It was no accident when super-tall condos began sprouting like cornstalks in summer along the sand in Sunny Isles Beach, but rather the result of a calculated plan: Its founders saw intense beachfront development as the key to transforming a fading, unincorporated 1950s motel row into a thriving resort city fed by a deep revenue stream.
Now, 19 years later, as the latest clutch of uber-luxury towers by superstar architects top off and open their doors, SIB — as its residents have dubbed it — is experiencing the kinds of hard-to-cure growing pains often associated with fast expansion, and quality of life has become a rallying cry for four candidates running on the November ballot for two seats on the City Commission. That includes one incumbent, first-term south area commissioner Dana Goldman, who has drawn an acrimonious challenge from a political novice and longtime condo-association rival, as well as two other political newcomers who are contesting the open north area seat.
Unsurprisingly, auto traffic that one candidate called “horrendous” is the overriding concern of residents and candidates alike, with pedestrian safety as a corollary. There is rush-hour congestion, bottlenecks at pick-up and drop-off time at the highly rated but overcrowded K-8 public school, and heavy stop-and-go traffic at all times on Collins Avenue, the sole north-south artery in Sunny Isles, which is crammed onto a narrow sandbar between the Lehman Causeway and the Northeast 163rd Street bridge.
“We are in some ways a victim of our location,” said Goldman, who as Area 3 commissioner supported development of a master transportation plan that calls for installing pedestrian bridges over the multi-lane Collins Avenue, while improving signals to make traffic flow better and looking for ways to get more residents riding public transit and walking or cycling places instead of driving.
“We’d love to think there is some silver bullet. There is not. It’s a compendium of things, and it will take millions of dollars. We need solutions other than getting into our cars.”
We’d love to think there is some silver bullet. There is not. It’s a compendium of things, and it will take millions of dollars.
Commissioner Dana Goldman, talking about traffic problems
Similar concerns also come into play as the Atlantic Ocean side — which some longtime residents lament they can’t even see anymore — fills up with the massive podiums of new condo complexes. Investors are purchasing property on the city’s mostly low-rise west side with an eye to redeveloping, raising fears not just that traffic could get worse but also that stretches of the city could become a concrete canyon.
“The majority of people I speak to feel enough’s enough,” said Greg Capra, 61, a semi-retired businessman and longtime president of the Poinciana Island condo board who is vying to unseat Goldman. “They say, ‘I can’t see the beach.’ We do not want that on the west side. We do not want to see towers on both sides like Manhattan.”
That’s a diagnosis none of the commission candidates will dispute. Goldman said redevelopment on the west side should be “sensible.” Mendel Bergovoy, a relative newcomer to SIB running for the Area 1 seat, said it must be “responsible.” His rival, Larisa Svechin, who grew up in Sunny Isles before incorporation and came back in 2010 after 18 years away to raise a family, said it must be “in harmony” with the surrounding communities.
All stress that, traffic and development pressure aside, the living is good in Sunny Isles Beach: They say new development has brought a vibrant mix of international cultures and people, including an increasing number of families with school-age kids, to what had been a sleepy community of retirees and picturesque but declining beachfront motels in the increasingly esteemed Miami Modern style, most of which were torn down.
The majority of people I speak to feel enough’s enough … We do not want to see towers on both sides like Manhattan.
Greg Capra, commission candidate
The latest Census estimates put the population around 22,000, 10 percent of which is of Russian origin, with others coming from Latin America and Europe. That number is augmented by thousands of part-time residents and scads of tourists.
The four candidates say the city has judiciously taken advantage of development to keep taxes low for residents while making substantial improvements and planning for the future — Sunny Isles Beach notably developed a high number of public parks for its size, financed construction of the Norman S. Edelcup K-8 Center, a Miami-Dade public school, and will also pay for a new annex, for example. But they agree there’s more to be done.
“The plan was to develop and bring in money and worry about infrastructure later,” said Svechin, 43, who emigrated to Miami Beach as a child from Russia in 1979 with her family and shortly after moved with them to what was then simply Sunny Isles — where she notes many places lacked sidewalks. “The infrastructure has come a long way, but we’re still figuring things out.”
Bergovoy, 35, an ordained rabbi and father of four who makes his living as an international tech consultant and entrepreneur, and who moved to SIB from New York three years ago with his wife and family, echoed Svechin: “I love Sunny Isles Beach. We’re in a good state. We can definitely get a lot better. First and foremost, traffic is horrendous and we have to deal with it.”
With broad consensus on issues and few yawning differences on solutions, the four candidates have sought to highlight local connections and their backgrounds and abilities — and, in the seat 3 race, personal criticism stemming from a bitter and long-simmering condo dispute at Poinciana Island, where both candidates live across the street from each other.
The plan was to develop and bring in money and worry about infrastructure later.
Larisa Svechin, commission candidate
Capra, president for 10 years of the townhouse condo community’s board, posted a video on You Tube contending that Goldman, a condo attorney at Miami white-glove law firm Shutts & Bowen, is “unfit” for office. In an ominous voice-over, the video claims Goldman and her husband installed an air conditioner in their garage without permits, then sued the association for $22 million when they were fined. He says Goldman, who alleged the association engaged in fraud and kickbacks, had to pay the association $84,000 in settlement of its attorney’s fees when she lost the suit.
“She never got a city permit for the AC,” Capra said in an interview. “Then she sued her own HOA, but after four years she had no proof of any of her claims, so she was on the hook for legal fees.”
Goldman sharply disputes Capra’s version. She said she did obtain a permit for the AC, though after the fact, but also says her suit was unrelated to that. The target was what she described as mismanagement and financial malfeasance by the association board under Capra, and retaliation after she and other residents began to challenge him and other board officials. Goldman complained of verbal harassment by board officials and claimed her car was keyed and her tires slashed, and that someone left a rat “with entrails exposed” on her back porch.
The judge dismissed the case on a procedural technicality, she said, before getting to the merits of her complaint, and she had no choice but to cover a portion of the association’s legal fees. The dispute, she said, has made living in Poinciana Island for her and her husband a “nightmare,” but she argued it’s a private matter with no bearing on her public role as a commissioner.
22,000 Sunny Isles Beach’s estimated population, which is augmented by thousands of part-time residents and scads of tourists.
Court records show that Capra and his wife, Nikolina, have also been involved in litigation with other residents, though at least some cases have been resolved in their favor. One case, filed by a Poinciana Island couple who claim Capra libeled and defamed them, in part by publishing an attack on them in the association’s newsletter, remains open.
Goldman said Capra is running against her as “a vendetta,” noting that he has not previously been involved in Sunny Isles Beach civic or political affairs and, until he filed, had never attended a commission meeting.
“That’s all he has to run on, that I sued my condo association,” Goldman said. “It doesn’t define me. It’s a red herring. Let’s talk about the issues, what really matters to this city.”
One of those issues, given her own personal and professional experience, is curbing condo board fraud in the city through a new city office of condo advocacy, she said. Before she was appointed unanimously to fill an open seat on the commission in 2014, Goldman served on the city’s citizen advisory committee and ran a series of public “know your rights” workshops for condo residents. During and following law school at George Washington University, Goldman worked for U.S. senators Bob Graham and Al Gore.
“I’m not a person who just showed up and said ‘Hey, let me run for commissioner,’ ’’said Goldman, 54, a Miami Beach native and mother of a school-age girl who moved to Sunny Isles Beach with her husband in 2001. “I’ve been in the trenches for many years.”
Capra, however, claimed Goldman is too busy with her law job to pay proper attention to her constituents, who he says complain she’s hard to reach. He also said the transportation plan she supported falls short of real solutions. He called plans for pedestrian bridges and encouragement of walking and cycling “band-aids.”
And he said the city needs to come up with better solutions for his pet issue, beach erosion, like creation of artificial reefs and figuring ways to keep sand in place, instead of expensive, and ultimately temporary, beach renourishment.
Bergovoy and Svechin have also underscored their SIB bona fides.
I’m very good at problem-solving. I’m a man of action. I get things done.
Mendel Bergovoy, commission candidate
Svechin returned to Sunny Isles in 2010 after 18 years in New York, where she studied at the New School and the Fashion Institute of Technology and rose to senior vice president of a major advertising agency, to raise her own family. The mother of four, now president of the Edelcup K-8 PTSA, said she has immersed herself in volunteerism and school and civic affairs, including serving on the advisory committee that helped guide the city transportation plan.
As a commissioner, she said one of her main goals would be helping the Miami-Dade school system weed out a significant proportion of Edelcup students who live outside school boundaries, including in nearby Broward County, putting a strain on school resources and contributing to traffic issues, which Svechin said require significant police management on a daily basis. Built in 2008 for around 1,500 students, Svechin said, the school now has 2,200 enrolled.
Svechin also promises to push through creation of a long-promised senior center.
“I’m going to deliver on it,” she said.
Bergovoy says moving to Sunny Isles Beach is a return to roots: He said his parents were born and raised in the area, and he chose the city to raise his children. He studied history and philosophy at Central Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim’s branches in Australia and Canada before graduating from its Brooklyn branch, and has a certificate in organizational leadership from McGill University in Canada. Bergovoy has worked not just in the United States but also recently in India and Turkey as a consultant helping startups. He said he also has advised nonprofits ranging from women’s shelters to food banks as a volunteer on how to set up or run more efficiently. He has also worked as a matchmaking rabbi with the International Shidduch Group Network.
Bergovoy touted his tech skills and knowledge of available and innovative technologies, which he said would prove useful to the city in better managing traffic and identifying school-boundary jumpers. He also pledges to hold regular public meetings with constituents and to get the police department to deploy officers on foot patrol and beef up traffic enforcement.
“I’m very good at problem-solving. I’m a man of action,” Bergovoy said. “I get things done.”