New to the Aria
A new real estate developer comes to a town already congested with new developers and wants to make a name for himself. So what does he do? He throws a party. A really big party, under a lavishly decorated 15,000-square-foot tent shipped in from Tennessee. He invites more than 1000 of the town's movers and shakers and feeds them sliced beef tenderloin and salmon and an array of salads and rich desserts while a twelve-piece jazz orchestra provides mood music.
That's how Miami Beach met Brazilian developer Jose Isaac Peres, who threw such a bash following the January 22 Luciano Pavarotti concert. A developer of condominiums and shopping centers throughout South America, Peres plans to build Il Villaggio, a luxury condominium where the sand dunes meet neon on coveted acreage at Ocean Drive and Fifteenth Street. While the dinner was officially a Concert Association of Florida event, Peres forked out more than $100,000 to underwrite it.
Some of the guests, though, got a little more than dinner from the beneficent developer: They got free tickets to the Pavarotti concert, entitling them to reserved seats worth from $500 to $2500 apiece. Among the lucky who indulged in Peres's largess were about a dozen board members of the Miami Design Preservation League, a nonprofit watchdog and educational organization devoted to preserving and promoting the architectural integrity of Miami Beach's Art Deco District. Among other activities, the league's board monitors public policy that affects zoning and design in the Art Deco District and reviews plans for new developments and renovations.
Peres's freebies have caused some internal strife in the organization and raised questions about the league's ability to provide an objective analysis of the controversial and high-profile Il Villaggio project. At issue is the fact that at the time of the concert, the organization was in the process of submitting to Peres its review of his project. According to Betty Gutierrez, chairman of the league's 22-member board of directors, Peres had requested such a review in December, in advance of his scheduled hearing before the City of Miami Beach's Design Review Board this past Tuesday. (The league provides such reviews in an effort to educate developers and influence their projects.)
Gutierrez says the league has cast a protective eye on this particular site for years -- since long before Peres bought it, in fact. The reason: Positioned at the southeast corner of Ocean Drive and Fifteenth Street, the lot commands the top of Ocean Drive; moreover, the only privately held chunk of land on the ocean side of the drive is on the long stretch between Fifth and Fifteenth streets. "This is one piece of property that we have monitored since [the league's founding in 1976]," asserts Gutierrez, adding, "It's our position that it should be a continuation of Lummus Park."
Especially in light of Peres's distinctly unparklike intentions, some of the league's board members have questioned the propriety of accepting the tickets. "It should be common sense that if we're going to be reviewing somebody's project, we don't want to be sucking up to them and accepting [expensive] tickets and being listed as patrons in Playbill," rails board member James Gillon, who has been on the board since 1992. "It's entirely inappropriate. It's Third World ethics. We can always speak up, but if we simply didn't comment or had glowing praise for the project it would seem like, 'Golly, these people are really in [Peres's] back pocket.'"
Gutierrez explains that she received the tickets from Peres's company and parceled them out to board members of her choosing. But she adamantly denies that the league has been compromised. "Our objectivity will not be tainted by the fact that this gentleman gave tickets to the community," she declares. "We will say what the majority of the board feels [about Il Villaggio.]"
Other board members who received tickets point out that socializing with developers serves the larger purposes of the league and the historic district. "We go to everybody's parties and we go to everybody's events where we're invited," says Michael Kinerk, a board member since 1977. "Our job is to educate the public and especially the developers working in the historic district. We have to go to their events because we have no forum where we can compel them to be before us.
"Some of us who went to the Pavarotti concert don't even like opera," Kinerk adds. "We were interested in working with the developer."
While Peres didn't formally receive the league's comments until a few days after the concert, the group's Design Preservation Advisory Committee had already developed its responses to the designs weeks before the concert, according to several board members. Among several criticisms, the review took issue with the size and design of the building's pedestal and tower, as well as the structure's effect on pedestrian and vehicular circulation in the area. "We basically told the developer, 'It's lovely, but too big,'" Kinerk summarizes. Board members also say they've voiced criticisms of the project since the concert.
Gillon acknowledges that the league's comments don't indicate any backscratching where Peres is concerned. But the point, he maintains, is that there is an appearance of a conflict of interest, a willingness to cozy up to developers. "I see more people worried about their continued access than about the issues," Gillon concludes.
Fellow board member Victor Diaz says the controversy has prompted a discussion about whether the league ought to develop conflict-of-interest rules. "Although," he quickly adds, "I don't believe it's a conflict of interest to have a social relationship or personal relationship or personal contact with people who come before you in review."
Through a spokesman, Peres insists he was just trying to be a nice guy. "He wants to keep the South Beach denizens informed on what's happening with the project and appreciates their input," says Peter Heinz, a flack for Il Villaggio. "I know he very much wants to be a part of the fabric of South Beach and is doing everything he can to be a good citizen down here.
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