Developer Spends Another $370,000 to Sell Voters on North Beach Condo Tower

Voters will decide today whether to allow developer Sandor Scher to build a 250-foot-tall luxury condo and hotel tower on Ocean Terrace — a historic stretch of beachside buildings in North Beach. In the final runup to the election, a dozen business owners and condo heads sidled up to mikes inside the beachfront Days Inn Hotel in North Beach yesterday to talk about the plan that will drastically change the neighborhood. And for this crowd, the answer was an enthusiastic yes.

“If people love South Beach, they’re going to love this new area,” Micky Minagorri, the past president of the Normandy Shores HOA, told a mostly empty room with two TV cameras and a journalist from New Times. “North Beach is the orphan child of Miami Beach. We need to come into the 21st Century.”

That's a message that's been hotly contested in this neighborhood, though, with opponents saying Scher's plan would destroy the historic architecture and low-rise feel of the area. Many say they that don't want to be another South Beach and that a large condo tower doesn't belong in the neighborhood, which is home to a thriving middle-class and largely immigrant community.

"The area is great, with cool little places to get fresh-baked bread and a smattering of really good restaurants," says Marie Alvarez, an 18-year resident of Normandy Shores. "Although some struggle, [they] slog it out to build a better North Beach by investing in what the neighbors truly want."

Scher's vision has plenty of financial heft. Yesterday's news conference was just the latest piece of a carefully orchestrated, big-money campaign. With another injection of $373,000 in the most recent reporting period, Scher's group has now spent nearly $700,000 to win at the polls. 

Beyond a slew of signs throughout Miami Beach, an avalanche of direct marketing has hit residents leading up to the vote. "It's an invasive barrage of emails, robocalls, social media tweets, and posts," Alvarez says, "from a variety of real-estate agents, developers, candidates for political office, and others with a personal agenda." 

On the opposite side of the campaign is a grassroots group with little cash but plenty of volunteers who have been knocking on doors and pleading with neighbors to vote no on the measure. Katie Comer, a "Save Ocean Terrace" activist, says her group’s campaign is underfunded but passionate.

“We don’t have spare funds at this point, so we’re just continuing to do what we can: organize volunteers at the polls and major intersections, circulate materials in print and online, speak to news outlets,” Comer says. “We hope that Miami Beach voters aren’t fooled by their flashy-fancy campaign.”

Since its heyday in the '60s and '70s, the beachfront Ocean Terrace has decayed, and the heart of the debate over today's vote is how to revitalize it. Opponents of the proposal point to a city-sponsored plan that would save buildings and rehabilitate structures. 

But Scher has bigger plans. He's spent more than $70 million buying more than a dozen properties in a project to build a 70-unit luxury condo tower, which would necessitate demolishing several historic buildings. 

First, he'll need voter approval. In 1997, Beach residents passed a charter amendment — the so-called Save Miami Beach referendum — that requires certain waterfront developments be put to a public vote. Today's ballot is the first time a developer has taken that question to voters.

Scher argues that the current zoning “doesn’t work” for developers, which is why the strip has sat ignored for so long. He says his plans will create 230 new parking spaces, via underground and above-ground lots, some 400 new jobs, and a strip of upscale shops. He also points out that the entire project will be overseen by the Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board.

It's a message that was echoed by the business owners he brought together at his news conference. 

"Crime goes where there's blight," says Rick Kendle, a board member of the North Beach Development Corporation. "And this area is a certified blighted area." 

Joe Goldstein, a longtime owner of a kosher deli on Collins Avenue in North Beach, said at the news conference that business has declined in recent years and that an infusion of cash would help lure more quality shops to the area. “Right now I don’t see it going anywhere but down,” he said of the neighborhood. 

But opponents say there's a way to spark a revival without sacrificing the historic architecture or the low-lying vibe of the neighborhood they love. And they want to be part of the planning. 

"We all share a desire to revitalize the area, but through careful planning that is sensitive to the character, architectural heritage, and community," Comer says. "That's everything that makes North Beach special."