh, I've had a lot of trouble with people in this building," Resnick says of South Pointe Tower, his home. "There are people who are still thoroughly convinced that I am paid by Kramer. I got into an argument with one guy, and he said to me, 'I'd like to see your bank account and see the payments you're getting.'"

Kramer's money saturated the referendum campaign, but Resnick insists he wasn't among those cleaning up. "When I was in the campaign, my driver was paid for," he reports. "Oh, and I got my lunches. In some people's mind, that was tantamount to my being paid off. I keep telling them I wouldn't sell out that cheap."

Neisen Kasdin, who was elected mayor in 1997, says Resnick didn't sell out at all. He was simply obsessed with doing whatever it took to preserve the Portofino deal. "We had a couple of very bitter, knockdown-drag-out arguments around the time of the referendum that led to a total break in our relationship," Kasdin remembers. He won't elaborate on the details of these spats, except to say they concerned Kasdin's refusal to campaign against the referendum. "But is he a tool of Kramer? I think all those criticisms of him have no basis," Kasdin asserts.

To this day Resnick remains firm in his opposition to the Save Miami Beach referendum, calling it an example of "populism out of control." Deciding city planning issues by plebiscite, he argues, is simply a bad idea. He agrees with the legal opinion offered by City Attorney Murray Dubbin prior to the vote: The charter amendment is unconstitutional because it inserts the public into the quasi-judicial zoning process. "I think you'll see that I'll be proven right. It's going to fall flat on its face," Resnick predicts. Just such a legal challenge -- filed by Portofino -- is pending before the Third District Court of Appeal.

After the firestorm of the referendum campaign, Resnick began to withdraw from politics, leaving groups such as the South Pointe Advisory Board and the Committee for a Barrier-Free Environment, and even resigning as president of the condo association of South Pointe Tower.

Not so long ago, one Beach political observer cracked, "the waters parted for his wheelchair" at city hall. Resnick no longer has that kind of pull. But he has retained his knack for controversy. Instead of fighting for Thomas Kramer's right to build skyscrapers, however, Resnick is now championing ... bathrooms.

Throughout the Nineties, Resnick has lobbied the city commission for public restrooms on Lincoln Road. He has continually argued that the outdoor mall needs such facilities to accommodate shoppers and browsers -- and, of course, people in wheelchairs. "Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), if they build any public restrooms, they'd have to be accessible [to disabled people]," Resnick explains. The commission's response to his efforts has been deafening silence.

Earlier this year he discovered a different angle, citing the South Florida Building Code that requires restaurants to have one toilet and a urinal, or two toilets, for every 40 seats. Currently, sidewalk cafe seats are not counted in this formula. Resnick posited that they should be. Restaurant owners suddenly faced the prospect of having to either build more bathrooms or cut down drastically on their sidewalk seating. Needless to say, they were not pleased.

"It was an absurd concept," says Ray Schnitzer, co-owner of South Beach Brasserie and the Eleventh Street Diner. "I don't see what [Resnick] had to gain by this. It would be a hardship on the landlord, which would then be passed on to the tenant. There are enough pressures and obstacles to doing business in this town as it is. I guess he figures his role in life is to bust the balls of individual property owners."

City commissioners also expressed their puzzlement over Resnick's tilting at this particular windmill. At a meeting earlier this year Martin Shapiro asked Resnick if he considered himself the "bathroom police."

"Yes, I am!" Resnick bellowed.
His one-man crusade on the potty issue now appears dead. Last month the county's Board of Rules and Appeals referred the matter back to the commission, ruling that Resnick's reading of the South Florida Building Code was wrong.

These days Resnick spends most of his time on issues more directly related to ADA compliance. His nonprofit group Access Now, formed in April, has filed nearly 120 federal ADA lawsuits against hotels, restaurants, and hospitals throughout South Florida. In most cases, Resnick says, he and his attorneys are able to negotiate with alleged violators and guide them into compliance.

Critics have, of course, derided him for picking on small businesses through Access Now. But Resnick points to his efforts to get the city and big hospitals into full compliance with ADA as well. "How is that trying to put the little guy out of business?" Resnick asks. Even in the case of small properties, he says, "It's not our intent, nor will we allow anyone to go out of business."

He's well aware of how his latest crusades have further solidified his reputation, spawned during the Portofino mess, as that cranky old guy in the wheelchair. "I continue to live with this, even today," he says with a sigh. "Last week we were on Lincoln Road -- my wife, my daughter, my grandchildren. As we're heading up the street, some guy points his finger at me and says, 'Are there enough toilets for you?' He starts hassling us, telling me that I'm a mean, bitter man to have started this business about toilets.

"It's like there's no such thing as a difference of opinion," he muses. "It's always, 'You got paid off, you sold out.' It's something that constantly bothers me, this demonizing of someone who doesn't agree with you.

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