Developer Drops Plan for Contentious Sunset Harbour Luxury Condo Tower

Even by Miami's usual standards for knock-down, drag-out development fights, the political brawl over a proposed luxury condo tower in booming Sunset Harbour has been especially bare-knuckled.

First, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine recused himself from the deal in March because he owns property nearby. Then, when Beach Towing began fighting the plan, the developers went nuclear and accused the tow service of operating without a valid license for decades. The tow operator and developer ended up tangled in civil court. 

Well, most of that drama is dead for now. Earlier this week, the project's developers quietly asked a city commissioner to withdraw a request for a height variance for the condo tower, effectively killing the plan. 

"Unfortunately, we had broad support from our neighbors but minority dissenters had some considerations that we tried to address," says Dan Marinberg, an attorney with the developer, Deco Capital. "At the end of the day there was no compromise we could reach."

The project, which was bankrolled by New York-based billionaire Marc Rowan, would have built a 90-foot tower with 15 luxury condos and several blocks of storefront retail along Purdy Avenue. Rowan's group, Deco Capital, assembled eight properties for a development called Sunset Harbour Residences. 

But the project met political turbulence from the start. First, the mayor asked a state ethics board to rule whether he should sit out voting on the deal because he owns millions of dollars worth of Sunset Harbour property. The state said Levine was fine, but the mayor recused himself before Miami-Dade's own ethics board could rule on the question.

Behind the scenes, a blistering fight erupted between Beach Towing and Rowan's group. The tow company owns a restrictive deed on one of the Purdy Avenue properties and demanded a big fee to sign off on the project. Instead, the two ended up in court. 

Amidst that legal fight, Rowan's group filed a complaint with the city citing decades-old records they said proved Beach Towing never had proper permits to run their towing operation

Further complicating matters, Sunset Harbour Residences would have nearly doubled the current height restrictions in the Beach, so city commissioners would have had to sign off on the plan. That lead to more in-fighting and a deluge of emails from residents already fed up with street work and development in the area.

The developers threw in the towel after the latest failed mediation meeting with Beach Towing last week. In letter to commissioners sent yesterday, Deco Capital said that it felt "the appropriate way forward was to respectfully withdraw our application." 

The project's opponents celebrated the move.

"We believe Commissioner Malakoff has done the right thing by withdrawing her sponsorship of a highly divisive and contentious ordinance," says Rafael Andrade, an attorney representing Beach Towing. "The developer should never have politicized and pushed this project with the City Commission, especially without first addressing resident concerns and settling legal disputes with their neighbors."

But Marinberg counters that take, pointing out that neighborhood associations in Sunset Harbour and Belle Isle supported the plan. He says the developers will continue their legal fight with Beach Towing and look into other options on the site. 

"We think the original project was fantastic. It would have been a huge plus for this area," he says. "We're taking a look at what else we can accomplish... We love the location. The location is unparalleled. You can't find properties like that in South Beach any more, especially in such a hot neighborhood like Sunset Harbour. We're very much interested in continuing our development there."

City Commissioner Joy Malakoff, who sponsored the height variance withdrawn this week, says she hopes the group resurrects their project in another form. 

"I'd love to see something happen there," she says. "We'll see what the developer decides to do with that property now." 
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink