Real Estate

How this seaside strip went from touristy motels to skyscrapers, Trump and Russians

A beautiful day on Sunny Isles Beach

Visual trip through Sunny Isles Beach.
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Visual trip through Sunny Isles Beach.

This is the latest installment of an occasional series called Where We Live, highlighting South Florida neighborhoods. Previous articles have visited North Beach, Redland, Pembroke Pines, the Miami River area and Key Biscayne.

Like many things Miami, the history of Sunny Isles Beach — that 1.5-mile ribbon of land on the northern tip of our most famous barrier island — involves turquoise waters, a strip of sand and a New York developer. Its present embraces the same elements, but with a 21st-century twist.

At the beginning of the last century, a Rochester native saw promise in this undeveloped sandbar. Decades later and long before he became president, another New Yorker, developer Donald Trump, would see the same opportunity in the strip, lending his name to high-rises along Collins Avenue.

Saying that Sunny Isles Beach — or SIB, as residents call it — has been transformed out of wilderness is hardly an exaggeration. Even as recently as 20 years ago, few would have predicted its current skyline.

“When I first started coming here [in 1995], the motels on the strip were attracting the wrong clientele,” recalls resident Bob Welsh. “My wife and I would walk on the beach at 7 a.m., and you would see drug paraphernalia and used condoms everywhere.”

No more. “Now,” he adds, “it’s a top-notch resort area. It’s been a great transformation.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of incorporation for Sunny Isles Beach, which stretches north from 158th Street to the boundary of Golden Beach, around 192nd Street. As you drive north on Collins Avenue, the city’s aorta and main north-south thoroughfare, the sea grape trees of Haulover Park give way to a concrete canyon of glass and metal, new buildings surrounded by small manicured gardens of impatiens, begonias and copperleaf shrubs. Blue banners announce beach access points and cranes seem to be everywhere, along with signs announcing new luxury residences.

Of course, Sunny Isles Beach isn’t just high-rises. Two single-home family communities have been around for a while: large, expensive residences at Atlantic Isle at the south end of the city and Golden Gate Estates at the north end.

What’s more, SIB’s evolution has been about more than buildings. Demographically, it’s gotten younger and more diverse as well. “I was 56 years old and the youngest person in my building 20 years ago,” Welsh recalls. “Now there are so many young people and families everywhere.”

On a recent balmy winter day, both residents and tourists are out in full force, carrying lawn chairs as they head for the beach or pushing strollers on a morning walk. Along North Bay Road, which fronts the Intracoastal, the vibe is decidedly more subdued than along the bustling Collins. Older adults walk their dogs, and a few exercise at Gwen Margolis Park in the shade of a playground.

The city that bills itself as Florida’s Riviera has been a big attraction for families, says Inna Kartunova,who bought a vacation home in 1996. She liked the place so much she decided to make it her permanent residence.

“It’s a unique atmosphere,” Kartunova said. “You have a resort feel, but you also have a residential feel. You come here and you feel like you’re home.”

Sunny Isles Beach, with about 22,000 residents, is also home to a sizable Russian community, earning it the nickname of “Little Moscow.” (Census estimates show that about 10 percent of residents are of Russian origin.) Some of these are wealthy Russians who want to park their money in the United States, including a Russian commercial and residential real estate investor who recently plunked down $5 million for a Porsche Design Tower condo.

But it’s not just wealthy Russians settling or buying second homes here. Plenty of couples and families do, too. Russian-born Inga Boutboul, a senior global real estate adviser at One Sotheby’s International Realty, says many of her Russian clients are actually New Yorkers or residents of other northeastern cities seeking to settle south.

“These are middle-class families who want the same things other buyers want,” she says.

These sought-after amenities include convenience to shopping and cultural activities — Aventura is a bridge away — good schools and lots of parks. Better yet, “the great weather usually accounts for about 50 percent of the decision,” she adds. “They even like the hot summers. They can’t get enough of it.”

As the Russian community has grown, so have the shops and restaurants catering to it. Two eateries, Kalinka and Matryoshka, are a big draw.

For some residents, though, growth has come at a price. Complaints of road congestion abound, and during the winter season especially, Collins Avenue is clogged with honking cars. Traffic congestion is particularly troublesome during pick-up and drop-off time at the city’s highly rated K-8 public school. In fact, traffic was a big issue in last November’s election for two seats on the City Commission.

Without an obvious solution in sight, however, residents say they try to make do.

“We all use the back roads to avoid it,” says Kartunova, who works for the city. “But traffic here is like everywhere else in Miami.”

Such growing pains would have been surprising for the first residents of Sunny Isles. In 1918, Harvey Baker Graves of Rochester, New York, became so enamored with the beauty of the place during a boating trip that he purchased 1,900 acres. “His family thought he had lost his mind,” writes historian Seth H. Bramson in “From Sandbar to Sophistication: The Story of Sunny Isles Beach.”

He hadn’t. By 1925, the first Haulover bridge was completed and Graves began construction of a handful of islands as well as a bathhouse casino, but the destructive 1926 hurricane and then the Great Depression put a stop to further development.

Hope managed to tiptoe back a few years later. In 1938, the Green Heron opened at 168th Street and Collins, one of the many “restricted clientele” hotels that discriminated against certain groups, namely Jews and African-Americans. By then, Milwaukee magnate Kurtis Froedtert owned most of Sunny Isles.

Sunny Isles came into its own after World War II, as motel after motel was built along Collins, giving that strip the reputation as “Motel Row.” In one year alone, 1950, at least 12 motels opened, Bramson said, ushering in one of the most interesting periods of architecture in U.S. history.

In fact, one of the first two-story motels in the country, if not the first, was The Ocean Palm, built in 1948 and designed by the late Miami Beach architect Norman Giller. Sunny Isles became the place to be if you hit town. The Castaway Motel even hosted the Beatles, The Monkees and Jimmy Hendrix in its heyday.

But Motel Row fell on hard times by the 1970s. “It started going downhill,” Bramson says. “No one was willing to put five cents to update those motels, so they went into disrepair.”

In 1997 Sunny Isles voted to incorporate and added Beach to its name. Soon enough well-known developers, including Jorge Pérez, Gil and Michael Dezer and Turnberry Associates, helped revamp the strip. The motels were replaced by luxury high-rises, though a few, including the Thunderbird, the Sahara (with its iconic camels) and the Monaco, remain — for now.

Famous eateries, such as Rascal House (now home to Epicure Market), Scotty’s Drive-In and Jahn’s, disappeared, too. In their stead both fancy restaurants and down-home eateries opened up to serve an increasingly diverse population. Residents repeatedly say they’re proud their tiny city manages to offer such culinary variety.

Armenian-born, Russian-speaking Kartunova says she doesn’t have to drive far to sample dishes from the world’s kitchens. “I know how to cook, but I don’t do it much,” she admits. “I don’t have to. Here you can get good Cuban food, authentic Peruvian and Russian, Israeli and the best coffee and pastries in town. I like the cuisine as much as the people and places.”

Where To Go

Food and Drink

Aji Carbon, 152 Sunny Isles Blvd., 786-463-4501, ajicarbonrestaurant.com

Alba, 17315 Collins Ave., 786-923-9305

AQ by Acqualina, 17875 Collins Ave., 305-918-8000

Azzurro Italian Restaurant & Bar, (in the Golden Strand), 17901 Collins Ave., 305-792-5500

Chayhana Oasis, 250 Sunny Isles Blvd., 305-917-1133, chayhanaoasis.com

Copper Chimney, 18090 Collins Ave., 305-974-0075, copperchimneymiami.com

Cut 38, 18090 Collins Ave., 305- 933-7080

DolceVita Gelato Café, 18288 Collins Ave., 305-933-9990

D’Tako Market Authentic Mexican Cuisine, 17100 Collins Ave., 305-974-0445

El Tropico Cuban Cuisine, 17020 Collins Ave., 305-947-0094,

Granier Bakery, 18230 Collins Ave., 305-974-0469, granierbakery.com

Il Mulino New York-Miami, 17875 Collins Ave.. 305-466-9191

Kalinka Russian-European Delicatessen, 18090 Collins Ave., 305-705-9333

La Barra Cafe & Grill, 17032 Collins Ave., 305-974-0050

Matryoshka, 18220 Collins Ave., 305-974-0250

Mexico Bravo Cantina Bar & Grill, 16850 Collins Ave., Ste 104, 305-948-1158

Mozart Grille, 18120 Collins Ave., 305-974-0098

Neomi's Grill, 18001 Collins Ave., 305- 692-5770

Oasis Restaurant, 250 Sunny Isles Blvd., 786-227-2552

Old Lisbon, 17100 Collins Ave., 305-974-0038

Pachamamma Peruvian Cuisine, 17040 Collins Ave., 305-957-1990, pachamammarestaurant.com

Piazzetta Marketplace and Restaurant, 17875 Collins Ave., 305-918-6816

Porterhouse Bar & Grill, 17004 Collins Ave., 305-949-7757

Timo, 17624 Collins Ave., 305-936-1008, timorestaurant.com

THINGS TO DO

Taste of Sunny Isles Beach, featuring local restaurants, is scheduled for 5-8 p.m. Feb. 18 at Heritage Park, 19200 Collins Ave. Call 305-792-1706 for additional information.

To celebrate the city’s incorporation, monthly bus tours of Sunny Isles Beach are led by historian Seth Bramson. Check schedule at http://www.sibfl.net/sib-historical-bus-tours/

Sunny Isles Beach has 18 public access points for beachgoers. To view where they are, use the Interactive Maps System at http://www.sibfl.net

Parks are a big attraction in the small city, from oceanfront sites to others with space for dogs and children. Check them out at http://www.sunnyislesbeachmiami.com/parks/. Especially notable for its old Florida feel is the Newport Fishing Pier, formerly the Sunny Isles Pier, at 16501 Collins Ave.

The Comedy Zone, at the Ramada Plaza Marco Polo Beach Resort, is part of the nation’s largest chain of stand-up comedy clubs. 19201 Collins Ave., 305-932-2238, comedyzoneworldwide.com

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