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Someone — perhaps "crazy teenagers" or construction workers — tossed the bench into Biscayne Bay.EXPAND
Someone — perhaps "crazy teenagers" or construction workers — tossed the bench into Biscayne Bay.
Courtesy of Glenn Terry

Grove Residents Say Venezuelan Oil Baron Blocking Public Access to Biscayne Bay

For decades, Coconut Grove residents have trekked to a sliver of land at the end of St. Gaudens Road to enjoy the rare unencumbered view of Biscayne Bay. Someone even put a bench there. But enjoying the view hasn't been easy since a mysterious developer — reportedly hired by the heir to a Venezuelan oil fortune and onetime coup leader — snapped up the lot next door.

First came the 12-foot wall topped with barbed wire. Then came the surveillance camera. Last week, the standoff between the two sides escalated further when someone hurtled the bench into the bay. Construction workers on the site blamed "crazy teenagers," but some neighbors aren't convinced.

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"Give us a break!" Glenn Terry, the founder of the King Mango Strut and a longtime Grovite, wrote on his blog. "I wish the Venezuelan zillionaire who bought the 8-acre Dupont estate at the end of St Gaudens Road would leave us alone."

The identity of the owner of the land at 3500 St. Gaudens Road has been closely guarded since it was sold for $11.7 million in 2013. Property records simply list a corporation called 3500 St. Gaudens LLC. That company's listed officials? Mark D. Rich, a Coral Gables attorney who specializes in helping wealthy American and Latin American clients with real-estate ventures, and Odette Perez, who along with her brother Isaac is reportedly related to the founder of OPEC.

Though his name does not appear in current records, Isaac Perez was previously identified by others in the neighborhood as the property owner. Isaac and Odette fled to Key Biscayne, where their family owned property, in 2002 after their alleged involvement in an attempt to overthrow then-President Hugo Chávez, according to an article in the Tampa Bay Times.

The Perezes couldn't be reached for comment for this story. But their alleged involvement in the tussle over access to the public bay view is just the latest strange chapter in a bizarre history for 3500 St. Gaudens Road.

In the '50s, while still undeveloped, the land was a dumping site for toxic ash from the "Old Smokey" incinerator. Willis duPont, an heir to the chemical fortune, later built a 33-room midcentury modern mansion on the spot and named it Baymere. The home was the scene of a notorious Miami crime in 1967, when five gunmen tied up duPont, his wife, their children, and two servants; ransacked the place; and made off with a fortune in rare coins.

The land was later owned by an oil-rich sheik from the United Arab Emirates before being sold to its current owners. They bought the place at a steep discount — the original listing price was $22 million — after an environmental assessment found dangerous levels of arsenic, barium, lead, and other toxic contaminants. Over the past few years, the owners have demolished down the mansion and begun construction work on a new house.

But throughout the decades when 3500 St. Gaudens changed hands, the narrow strip of land next door has drawn residents who sit on the bench and take in the view, Terry tells New Times.

"It really is hard to see the water in Coconut Grove," he says. "There's three or four miles of coastline, but it's not easy for a member of the public to go to the water because 95 percent of it is privately owned."

Sandwiched between the former duPont estate and a mangrove-covered lot owned by Hollywood director David Frankel, the plot is apparently a no man's land, making it a prime location for locals to get a look at the bay. It's been a make-out spot and hangout for teenagers, but Terry says that's another reason it's such a great location. "I like that aspect of it because, God, it's good to get away from grownups when you're a kid," he says.

When the wall with barbed wire went up, Terry says he noticed there was no permit for the work and complained to the city. Now the barbed wire is gone, but the wall and the surveillance camera remain. Someone also installed bright lamps that make it impossible to see the stars at night.

But at least the bench was still there — until it was wiped out by Hurricane Irma. A few weeks ago, Terry and a friend built a new one in its place. But about an hour after they finished and went home, Terry got a phone call telling him it'd been torn apart and thrown into the bay.

"It was hard to believe," he says. "I went down there and, yeah, it happened."

Though workers told Terry "teenagers" were to blame, he found that story difficult to believe: The vandalism had happened on a Friday before school let out. He built the bench once more and posted about it on his blog: "For the moment you can still sit at the end of St. Gauden Road. Wear something nice, the developer may be watching you." He asked the construction manager to cut him some slack, and weeks later, the bench is still standing.

But to Terry, the bench debacle is just one piece of a sad truth in the Grove.

"Developers keep pushing us away from the good things in Coconut Grove," he says. "They tear down the trees, they block the roads, they tear down the benches, they block the sky. It goes on and on."

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