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
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

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.

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.

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.

"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."

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