In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Steamrolling the ultra-rich in Aventura

We write these stories — high-rise condo developers threaten to blot out the sun — and the public tends to embrace the cause of beleaguered nearby homeowners. Nobody relishes another big ugly condo looming over a low-rise neighborhood.

Except for the put-upon residents of Island Estates. The usual sympathetic outpouring has not poured out. Not even a trickle.

That’s the downside of life on a exclusive island accessible by passing through — count them — two gated guardhouses. An island with less than two dozen homes, all of them waterfront mansions of the $4 million and $5 million kind, and a private marina. The only way most of us can get a good look at these homes is by Google Satellite or row boat. The word “beleaguered” fits these homeowners about as well as “ghetto” describes Island Estates.

Yet in South Florida, apparently even the wealthy can get rolled by developers. Maybe the controversy in Dumfoundling Bay offers a cautionary tale for folks who don’t reside in double-gated communities. If these people can’t stop a condo developer from mucking up their neighborhood, what chance do the rest of us have?

Island Estates, a fill island dredged up from the Intracoastal waterway 60 years ago between Aventura and Sunny Isles, connects to the mainland by a single, two-lane bridge. The fancy brick-trimmed road that runs through the island’s midsection connects to yet another bridge, leading to another island, with nine empty acres — the last undeveloped privately owned island on Biscayne Bay.

Unhappy homeowners complained to the Herald’s Doug Hanks that when they purchased their pricey homes, developer Gary Cohen’s plans for the far island was something called “Casas de Oro,” golden homes indeed, with 17 even pricier homes, each on lots of 16,000 feet or more.

The 2007 real estate crash stymied Casas de Oro. But Cohen’s back at it again, this time with new partners and intentions to cash in on the current condo boom. He switched from Spanish to French and intends to build Privé, with 160 apartments and parking for 600. The artist rendering for Privé shows a couple of architecturally ordinary (even by Aventura standards) 16-story buildings. The prices – $2 million condos and $6 million penthouses – outshine the architecture.

Suddenly, residents on Island One have discovered that their homes are built along the only connector between the mainland and 600 cars. That their cute little two-lane, landscaped street running the length of their island will be beset by a convoy of cranes and bulldozers and construction supplies and hardhats in their pick-ups, causing the island’s dogs and children and rich oldsters with gimpy knees to scramble for their lives.

They sued, of course. Though you’d think that, with all their resources, the wealthy residents of this enclave might have gotten something more substantial than the developer’s assurance that his empty island next door would not go condo. They are, after all, living in one of the most densely populated cities in Florida. Aventura has more than 10,000 people per square mile, most of them piled atop one another. The road to Island Estates winds through a condo canyon. The view across the bay is of Sunny Isles, another formidable stack of condos. Any direction you looked from Islands Estates, there was another reason to be suspicious.

The Island Estates homeowners’ best hope in stopping Privé seems to be in the fine print of the city code. Hanks reported that with so much more extra traffic passing through Island Estates, the developer must first build another sidewalk for the pedestrians. Except the homeowners aren’t inclined to provide him the land for his walkway. Which has the makings of a big tussle over at Aventura City Hall. Like so many other South Florida homeowner-versus-condo fights, only richer.

Among the many amenities promised with the “ultra luxury” Privé will be yet another guardhouse at the second bridge. Which seems a bit redundant, given that all the ordinary riffraff will be screened out by the two other security guard gatehouses visitors must pass through just to get onto the first island.

The only folks left to trespass onto Privé, then, would be the residents of Island Estates.

On second thought, given all the rancor simmering in Dumfoundling Bay, Privé might need that guardhouse. Staffed with lawyers.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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