Paradise Lost

For many residents, the luster of Williams Island is long gone

In July 2004 the Aventura police were dispatched to Williams Island after a resident complained about "a foul odor" coming from the rocks behind one of the buildings. Security personnel found the source to be something wrapped in a blue cloth and covered in flies.

"The cloth was knotted several times and in different ways," according to the police report. "Inside were pieces of what appeared to be a large chicken. The animal was cut up in several pieces along with fruits and white candles, which with my experience was some kind of Santería ritual."

The dead chicken's origins and purpose were unknown, but given the events that have transpired since it was discovered, one has to wonder whether the ritual was a blessing or a curse.

Aerial photos from the late Sixties show Williams Island as a triangular, barren patch of sand with a blob of mangroves in the middle. Developer Norman Cohen dredged the surrounding seabed, filling the marsh to make solid ground. His son, Gary Cohen, who does not live on the island, has teenage memories of hacking through the mangroves with a chainsaw to make a road for construction vehicles. Today, he says, the environmental mitigation fees would make such a development a near impossibility. Back then nobody cared.

Norman Cohen sold the land to the Trump Group, who envisioned ten 30-story towers, a marina, a restaurant, and a spa. (The developer eventually capped construction at eight towers, although a ninth is now planned.) Construction began in 1983.

The developers sought to cultivate an air of exclusivity and refinement. They baptized the development the "Florida Riviera" and trademarked the name, and in promotional material touted its "spirited blend of 1920s French chic and la dolce vita, served up with a splash of tropical elan."

Musicians performed on the construction site for future residents. Sophia Loren was named official spokesperson for the island and was featured in advertising campaigns in the New York Times and Money magazine. Her apartment there was featured on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous in 1987. Host Robin Leach referred to Williams Island as an "exclusive billion-dollar condominium community.... Don't be surprised to see $200,000 Italian sports cars. It's all part of this money-no-object, Europe-in-America feel that Sophia helped give just the right accent to."

Condo prices started at $250,000 and went as high as $1 million in 1985. Maintenance fees in 1987 ran $550 a month according to the New York Times. (Williams Island, the paper added, "is far in every respect from the Riviera, but it does have decent apartments.")

Roy Emerson, an Australian tennis player who won 28 grand slam titles in the Sixties, was retained as resident pro of the Williams Island Racquet Club. Season premiere parties were held each December —black-tie events featuring seven-course dinners at the island's restaurant, Willie's.

"We do not want to invite outsiders onto our island," a Williams Island marketer told the Miami Herald in 1985. "What we're trying to do is create a truly private villa." The definition of "outsiders" was not provided, but the marketer noted, "You won't have a Publix here, for sure."

Residents who bought apartments in the early Nineties remember flutists playing by the swimming pool and jewelry trunk shows with representatives from Christie's. Residents had access to an off-site beach club and golf course, as well as reciprocal memberships to upscale clubs in major cities around the country.

Once most of the units were sold, however, the opulence faded. First the Trumps sold the beach club and the golf course. No longer needed to draw in potential buyers, the club and restaurant became money pits for the developers. They closed them down. The Trumps stopped subsidizing entertainment and the concierge service, which had offered services like personal shoppers. Sophia Loren moved away.

By the late Nineties, a cloud of nostalgia had settled over the development. There were the good old days, and then there was now.

Jan Brooks lived the glory days. He moved to Florida from New York after retiring from a Wall Street career, and has lived on Williams Island for nearly sixteen years. He shows a photo in a white cardboard frame embossed with the Williams Island logo in silver. In it he and his wife are in formalwear, flanked on one side by a very tan Tony Bennett and on the other by Sophia Loren. "This was taken the night before I spent one million dollars on this apartment," he says with evident satisfaction. (Miami-Dade County property records indicate the apartment was purchased for $700,000 in 1991, by a trust in his wife's name.)

Brooks sits on a beige leather couch in the living room of his 22nd floor condominium. His apartment is spacious and full of light, with beige leopard print carpet and gold accents. The day is sunny and through the large windows are expansive views of the Intracoastal waterway, the high rises on Collins Avenue, and the sea. Brooks wears a patterned button-down shirt, khakis, and white velcro-closure New Balances.

Brooks has been on the board of the Williams Island Property Owners Association from the time he moved into his apartment. This year he did not run for office, although he remains in charge of various POA-related matters, like securing the community's cable contract. When the Trump Group closed down the restaurant and clubs, Brooks became one of the various advocates who lobbied to purchase the common areas.

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