Controversial Disney family development a go on Miami Beach

Amid back-and-forth allegations of extortion and bullying, a controversial Miami Beach condo project backed by the Disney family has been approved at the entrance to the Sunset Islands.

10/03/2012 2:11 PM

10/04/2012 9:11 AM

Miami Beach’s steadily evolving Sunset Harbour neighborhood is losing a vacant cleaners and an abandoned development site and gaining a sleek new five-story retail and condo complex — not that neighbors are particularly happy about it.

The city’s Design Review Board on Tuesday approved the Palau at Sunset Harbour, hailed by city planners as “one of the most significant residential projects that will be developed in the city for a long time to come,“ but opposed by surrounding neighborhood groups.

The city’s Planning Board has already consented to the project. Final approval comes from the city’s zoning administrator.

“It’s a beautiful project and it belongs in the neighborhood,” said Wayne Pathman, a lobbyist for Palau Sunset Harbour, LLC, which according to city records is backed primarily by the Disney family.

The modern, glass-heavy project includes 50 condo units and more than 11,000 square feet of retail space, according to city documents. The project is designed by local architect Kobi Karp and will be built on the site of the old Mark’s Quality Cleaners and stalled Cypress Bay properties at the entrance to two of the four the Sunset Islands.

Investors led by the Roy E. Disney family’s Shamrock Holdings investment firm purchased the land nearly a year ago for $8.2 million, according to city and Miami-Dade County records.

The late Disney, nephew of Walt Disney, was a high-level executive in the family company.

The project has been called another step in the evolution of Miami Beach’s Sunset Harbour neighborhood from an industrial zone on Biscayne Bay to a residential and commercial hub of condo towers, townhomes, restaurants, clubs and stores like Publix and Fresh Market.

City planners and Karp said the project was greatly shaped by community input. But the Palau has been dogged by criticism from neighbors, including developers and architects.

Talks devolved into conflicting allegations of hush money and extortion. The project was also complicated by a lot split that took place on the development site years ago without the city’s knowledge, though before the properties were purchased by Palau investors.

“They have never had any support for this project,” said Terry Bienstock, president of the Sunset Islands III and IV homeowners association.

Bienstock said the concerns of residents — excluding Karp, who lives on Sunset Island III — are due to the Palau’s height and massing, which he said is out of scale with the surrounding community.

But relations between the developer and critics soured as talks progressed over the last year. At one point, the developer accused Bienstock’s association of trying to strong-arm the developer, pointing to an email from Sunset Islands resident Peter Luria as proof.

“How much extra will it cost you if you have to eliminate one column of apartments from your plans? We are an equal opportunity pay for play” association, the Luria email read.

Luria admitted he sent the email, but said he was joking. He said the money his email referenced was related to discussions about the developer paying to bury the project’s utilities as part of an undergrounding project being considered on the Sunset Islands.

“It’s not an attempt to blackmail them,” said Luria, who said that city attorneys had looked into the matter. “It’s an attempt to settle this.”

Assistant City Attorney Gary Held said at the meeting that the city wasn’t concerned about the allegations.

“Nobody cares about it,” said Held.

Luria, in turn, said the developer tried to buy the association’s silence with $75,000, which Pathman denied.

The Palau is also in a dispute with its neighbor, developer Michael Comras, whose company owns a building on the development site. Comras held a declaration and covenant with the seller of the Cypress Bay project that resulted from the lot split by World Bank, the property owner before selling to Cypress Bay developer Lease Florida.

But the Design Review Board granted a modification to the previous site plan for the property, which the Palau developer needed to move forward.

City planners now say it’s up to the developer to craft an exemplary project.

“This is the first thing you see when you come off Alton Road,” Assistant Planning Director William Cary said. “So it really has to be good.”

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