"A recession is never a good thing," says Saul Gross, owner of Streamline Properties (a real estate management and brokerage firm) and a candidate for the Miami Beach City Commission in the November 6 election. But, he explains carefully, there's a "silver lining" to this ongoing crunch, particularly as it affects the Beach's nightlife industry. "The focus of this new commission can be less on big projects and more on delivering services for the people who live here.... With the downturn in the economy, there's going to be a heavy attrition rate with some of the clubs." If you're willing to think long-term, though, that may not be such a bad thing.
"Washington Avenue was out of balance for a while," Gross continues. "It got too overloaded with clubs, and when there's too many, the low-end clubs become bottom feeders and attract the wrong kind of crowd to the Beach: people who don't spend any money -- just add trash to the streets, drain our services, tax our police. That's all started to turn around."
Strong medicine? No doubt. But clubland's more prosperous proprietors agree with Gross, which is why they quietly supported the city's closure in 1999 of several after-hours establishments, as well as last year's 21-and-over age restriction on nightclub entry.
Saul Gross's nuanced perspective on growth may sound a bit odd coming from a developer. Aren't developers supposed to worship the mantra of "growth is good, the bigger the better?" What is Miami Beach itself if not a testament to real estate speculation, a mangrove-clogged sandbar transformed into a resort isle? Yet spend some time with Gross and you'll come to realize that not all developers are created alike.
Among those who can take credit for the rebirth of South Beach in the late Eighties is Gross, who alongside a handful of other pioneers, such as Tony Goldman, Craig Robins, and Mel Schlesser, fell in love with the Art Deco District. At that time, left to their own devices, most Beach commissioners and realtors would have preferred simply to flatten the whole area and start anew.
"I have to laugh when I look back on it," Gross recalls over a lunch with Kulchur at the Van Dyke Café. When he first set foot in Flamingo Park in 1984 as a 30-year-old New Yorker, "South Beach was a historic area that no one was doing anything with."
That's something of an understatement. Photographer Bruce Weber had yet to put the burg on the international fashion map. Instead of the portfolio-toting models who would act as chum in the water for thousands to come, the blocks south of Lincoln Road were a rough-and-tumble mix of Marielitos living uneasily amid the graying remnants of a once-thriving Jewish shtetl. Crime was rampant, crackhouses a common sight, and the drug-dealing shootouts infamously dramatized in Scarface's opening scenes all too real.
"I'd had a pretty straight corporate existence in Manhattan as a real estate lawyer," Gross remembers. "I was earning a pretty good living. I didn't move here for the money." Like so many other Northerners, Gross found himself seduced by "the architecture, the sun, the beach, the whole style of life here.
"When I finished renovating my first building in 1986 and I put out my For Rent' sign, I had no idea if anybody would even rent a single apartment," he marvels. "People thought I was crazy: 'I can't believe you're putting all this money into these old buildings!' Was it a sound investment strategy? Maybe not. But it was also a labor of love. Next thing I knew I went from renovating a single apartment on [Manhattan's] Upper West Side for $30,000 to renovating 100 apartments down here for $5 million."
As the Nineties got under way, the early risk-takers were joined by a fresh crop of developers, many from across Biscayne Bay with very different ideas about how to proceed. South Beach was burgeoning into a new hot spot, and real estate values were soaring. A clash of development philosophies was inevitable. A slew of skyline-obliterating high-rises was being proposed, and in Gross's view the very qualities that first attracted him to Florida appeared to be under siege. "As South Beach matured, we matured politically," he recalls, referring to himself, Goldman, Robins, and Schlesser. One of that quartet's first political forays involved backing the successful 1991 commission campaign of attorney Neisen Kasdin.
A decade later Goldman is now incoming chairman of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, Schlesser leads the Miami Beach Planning Board, and Robins, who has shifted his attention to Miami's Design District and North Beach, remains a key behind-the-scenes SoBe player as well as one of the city's foremost art patrons.
Kasdin, of course, is the outgoing mayor of Miami Beach, and he's made it clear to his supporters the best way to ensure that his legacy endures is to vote for Saul Gross. "When you dedicate a large portion of your life to the community, you want to see it go in the right direction," Gross says of his motivations for seeking office. "And that means getting involved politically to make sure the vision we had for the area is the one that gets implemented." (As of October 12, Gross had raised nearly $159,000 in campaign contributions, far more than the combined totals of his four opponents, Joe Fontana, Louis Martinez, Dan Pearson, and Julio Lora.)
"In the thirteen years I've owned property on Washington Avenue," Gross goes on, "I've chosen never to rent to a chain. It may not be in my best financial interest -- they pay more, lenders are more comfortable with them -- but to me South Beach is all about character and individuality. And the chains are not. But if we as a city are going to bring them in, we should make them conform to our style."
He points to his own experience as chairman of the Miami Beach Design Review Board. Banana Republic was set to move into Lincoln Road's Chase Federal Bank, a strikingly handsome building constructed in 1947. Rather than let Banana Republic's owners raze the bank's interior, the board forced them to work with it. The result? "How wonderful that the bank's old vault is the changing room!" Gross gushes.
"On Collins Avenue people said we can't preserve these buildings the way they are, we have to make them suitable for retail and allow them to buzz saw the front of the buildings off." Gross rolls his eyes in mock disgust. "It turned out not to be true. We held the line, we made them preserve the buildings, and now the Armani store that moved in there has some of highest sales of its chain in the entire Southeast United States."
One question raised by several of Gross's opponents for the Group II commission seat is the matter of conflicts of interest. Given Streamline Properties' considerable activities -- ownership of two retail strips on Washington Avenue, management of twenty different apartment buildings, and ongoing rehab projects -- how will Gross keep the city's best interests separate from his own?
Without missing a beat he answers, "Throughout my six-year tenure on the Design Review Board I had only three or four conflicts." Moreover, he adds, the real estate projects that could conceivably produce conflicts come before the commission with even less frequency than the board.
To those who see nefarious collusion behind every city hall deal, there's little Gross can say to put them at ease. And given Miami Beach's Eighties history of civic corruption, there's good reason to be suspicious of anyone running for public office. In the end supporting Gross's candidacy comes down to a gut feeling: Do you trust him? Based on the last seventeen years he's spent helping to chart the evolution of the Beach, do you believe Saul Gross will do what's right?
Gross seems aware there's only one way to definitively answer this. As he and Kulchur finish lunch and begin their goodbyes, he stops short. "Can you spare another ten minutes?" he asks. "I want to show you something."
Several minutes later Kulchur is getting a guided tour of the Beach, as seen through Gross's eyes. He pilots his aging Mercedes down Meridian Avenue and draws Kulchur's attention away from a case of hand-labeled John Coltrane and Charles Mingus cassettes on the armrest. "See how the trees arch overhead?" he asks enthusiastically, noting the rows of leafy branches that line either side of Meridian, many of which he helped to plant in front of buildings he's renovated. They're not only pleasing to the eye, he notes, but their shade makes the street pedestrian-friendly. It's a little thing that has a huge impact on day-to-day quality of life. By comparison, he quips, just try strolling down the sun-blasted sidewalks of Euclid or Pennsylvania avenues during the summer -- you'll melt.
He turns his car onto Thirteenth Street and rolls to a stop in front of the archways of the Parc Vendome, a structure he painstakingly restored and then converted to condos. As he begins pointing out all the design details, it's clear the term labor of love isn't just an empty phrase to him. "See those tiles?" he says, pointing out a row of small, flowered-embossed squares near a set of the Vendome's Spanish steps. "You can tell which ones were so smashed up we had to make new ones."
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Kulchur squints hard, to no avail. They all look the same to me.
"No, no, look there," Gross implores with an outstretched finger. "See how a few of them are a little different?"
Um, Saul, they're just little tiles.
He turns to Kulchur and smiles, as if patiently schooling an errant son. "It does matter," he says. "Look, I'm not going to make any bones about it. Development is about trying to make money. But given a choice between making a lot of money and doing something right but making a little bit less money, my choice is to do it the right way."