Key Issue

Should high-rises tower over this pricey island paradise?

Sunlight gently filters through the royal palms lining Key Biscayne's Village Green and then settles softly on the tanned and healthy shoulders of small children who dart and squeal like piglets at play. Jaguar and Mercedes sedans fill the parking spots lining the lush community park, and sunglassed moms and nannies chat in small groups, keeping an eye on the offspring. These kids are happy — and why not? They live on an idyllic island where, excepting the occasional hurricane, the weather is fair, the sights are beautiful (Look! An osprey carrying a wriggling fish! And over there, a model jogging!), and everything bespeaks the wealth of the island's blessed inhabitants. In short, Daddy is rich and Mama is good-looking.

And although Key Biscayne's mommies may have to resort to nipping and tucking to fend off time's inevitable degradation, the daddies will likely only get richer. The two-year-old Village Green and adjacent community center and town hall testify to Key Biscayne's enormous affluence, and the luxury hotels and gated condo communities across Crandon Boulevard are a harbinger of even richer folks to come. Property values here have tripled in the fifteen years since incorporation — the cheapest home for sale on Key Biscayne right now is listed at $1.3 million.

Across the boulevard from the park, the Sonesta Beach Resort Key Biscayne looms behind a neighborhood of cozy bungalows, the kind of modest homes that once lined the key's quiet streets. A landmark for 38 years, the hotel will close August 31 and might soon be demolished to make way for more luxury condos and a five-star inn.

If Key Biscayne's politicians allow it, six new towers (as 
pictured in this rendering from the developer) will stand 
along the island's eastern skyline
Photo courtesy of Dbox and Oppenheim Architecture
If Key Biscayne's politicians allow it, six new towers (as pictured in this rendering from the developer) will stand along the island's eastern skyline
Multimillionaire developer Edgardo Defortuna wants to 
change the island where he has lived for thirteen years
Multimillionaire developer Edgardo Defortuna wants to change the island where he has lived for thirteen years

Mustached retiree Marino Blanco wonders whether all of this opulence is a good thing. "My question is: Who is going to live in these condos?" he asks, leaving the answer (very rich outsiders) unspoken. "But more to the point, where are my children going to live?"

Blanco moved to Key Biscayne in 1987, purchasing a two-bedroom townhouse for $160,000. Now his property is worth about $800,000. He's happy about that (though property taxes concern him), but he and some of the other homeowners on the island are worried about the changes sweeping their little slice of subtropical paradise. "We are messing with the most important thing," he says. "The identity of the island."

Indeed Key Biscayne has both a storied history and one of the wealthiest populations in Miami-Dade County. When it incorporated in 1991, residents believed overdevelopment would stop. Yet the population has increased by 25 percent since then, from 8800 to around 10,000, and high-rises cast a shadow like a great wall along the island's eastern edge. Huge houses fill midsize lots, and the sense of crowding is increasing.

Residents' inability to stop the crowding has left some feeling betrayed by those who lead them — and that sense of betrayal has many gearing up for a fight over the new Sonesta project.

The issue has implications in eight other communities that have incorporated since Key Biscayne — Aventura, Doral, Miami Lakes, Pinecrest, Palmetto Bay, and Cutler Bay — comments real estate analyst Michael Cannon, who has kept a close eye on these municipalities. "These little local governments ... are still learning how to deal with development, and the people who live in them are learning whether they can trust their politicians."

Key Biscayne, a pastoral oasis situated just across a bridge from grimy downtown Miami, has occupied a unique place in South Florida's history since its discovery by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513. Over the years it has been a home to Tequesta Indians, a bird-watching site of John James Audubon, a haven for Seminoles (who attacked and burned the Cape Florida lighthouse in 1836), and a winter retreat for America's most infamous president.

"Before Nixon started coming here, everything was different," says Chris Dziura, who has lived on the key for almost 50 years. "Most of the homes were pretty modest, and the island was very quiet."

The modest homes Dziura mentions, like the one she occupies, are called "Mackles" by key residents. The appellation was given to the first mass-marketed homes built on Key Biscayne. The Mackle brothers — Robert, Elliot, and Frank — bought parcels of land from the Matheson family and put their first 289 homes up for sale in 1951. Over the next decade they would build hundreds more, all in the same modest, one-story style.

In the Sixties, when Nixon wintered on the key next door to his confidant Bebe Rebozo, the attention of the national press focused on the island, and on Nixon's so-called Winter White House.

Around the time Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and company were sunning themselves on the key, in 1968 Roger Sonnabend built the Sonesta, the island's first luxury hotel. It quickly became a landmark, its staggered, semipyramidal shape a tribute to sleek modernity and elegant opulence.

Over the next two decades, as the island's population grew, discontent with Miami-Dade government festered. Key residents believed they were being overtaxed and underserviced. Some complained about the growing cluster of tall buildings near the Sonesta that blocked out the sun and made their island feel more urban than Old Florida.

By 1991, when the people of Key Biscayne voted to form a city, they complained — loudly — that county government was bloated and unresponsive. They wanted better firefighting and police protection. And then there were those high-rises.

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