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"When we first built the Sonesta in 1968, we were tops," he recalls, glancing through glass doors at the impressive collection of orchids and bromeliads lining his screened patio and pool. "There was simply no other luxury accommodation nearby. Our only competition was a place in Boca Raton and the Breakers in Palm Beach."
These days the seven-story Sonesta is dwarfed by the Ritz and other large hotels and condos that line the beach. Competition and wear-and-tear have made it a money-losing operation for the past five years, Sonnabend says. "At this point the land, which I bought for about $1.7 million a few decades ago, is worth far more than the building.
"Initially I wanted to do something more modest, maybe fix the main building up and build another small building with condominium units," Sonnabend adds. "But I talked with Edgardo, and very early on he had a sense of the possibilities with this land. By 2003 I was convinced that the best thing to do would be to tear down the whole place and build something totally new and very luxurious."
If Sonnabend is aware that some of his neighbors oppose his plans, he seems blissfully unconcerned. "We have been having meetings with all the people who will be affected by our development, and I'm confident we'll be able to iron out our differences."
Kurzban, who lives at the other end of the street from Sonnabend, is less sure. "Right now the Sonesta really works with our neighborhood," he says. "This new thing is just going to loom over us."
His Holiday Colony neighbor, Dziura (whose Mackle cost $55,000 in 1961 and is now worth a little more than $1 million), says it's up to the village officials to deny Defortuna and Sonnabend's request to rezone for their new project. "If they allow this project, it will set a precedent, and who knows what's next. There are a lot of old apartment buildings whose owners might get it in their head that, Never mind the zoning rules we'll just ask the village to rezone and build a big old condo building!"
So Dziura, who says the proposed new towers on the Sonesta site will block sunlight from her home until 10:30 every morning, is organizing residents and conducting a letter-writing blitz, sending missives to local papers and village council members.
Dziura says she doesn't trust her elected officials. "I know change is inevitable," she says. "I've lived here since before there was a Sonesta. But I feel like the village is most concerned with increasing their tax base."
Mayor Robert Oldakowski, a fifteen-year resident of Key Biscayne, says the proposed Sonesta project will be the first real test of the village's ability to regulate development. The mayor, whose second term ends in November, contends that in most respects the new storm sewers, beautification projects on Crandon Boulevard, the Village Green incorporation has been a success. "Now comes the first large-scale development, and I'm already getting a lot of input," he says. "Phone calls, e-mails, letters. People really feel strongly about this project."
Councilwoman Pat Weinman says the process will set the tone of relations between village government and residents. "Everyone understands the need to foster a village where we can continue to have multigenerational families, the kind of place that is affordable and comfortable and really embodies all the things that made people move here in the first place."
Seventy-six-year-old retired social worker Marino Blanco doesn't live in Holiday Colony, but he's troubled by the pace of development on the key. "I know we have codes in place and zoning laws and this sort of thing, but still everything is changing," he laments. "Between all the new mansions and the Sonesta, it's not good for the island."