Developers and Residents War Over North Beach

The breeze whips off the sand as Kirk Paskal sweats under a hot October sun, his back to the turquoise Atlantic. With one hand over his brow, he squints longingly at a boxy, two-story beige hotel. Formerly known as the Ocean Way, the hotel is decayed, the paint now cracked and chipping, but its clean architectural lines still catch the eye.

"It needs some help, but I think it's beautiful," says Paskal, who is tall with spiky brown hair. "It sure has its charm."

The building stands on the two-block Ocean Terrace, the main promenade of North Beach, which stretches from 63rd Street north to Miami Beach's city limits at 87th Terrace. The neighborhood is a quirky, low-key oasis where residents are middle class and speak Argentine-, Colombian-, or Cuban-accented Spanish. Sandwiched between the luxury Fontainebleau-driven hotel scene of Mid-Beach and the multimillion-dollar homes on Indian Creek Island, it's a unique holdout in the barrier island's race to international luxury.

Paskal, a 17-year local who works as director of operations and development for Winter Music Conference, has spent years pushing for some TLC on Ocean Terrace, a humbler echo of SoBe's famed Ocean Drive. The crumbling buildings should be transformed into restaurants, cafés, and hotels, he says.

"We have incredible diversity and a neighborhood that feels unique from the rest of Miami Beach," he says. "We want to make sure that it keeps being a neighborhood."

Beach locals will be asked whether a developer should have permission to break the rules.

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But Paskal and his neighbors aren't the only ones with grand visions for the decaying strip. Earlier this year, megadeveloper Sandor Scher dropped more than $70 million to snap up nearly an entire block, including half of Ocean Terrace. The businessman plans to build high-end retail shops, to renovate and expand an art deco hotel, and to demolish several oceanfront properties — including the Ocean Way hotel — all to make way for a 70-unit luxury condo tower, where properties will go for millions each.

"This could be the biggest thing that's ever happened to North Beach," Scher says.

Unlike most Miami stories pitting loaded developers against residents, though, this one has a catch: Because Scher's plans would challenge Miami Beach's strict zoning regulations, voters get a say on the idea next week. It's the first time in 18 years that Beach locals will be asked whether a developer should have permission to change those rules.

Scher is taking no chances with the vote. His company has already sunk $300,000 into the campaign, hiring one ex-mayor and the current mayor's powerful campaign manager, blanketing doors and storefronts with slick ads and handbills, and wrangling the backing of the Beach's top elected officials.

On the other side are passionate residents like Paskal with few resources but an energetic following. They've spent hours knocking on doors arguing their case: that the battle over North Beach is the most important fight since the 1970s, when another small band of scrappy activists helped save South Beach's most important legacy — its stunning art deco district — from demolition.

"I'm not a politician, and I'm not a public speaker," Paskal says. "But this is our absolute last oceanfront commercial property, and I believe the community is being mowed over."

Nancy Liebman will never forget the moment an iron wrecking ball smashed into the pastel-green façade of the New Yorker Hotel on Collins Avenue. With a thunderous crash, concrete fell to the ground January 7, 1981, and heartbroken preservationists looked on as an art deco gem was destroyed.

Liebman, a young mom who had moved to Miami 12 years earlier, was among the activists fighting to save SoBe's art deco gems. But they were losing. Developers wanted to build condominiums instead, and politicians believed it was the only way to save a blighted neighborhood.

"South Beach was dismal at the time," says Liebman, who would later sit on the city commission. "There were few hotels, no sidewalk cafés — it was desolate."

"Just developing a big building isn't going to revive a neighborhood."

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The tale of SoBe's art deco district's near destruction lays the groundwork for the current battle in North Beach. Just as the conflict over Ocean Terrace comes at a low ebb for the neighborhood, SoBe's fight came amid decay and crime. Its resurrection turned the neighborhood into an international tourist hub but also sparked the overdevelopment that led to the stringent rules Scher now wants to break.

"Preservation doesn't mean you make an area into a museum," Liebman says. "It means new buildings should be sensitive to what exists and complement the architecture. Just developing a big building isn't going to revive a neighborhood."

The Beach's deco buildings date to the '30s, when the area exploded into a fashionable escape from Northeast winters. But by the '70s, the hotel scene was passé. Miami Beach was on the verge of bankruptcy, and South Beach was filled with poor retirees. When the Mariel Boatlift brought thousands of Cuban refugees — many with ties to the drug trade — crime spiked.

City leaders entertained plans to essentially tear down South Beach and start over. That's when Liebman got involved. Growing up in New Jersey, where she walked everywhere and knew her neighbors, she appreciated South Beach's close community. She joined the Miami Design Preservation League, which won a national historic designation for South Beach in 1979 that recognizes more than 800 buildings.

But that victory didn't legally protect the properties. So the group pushed for a local Historic Preservation Board, just as like-minded developers such as Tony Goldman began buying and renovating deco buildings. By 1982, they had passed local laws protecting the historic structures. And in 1986, voters overwhelmingly approved a $3 million bond proposal to improve Ocean Drive, leading to an explosion of outdoor cafés and shepherding in a Miami Vice-fueled tourism boom.

"Fixing up the sidewalks and lights was like a spark, like a miracle," she says.

There was a dark side to that huge success, though. By the early '90s, developers had turned their attention to the derelict South Pointe at the southern tip of Miami Beach. German developer Thomas Kramer purchased whole blocks with far-out plans for projects like a replica of an Italian fishing village and a $500 million casino. He later settled on a series of high-rise luxury condos, beginning with the massive Portofino Tower.

There were no height restrictions at the time, and as the cranes began to loom over South Pointe, preservationists saw the writing on the wall. Many of the same activists who had fought to save the deco district pushed for a charter amendment requiring a vote for huge projects like Kramer's. In 1997, that idea won at the polls.

"It was a landmark election," says Jose Smith, then a city commissioner who later became the city attorney and is now North Miami Beach's city attorney. "Voters very emphatically, by a supermajority vote, said, 'Enough — we have enough development.'"

Those rules got even tighter two years later, when voters backed another charter amendment setting strict limits on the size and mass of projects. Since those two victories, no developer has ever gone back to voters to ask for an exemption for a megaproject — until now.

It's all happening in a neighborhood that's a far cry from Kramer's luxury South Pointe.

"This is our absolute last oceanfront commercial property... the community is being mowed over."

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Instead of deco, North Beach is known for Miami modernism, or MiMo, a postwar style featuring flat roofs, acute angles, and curved walls. The 1950s Deauville Beach Resort, designed by Morris Lapidus, is a quintessential example. North Beach boasts the largest concentration of MiMo buildings in South Florida, earning it a 2009 designation on the National Register of Historic Places.

The neighborhood has always been low-key and residential. Liebman raised her kids in the neighborhood in the '70s. "It was thriving, with more physical amenities than elsewhere on the Beach," she remembers.

But the area has been forgotten during South Beach's revival. Many buildings on Ocean Terrace haven't been touched in 20 years. Collins Avenue storefronts now sit vacant, and some residents complain about rising crime.

Redevelopment has been sporadic and ill-planned. The largest project in the area — the 28-story St. Tropez condo — was built in 1999 and grandfathered in after voters passed height restrictions two years later. Today it stands alone and out-of-place on low-slung Ocean Terrace, the shops at its base completely vacant.

"That pretty much destroyed a whole block of historic buildings," says Steve Pynes, chair of the Miami Design Preservation League. "The idea that a bigger building transforms a blighted area just isn't accurate."

That's why critics like Pynes are feeling déjà vu over the looming North Beach vote. "Just like we did in South Beach, we want to preserve the character of the historic buildings," he says. "You can make things better without changing that character or losing it."

Sandor Scher, a well-dressed businessman with curly brown hair, sits in his downtown Miami office surrounded by stacks of papers and renderings of his plans for North Beach and Ocean Terrace. The man behind some of Miami's most notable development projects is eloquent and energized as he speaks about the revitalization he wants to set off in North Beach. He says he's been intrigued by the area for the past six years.

"This is one of the most amazing oceanfront areas of Miami Beach," he says. "And the way it is now, it's a wasteland. It's distressing."

Scher is passionate and charismatic, leaning on a record of successful projects as he pitches a compelling plan for changing the face of a neighborhood that needs an infusion of cash. But activists say that charm masks a project that would erase North Beach as it exists and go against the wishes of Miami Beach voters who changed the city's rules to prevent exactly this type of megaplan.

Millions of dollars are at stake and hundreds of thousands are being spent to try to sway voters before next week's showdown.

Scher grew up in New Jersey and got into development out of college in New York. In 2002, he fell in love with a woman from Miami and moved to town, bringing his firm, Claro Development, with him.

His company has given $100,000 to the political action committee For a Better North Beach.

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The 40-year-old Scher has earned plaudits for his work refurbishing historic hotels such as the Shelborne, the Standard, and the Raleigh. "In the past decade, no one has done more high-quality restoration on Miami Beach," he says. "I'm really proud of that."

But none of his past work has involved a public vote. His full vision for Ocean Terrace emerged earlier this year when he asked the city to change the zoning for his project. The details are eye-popping: a 250-foot-tall condo tower with 70 units and a 125-foot-tall hotel with 220 rooms. The tower is more than triple the current height limit. Scher promises some 300 new jobs as part of the deal.

A zoning waiver is not an easy concession to win; a similar effort on Washington Avenue flopped this past spring. But Scher argued that the rules aren't fair. "The zoning doesn't work, and no developer can work with it," he says. "A lot of people are happy because someone is finally coming in who spent a lot of money and has a great vision."

The City of Miami Beach Commission agreed, voting in July 6-1 to send Scher's plans to the ballot for voter approval.

Scher has been marshalling his forces to win next week. He has wooed residents by working pro bono on a senior center in North Beach, earning the backing of numerous homeowners' associations. Mayor Philip Levine voted yes to put the issue on the ballot, but he hasn't expressed which way he'll vote in the election. His office didn't respond to New Times' questions about his position.

And with millions in investments on the line, Scher hasn't shied away from spending big. His company has given $100,000 to the political action committee For a Better North Beach. He's drafted über-lobbyist David Custin — who is running reelection campaigns for Levine and three new candidates — at $8,000 a month. And Scher also hired former Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin as the project's attorney.

At the heart of Scher's campaign blitz is a simple argument: The only way to breathe life into North Beach is to knock down decaying buildings and start anew. "We have a great plan for this block, and it's time for action," he argues.

But residents like Paskal argue that he's wrong and that South Beach's own history has proven it. In fact, they say an alternate, neighborhood-friendly blueprint for improving North Beach is already in the works.

Just last year, the city held a series of workshops with the community, which led to an action plan called North Beach Revitalization Strategies. The plan's series of infrastructure action items echoes South Beach's work in the '80s: city improvements to roadways and sidewalks, coupled with stronger aesthetic standards, code compliance, and historic preservation laws.

"None of the ideas requested by the community on the revitalization plan included a wish for more high-rise condos," Paskal says. "We all want to see North Beach move forward, but can there really be no middle ground?"

In fact, Scher's plans could move the neighborhood backward, they argue. William H. Cary, a former Miami Beach assistant planning director, told commissioners in July that the development could lead to the National Register dropping the North Shore Historic District.

"This would be a huge negative blow to the city's integrity, its residents, and to this city commission," Cary said.

But Scher and his allies shake off those critiques. In recent debates, Kasdin has argued that waiting for a larger master plan hasn't worked in the past. Instead of the example of the deco district, he points to the rebirth of Miami's Design District and the 1111 Lincoln Rd. parking garage. Both "would never have happened if we'd waited for a master plan," he argues.

"There have been so many master plans for North Beach in the last 20 years, and nothing has come from them," he says. "It's important to take advantage of a willing developer who wants to make the financial investment."

Beyond the philosophical debates, critics also say Scher has used his power to subvert voters' wishes to protect historic buildings and prevent massive construction.

"This proposal was fast-tracked because this developer had the inside track on the majority of the commission," Jose Smith, the former commissioner and city attorney, says. "Doing this type of thing so fast, with the... increase being something never done before since 1997 is just troubling. As well-intentioned as it might be, this project scares me."

Paskal knows that on paper his mishmash of activists and neighbors is no match for Scher's well-funded campaign. They've created the website Save Ocean Terrace and have organized on social media. They've printed shirts, stickers, and signs and have used funds from the Miami-Dade Preservation Planning Action Group to send mailers. And, of course, Paskal and others have spent hours canvassing.

"It's actually been a great way to get to know more of my neighbors," he says. "That's the silver lining."

As the rain drenches North Beach, Ricardo Rodriguez and Franziska Medina march door-to-door in red "Save Ocean Terrace" T-shirts, trying to keep handfuls of fliers dry.

They're both foot soldiers in a flashpoint war on the future of development of Miami Beach. The vote on Scher's project comes as Mayor Levine faces a reelection race against his opponent, David Wieder, assailing the mayor for close ties to developers and underscoring the friction many Beach residents feel as increasingly pricey and exclusive projects move in — including a new SoBe tower where the penthouse just sold for a record $61 million.

Critics say voting against Scher's plans would pump the brakes on the latest beach-side development — or at least alter the plans.

"This is a golden opportunity for people with good vision and who know how to complement and add to the existing," Nancy Liebman says, "rather than wipe out the existing."

"This is a neighborhood for more modest people. It's enough already. There's nowhere else to go."

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Scher believes in his vision, though. He recently sponsored Swim Miami Beach on North Beach, right in front of the proposed development, where he argued that his plan is the best chance North Beach has to save its historic character. Though critics complain the project was rushed, he says he has devoted the past 18 months of his life to it.

"I'm not from New York or L.A. — I'm a local guy," Scher says. "This has really been one of the most publicly drawn-out processes one could have."

After two hours of going door-to-door, Rodriguez and Medina arrive at their last stop for the night: a fourth-floor apartment at 79th Street and Abbott Avenue. They knock on the door, and Mariela Sexton answers. The 75-year-old, originally from Colombia, wears curlers in her hair. As she speaks, the smell of dinner wafts through the doorway. She's lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, she says, and says many of her neighbors have lived here just as long.

Discussing the proposed development with Rodriguez and Medina, she nods her head as they outline the details of what's to come. Finally, after listening intently for a few minutes, she responds in Spanish.

"This is a neighborhood for more modest people," she says. "It's enough already. There's nowhere else to go."

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Jessica Weiss