Key Issue

Should high-rises tower over this pricey island paradise?

Gene Stearns led the pro-incorporation charge. The 60-year-old attorney says "[Big] governments ... don't work for people; they work for larger entities, for special interests," he says. "What [we] wanted was a government that you didn't have to be a lobbyist for developers to access."

Opponents argued that rich key residents wanted to keep their wealth to themselves, without helping Miami-Dade's poorer neighborhoods. And others, like incorporation foe Dan Paul (an attorney who drew up Miami-Dade's first charter in 1957), said at the time that creating more local governments would "be a return to the Dark Ages." Paul was — perhaps prophetically — worried that other areas would incorporate and soon the county would be filled with small fiefdoms, each breeding more bureaucracy and graft.

Since incorporation, three large-scale developments have been built on Key Biscayne, all along the strip of coastal land adjoining the Sonesta: the Grand Bay Towers, the Ocean Club, and Key Colony. The last two, both high-density condo projects, were approved by the county before the village government came into being.

The first mass-marketed homes on Key Biscayne were bungalows built by the Mackle brothers in the Fifties; many are being replaced by mansions
Jacqueline Carini
The first mass-marketed homes on Key Biscayne were bungalows built by the Mackle brothers in the Fifties; many are being replaced by mansions

Dziura, who since 1961 has lived in Holiday Colony, which is near all three developments, says that construction noise and increased traffic aren't the worst things about the neighboring behemoths. "They flood right into my neighborhood," she says. "All that runoff comes right into Holiday Colony. And if they build this new development the way that the Sonesta people want it to be built, it will only get worse."

Ira Kurzban is a prominent immigration attorney who has argued before the Supreme Court and whose clients include deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He has lived in a modest one-story home in Holiday Colony for sixteen years. Kurzban's domicile is a "Mackle house."

"These homes are modest, but we love our house," says Kurzban, whose front yard is adorned with an "Impeach Bush" sign. "It just looks right for the island. It's not the richest neighborhood, but I think our little neighborhood is one of the prettiest on Key Biscayne."

For decades Mackle homes lined the key's winding streets, Kurzban says. But that's changing as new buyers scoop up lots, demolish the 1200-square-foot Mackles, and build homes. A drive through the island's verdant residential neighborhoods reveals five empty lots where Mackles formerly stood and ten more for sale. Countless others have already been replaced.

"People are tearing down the old Mackle houses and putting up these ridiculous McMansions," Kurzban says. "It's not just the coastal strip with all the big development."

Until recently, Harbor Drive, on Key Biscayne's west coast, included a mix of mansions and Mackles. Now a drive down the winding thoroughfare reveals gated mansions on large lots, and massive new homes that make smaller lots look yardless. "It changes the way the whole place looks just to have these giant structures and no yards," Kurzban complains.

The village has building codes that discourage monolithic features but allow people to build bigger if they include balconies, staggered façades, and side-entry garages, according to Key Biscayne's building director Jud Kurlancheek. "But there is only so much we can do without infringing on property rights," he admits.

Argentine mogul Edgardo Defortuna has made Key Biscayne his home since 1993. Defortuna, along with his brother and sister, made millions in real estate sales and then turned to development. He is a fixture on the key, where his aquiline profile can often be seen in the back seat of his Bentley.

In 2004 Defortuna bought and bulldozed Nixon's famous Winter White House and the mansion next door, formerly the home of Nixon's buddy Bebe Rebozo. (He plans a 14,000-square-foot, five-bedroom mansion on the bayside property.) Then, after hearing that Sonesta owner Roger Sonnabend was planning to redevelop his land, Defortuna set his sights on that storied property.

This past March 14, development attorneys for the Sonesta presented their plans to the village council. They called for six new fourteen-story buildings with a total of 240 hotel suites and 37 residential units. If approved, the complex will comprise two high-end spa hotels, one conventional inn, and three condominium towers. The two spa hotels are to be built only 50 feet from the property line of the nearest Holiday Colony homes, on land that is currently occupied only by tennis courts.

After hearing the plan, many residents were incensed. Morty Freed, who called the project "a monstrosity," said it wouldn't fit in. "What they're putting up is not Key Biscayne — it's something that they see with big dollar signs."

Former village Commissioner Mike Kelly seemed weary as he took the podium. "I don't know of a single person in Key Biscayne who is anxious to see more construction along the coastline, with more traffic, with more construction vehicles, with more workers," he commented. "We should do whatever we can within the range of what is legal to try to stop this project from going forward."

Julio Padilla, who lives next door to the Sonesta, worried about the nightmare of two or three years of construction next to his home. "I think this is going to cause tremendous heartache," he lamented.

Sonnabend, Defortuna's partner in the conversion, lives in a Mackle house just down the block from Kurzban in Holiday Colony. He reclines in a chair at his kitchen table on a hot spring day, long legs clad in pink trousers and crossed at the knee as he explains the new project.

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