Courtesy of The Miami Herald
Published August 26, 2015
Grove Isle, the gated island enclave just off Coconut
Grove prized by residents for its tranquility and panoramic bay views, has
been less than tranquil lately.
The close-knit, well-to-do high-rise community, which boasts some of Miami’s
leading lights among its members, has been roiled by a developer’s plans to
demolish the island’s upscale, if dated, club and hotel facilities and
replace them with even more luxurious condominiums and amenities — a project
that residents say would disrupt those cherished water vistas and their
low-key version of paradise.
The storyline is not by itself unusual as developers
scour every last bit of Miami’s waterfront for opportunities to build amid
an overheated luxury condo market, sometimes bringing them into conflict
with residents of long-established neighborhoods. What is uncommon is that
Grove Isle’s affluent residents appear able and willing to take a
deep-pocketed developer, with millions of dollars on the line, to the mat.
|But there’s also a unique twist
because of the island’s history: Its three 18-story towers
and club were built in the late 1970s under a landmark legal
settlement, reached after a lawsuit, protests and
road-blocking demonstrations by Groveites and
environmentalists, in which Grove Isle’s original developer,
builder and art collector Martin Margulies, agreed to
drastically scale back the project. The resulting covenant,
still in vigor, also gives its residents some unusual
leverage, and many of them say they would like to keep Grove
Isle pretty much as it is, thank you very much.
“It’s a really nice place to live, and I hope it will
continue to be,” said Janet McAliley, a former Miami-Dade school board
member who was among the picketers fighting construction of four proposed
40-story towers at Grove Isle years before moving to the island in 1997.
“They told me nothing would ever be built in front of me, and that I would
always have an open view of the bay.”
That assumption, to the consternation of many Grove Isle residents, turned
out to be wrong.
Seven of the island’s 20 acres, including the club and hotel, are owned
privately. Veteran Miami developer Eduardo Avila and a group of investors
bought the property in 2013, and shortly afterwards announced plans to
redevelop it — first with an 18-story tower and, after that plan ran into
stiff opposition and potential zoning issues, with a 90-foot tall,
horseshoe-shaped 65-unit condo and club complex curling around the oval
island’s north-facing shoreline.
The island’s association and an activist resident group formed in response
to the development plans, whose leaders say they represent a solid majority
of Grove Isle owners, have since managed to stymie Avila at every turn.
“They declared war on the project,” a frustrated Avila said.
When Avila sought to restrict residents’ use of two club parking lots,
citing liability and maintenance concerns and threatening to have their cars
towed if they didn’t comply, their representatives went to court on a
weekend and managed to win an emergency injunction barring the tow trucks
from the island. Avila, who some residents claim was just trying to get back
at them for blocking his plans, eventually relented.
Miami building officials have sat on Avila’s demolition application for
months, awaiting resolution of a lawsuit by residents over the club
facilities, and prompting a pending lawsuit against the city by the
developer. The developer’s plans, meanwhile, have become an issue in city
elections to replace term-limited Mayor Tomás Regalado and district
commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose wife is running for his seat and is trying
to shore up support among Groveites. She was pointedly criticized by some
residents for missing a town hall meeting at Grove Isle on the proposed
Just last week, the island association and Preserve Grove Isle, the activist
group, won a legal victory when a judge ruled in their suit that Avila must
provide residents a club, a pool and at least eight tennis courts, whether
in the existing facilities or as part of new construction. Miami-Dade
Circuit Judge Bronwyn Miller’s order also requires that the existing
facilities, which Avila intended to shut down and demolish this summer, must
stay open at least until he’s ready to build, and
then must be replaced with temporary amenities of commensurate quality while
construction, which will take two years, proceeds.
The order cites the 1977 covenant in concluding the club and its amenities
are an integral part of the development. Moreover, she wrote, because Grove
Isle residents are required to join the club and 32 residents bought
lifetime memberships, an enticement offered when the condos first went on
sale, there needs to be a club for them to be members of and pay required
Avila and his attorney, John Shubin, say the developer always intended to
provide existing residents with a new club and amenities. They have not
decided whether to appeal Miller’s ruling, but say they want to work out an
agreement with residents for continued club operations.
Avila, who had briefly closed the club and its popular Gibraltar restaurant,
which is open to the general public, agreed to reopen the facility while the
suit was still pending, although the hotel, which is not part of the case,
remains shuttered and the developer says he’s undecided whether to reopen
In a waterfront city with few waterfront dining options, Gibraltar has drawn
a loyal clientele from outside Grove Isle. When Avila shut it down, Miami
hip-hop star Pitbull, a habitue, tweeted out a photo of himself sitting at a
bayside table at Gibraltar to his 21 million followers in support of
Preserve Grove Isle: “Can’t believe my favorite place Grove Isle is closing
What Miller’s order doesn’t do is resolve the question of what Avila can
The island association’s attorney, Joe Serota, concedes the order doesn’t
stop Avila from building condos, and that he likely has a right to do so if
city planning and zoning officials approve his plans. But Miller’s detailed
order may well complicate those plans because Avila must find a way to
provide high-quality temporary club services and amenities even as he builds
new structures that would take up much of the available land, then
transition to permanent facilities with minimal
In addition, Preserve Grove Island founder Alan Goldfarb notes, Avila’s
blueprint would put the new club on the island’s backside, facing the Grove
mainland, when the covenant explicitly requires that it face Biscayne Bay.
Miller retained jurisdiction over the case to ensure Avila complies, and
residents and their attorneys say they will be back in court if he doesn’t.
“They’re going to have to really rejigger their plans,” said Preserve Grove
Isle’s attorney, Glen Waldman. “They can build, but they can’t build what’s
on the table.”
Avila and Shubin beg to differ. They say the developer, who’s working on
construction documents, can start as soon as he obtains building permits, a
matter of months, because his plans meet zoning rules without the need for
any exceptions. They say temporary club facilities could be offered in
They also contend “a vocal minority” of residents is simply bent on doing
all they can to frustrate Avila’s progress in the hope he’ll give up. Though
Avila says he has been flexible and available to discuss his plans with
residents, he claims he’s been rebuffed. A mediation session failed to
resolve the issue.
“In my opinion, this is about a community that is very fearful of change and
has instructed its professional representatives to do everything humanly
possible to prevent that change,” Shubin said.
Shubin notes Avila and his investors have patience and staying power as
well. Avila and some of the same investors in the Grove Isle project waited
three years to obtain approval of a massive Mediterranean Village
development in downtown Coral Gables as planners, elected officials and
residents picked apart their plans.
Goldfarb and association president Tim Moore insist there’s no vendetta
But they say the developer alienated residents by failing to seek their
input before unveiling his plans and closing the club, and they’re just
trying to protect the rights of Grove Isle owners. Though they say most
residents’ preference is for the developer to refurbish existing club
facilities and expand or replace the hotel, they might grudgingly accept
something entirely new — though not the current design, which would
completely wall off views of the water to the north for many on the island.
“I love getting up early in the morning and watching the sun rise over the
bay,” said McAliley, whose condo would face the proposed new building. “A
solid wall would take that all away.”
Avila said he remains willing to talk to residents, but plans to get on with
building his project.
“We intend to live with the court decision and look, finally, after two
years, to do what we do,” he said. “We’re in the development business, not
the litigation business.”