Four years ago, Stefanie Voigt, an underwater cinematographer, moved into an apartment on a small island called Belle Isle, part of the Venetian Islands in Miami Beach. Her building overlooked Biscayne Bay, her rent was affordable, and her neighbors were friendly and welcoming. It was pretty much the ideal living situation.
Voigt’s future at 31 Venetian Way, however, is in jeopardy: The owner has proposed demolishing the 120-unit apartment complex, which was built as army barracks, to build a 172-unit complex. The new project would stand five stories tall, up two stories from the 1930s-era buildings there now.
"It’s a beautiful place, and they want to rip it down," Voigt says. "Nobody wants to leave, and we’re all just thinking about how we can stop this."
Belle Isle has a reputation for being a bit of a hidden gem. The New York Times featured the island in a 2008 article about "the serenity of the Venetians," and New Times named it Best Hidden Neighborhood in 2011. That's exactly why Voigt and her neighbors are worried about losing their spot in paradise.
"There's no such place like this in Miami Beach," she says. "It's a little refuge."
Tuesday night, Voigt and about 20 other Belle Isle residents met to discuss their options. The outlook is grim: The developer is asking for only a small variance for the driveway, and the proposed project would have 38 fewer units than the law allows.
While there are few, if any, legal concerns about the proposal, residents worry about how the project would change their neighborhood. The new apartments would be built at a higher elevation to accommodate for sea-level rise, and with two new stories, the building would be much taller than the existing structures, likely blocking the bay view for some neighbors. Voigt says the majority of her neighbors almost certainly wouldn't be able to afford rent in the new luxury apartments.
Residents also worry about how the additional apartments would affect traffic and the environment around the neighborhood. Voigt, who studied marine biology in college, says she worries the construction noise and debris could scare off local wildlife, including manatees, dolphins, and a beloved neighborhood crocodile. ("We called him Rupert," she says. "He was really cute.")
Attorney Richard Freeman, who has lived in a condominium on the island since 2003, says he’s fed up with overdevelopment in the area and is even considering moving out of Belle Isle if construction continues the way it has been for the past several years.
"Miami Beach has become unsustainably overwhelmed with traffic," he says. "It’s not that I’m against [the property owner] or their project in particular, but I’m against unbridled development in Miami Beach, and this is just another nail in the coffin."
To illustrate the problem, at Tuesday’s meeting Freeman rattled off a list of developments planned near Belle Isle and Sunset Harbour.
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"It’s like putting too many jewels on a really pretty girl," he told New Times. "You can’t kiss her because she’s got all this stuff on her face. At a certain point, you’ve got to say basta."
Freeman is trying to organize residents to attend a June 7 meeting where the city’s Design Review Board (DRB) will analyze the project. But some residents say they are afraid to speak out, fearing retaliatory evictions.
"Everything turns into more glass buildings, and no one has a connection between each other anymore," says one resident of 31 Venetian Way, who asked New Times not to use her name. "We’re a community here, and we all socialize together. There are kids running around, dogs running around, plants out there. We get together almost every night. They want to change all this, and it’s just heartbreaking."
Earlier this week, the application for 31 Venetian Way was listed on the DRB’s June 7 agenda, but as of Wednesday, it appeared to have been deleted. Reached by New Times, a DRB representative said that the project is still on the agenda for June 7 and that the mistake should be corrected online.