The Ultimate Nasty Neighbor

A 600-foot-tall monster stomps into your neighborhood. What can you do about it? In the City of Miami, absolutely nothing

By the early Eighties riots in Liberty City, the Mariel boatlift, and the increasingly dangerous downtown environment sent many Edgewater homeowners fleeing for Broward or Kendall. Residences in the once-affluent bayside neighborhood sat empty or became homeless hangouts. Then the Miami City Commission, in a misguided effort to promote redevelopment, changed the area's single-family-home zoning to allow for high-density, multifamily uses. But instead of encouraging investors to build new condominiums or apartments, the new zoning led many property owners to subdivide their spacious houses and carve out as many small, low-rent apartments as possible. Edgewater became a cheap place to get started in Miami -- a boon to many poor immigrants but also, owing to the transient and unregulated nature of the place, a haven for drug dealing, prostitution, and vagrancy.

Now, after decades of battles between concerned residents and the seedier elements, and aided by a gradual influx of middle-class renters and homebuyers, Edgewater has become a quiet bayside retreat from the noisy Biscayne Boulevard corridor, an unglamorous but affordable and relatively safe beneficiary of the burgeoning Design District, the ascendant Wynwood art district, and their attendant marketability. Thanks to these factors, plus the city commission's ill-timed rezoning and the myriad forces that affect real-estate values, it has also become one of the hottest condo markets on the planet.

Against this backdrop, Bermello and Miculitzki in April of last year bought five parcels of bayside property on 28th Street. "We just found this amazing location," Miculitzki recounts. "Willy and I worked together on Onyx [their condo project just three blocks south] and sold 80 percent in the first few weeks, presale. We found a great site and decided to build another one." The duo quickly began the complicated process of obtaining required city permits. They weren't required by any law to inform the neighborhood of their intentions, and they didn't.

Onyx 2 marketing blitz: Sexy signage anda launch party (upper left) 
featuring starlet Tara Reid (her top stayed on the entire evening), 
lured by developers Gustavo Miculitzki and Willy Bermello, who paid for 
her stay in Miami
Onyx 2 marketing blitz: Sexy signage anda launch party (upper left) featuring starlet Tara Reid (her top stayed on the entire evening), lured by developers Gustavo Miculitzki and Willy Bermello, who paid for her stay in Miami

Not until July did Dana Murphy learn something was up; he saw work crews begin tearing down the dilapidated bayfront house at the end of the street. "I'm not against urban renewal, but this stuff is just rolling over this neighborhood and nobody's looking out for the people who live here now," repeats Murphy, who doggedly policed the initial demolition work and kept an eagle eye on workers as they ripped out trees and shrubs on the vacant piece of land between the house and the water. He called code-enforcement officers when laborers dug up and killed trees on city-owned property adjacent to the building site, and again when, in preparation for a groundbreaking celebration, the developers snaked high-voltage electric cables through puddles of water and into the bay, where they powered underwater lights for partygoers. He complained to code enforcement, to city commissioners, and to representatives from Bermello and Miculitzki's company about the fact that work crews turned grassy areas near the water into muddy parking lots.

His griping probably caused a couple of headaches, but Murphy couldn't come close to impeding the giant's progress. Still he harbored hopes he could do more damage, maybe even stop the thing, by making noise at the public meetings where large-scale developments are regulated.

Over the past couple of years, a growing number of Miami residents have voiced the opinion that developers now have the run of the place, that the city's administrators and elected officials have put the desires of real-estate and development moguls ahead of ordinary citizens, that greedy businessmen are trampling over residential neighborhoods with abandon.

But that's not what you hear at the typical zoning-board meeting. There you hear the developers' hired guns wearily bemoan the endless red tape that has stymied their projects. Attend enough of these meetings and you'll hear many variations on the same theme: "My client has spent X months and Y thousands of dollars working with the city and the local residents to make sure this development is one we can all be proud of, and with all due respect I suggest that it is time to let this project go forward."

The reality is that both perceptions are grounded in fact. If Miami weren't developer-friendly, there would be no building boom. On the other hand, large-scale projects like Onyx 2 are in fact required to navigate through a long and winding approval process. On the other other hand, all the analysis done by the city's professionals, whose job is to assess the impact of new projects and make thumbs-up or thumbs-down recommendations, can be ignored or contradicted by the people ultimately responsible for making development decisions: the five-member Miami City Commission.

So last year, when Dana Murphy heard that the commission would be voting on the Onyx 2 project, he pulled together all of his carefully kept files -- copies of citations and digital photos he took of the mess made by Onyx construction crews -- and began preparing his case for an October 28 meeting. In the meantime his unrelenting complaints over tree-cutting on property adjacent to the Onyx 2 site -- property he thought was owned by the city -- had yielded some possible ammunition for the commission hearing. Murphy researched the title to the slender strip of land and found it was held in common by everyone on his block, and had been for decades. But Bermello and Miculitzki had already made a deal with the city: They would landscape the area and preserve it, along with the property across 28th Street from the Onyx 2 site, as a public park. In return they were allowed to build higher than the zoning laws allowed.

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