Towering Rage

Luxury condo developers up the ante with critics

The Related Group isn't just moving expensive condos. It's selling cachet, and much of that is built around Jorge Pérez, the company's founder and chairman. Under Pérez's direction, the Related Group has "redefined the South Florida landscape," according to its website, with more than 55,000 apartments and condos.

Pérez started his career as an urban planner for the City of Miami and switched to development in the late 1970s. Forbes magazine now estimates his net worth at $1.8 billion.

There's a captivating portrait of Pérez in the Icon sales center. He's on the beach, looking relaxed but confident with a tan suit jacket slung over his shoulder. His gaze is penetrating. His handsome, tanned face seems to suggest: You could be like me.

Don Hall, a lawyer for Icon's developers, hopes the tower will someday block his river view.
Don Hall, a lawyer for Icon's developers, hopes the tower will someday block his river view.

You'd just need a tough hide when the neighbors come calling.

Pérez's Related Group is also butting heads in Coconut Grove, just 25 miles south of Fort Lauderdale. The developer wants to build three 310-foot-tall condo towers on 6.7 acres of bayfront land there that it is purchasing with a partner for $96 million.

Many neighbors aren't happy about it. Directors of the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens are chief among the discontented. The condos, they argue, will spoil the view from Vizcaya's Renaissance-inspired gardens. And the rezoning of the land to high-density residential use will pave the way for further development near the landmark estate.

"The threat to the neighborhood, and the threat to Vizcaya, goes beyond the current project," says John Hinson, a vocal opponent of the towers. "It establishes a precedent for future additional buildings even closer to Vizcaya."

Hinson, himself a high-end developer, has known Pérez for years. He's also a director for the Vizcayans, a nonprofit group that supports the museum. When acrimony over the site erupted, Pérez called on Hinson to work out a compromise, Hinson says, but they failed to see eye to eye. Now they're duking it out in court.

"I've known Jorge Pérez for decades, and until this issue, I've always described Jorge as my friend," Hinson says. "And he now describes me as a tree-hugger, and to him that is a pejorative...

"I told him this project is fine; it's just in the wrong place. And that he should have more respect for the community."

Pérez did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Hinson has heard about the Related lawsuit against the Stranahan House supporters, so he realizes that he too could be sued. But he says that possibility won't silence him.

"I think that I'm doing the right thing, and if I'm doing the right thing, I don't believe there will be adverse consequences."

The April suit singles out one Stranahan House supporter by name: Scott Strawbridge. A contractor by trade, Strawbridge got his first taste of preservation work in 1983 through odd jobs at another historic Fort Lauderdale property, the Bonnet House. That gig led to other projects, including work at the Stranahan House.

Feeling that Icon was too big for the site and that the project had gotten approvals in closed-door meetings, Strawbridge rallied against it. "The beefs that we have, and always have had, have to do with the fundamental right to due process," he says. "This is also about the First Amendment — it's about my right to question the government."

Still, Strawbridge is unnerved by the lawsuit. When he first got wind of it, he says, he broke out in shingles that spread from the left side of his chest clear across his back. The Stranahan House has an insurance policy against such litigation, but Strawbridge, a recently divorced father of two, had to seek separate legal counsel. He's less worried about mounting legal costs than a seven-figure verdict against him. "I'm not a millionaire," he says.

"Truthfully," he adds, as if to reassure himself, "what are they going to do — take $100 from my paycheck for the rest of my life?" He throws his arms in the air. "When the stakes are that high..."

Strawbridge has tried to coax others to keep voicing their concerns about Icon, he says, but it's a tough sell. He feels alone in this fight.

"I wonder how other people feel — are they going to stand up for their neighborhoods?" he asks. "I'm not going to be silenced like that."

For the first time in years, Stranahan House Executive Director Barbara Keith is hesitant to speak about Icon. The lawsuit has made her cautious enough to suggest that lawyers should be the only ones talking about the rift between the little, 106-year-old house and its aspiring neighbor.

Keith, who took over the day-to-day operations of the historic home in 1992, says she worries that a crane could fall on the house while the high-rise is under construction. Or that, once built, the tower will cast an unrelenting shadow on the property.

"This is the only place to preserve the roots of this city," she says. "People have said 'Move it down the river' — but the land is just as important as the building."

The Icon site, like much of downtown Fort Lauderdale, once belonged to Ivy and Frank Stranahan, who were among the first to settle in the area. But when Frank died in 1929, he left Ivy with a pile of debt. The widow deeded most of the block where her home sits to a single creditor, Edith Burnham.

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