October 28, 2020

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Beach OKs Aman condo amid concerns from billionaire neighbors

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The developers behind a proposed Aman-brand hotel and condo tower at the site of the historic Versailles hotel received initial approval from the Miami Beach City Commission on Wednesday, despite opposition from wealthy neighbors who argued the project would “obliterate” their beach views and preservation activists who said it would set a precedent for the construction of taller towers in the neighborhood.

The Aman Miami Beach, a joint project between Miami-based OKO Group and Access Industries, envisions restoring the gutted Versailles into a 56-room hotel and building a second, taller condo tower on the southeast end of the property at 3425 Collins Ave.

The condo owners next door at the Faena House Condominium — including Goldman Sachs executives, a Russian oil tycoon and a former U.S. ambassador — lobbied city officials to reject the project due to a proposed height increase and setbacks that would push the building as far away from the Versailles as possible and situate it 100 feet from their balconies.

In a July 24 letter to the Miami Beach Planning Board, which later voted in favor of the zoning amendments, a contingent of the wealthiest Faena House owners led by condominium board president Thomas Stern spoke against the variances developers are seeking.

“Based upon the myriad of height increases and variances in connection with the development of the Faena District, our concern is that a new tower located further south and east at a height of 250 feet with a corresponding increase in mass will negatively impact our quality of life,” Stern wrote in the letter. “More specifically, such a massive new tower immediately to our north, located closer to the ocean, will obliterate our views to the beach and ocean, cast extensive shade and darkness, and cause other deleterious impacts to our units.”

Residents at the nearby King David Towers also voiced opposition, but those at the Mosaic and Caribbean condominiums just down the street have been supportive. Preservation activists including Daniel Ciraldo, executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League, and former Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez said the proposed tower was incompatible with other buildings in the Collins Waterfront Local Historic District.

Miami Beach Planning Director Thomas Mooney wrote in a July memo that the height increase “may be out of scale with the surrounding historic neighborhood and ocean front properties,” but the administration recommended the commission approve the request.

“As it pertains to the proposed increase in height, even if adopted by the City Commission, the Historic Preservation Board still has the full authority to evaluate the overall massing and design of any new construction in accordance with the Certificate of Appropriateness review criteria, and require a lower height and modifications to the design,” Mooney wrote. “In light of the unique nature and history of the site as outlined above, staff believes that the additional height may be warranted if benefits to the historic Versailles tower can be established, as determined by the Historic Preservation Board.”

Commissioners did not approve the project itself — the Historic Preservation Board is responsible for that due to its location in a historic district — but were asked to clear the way for the development by amending the zoning rules in the Faena Overlay District where the property is located to allow a 250-foot tower, reduced parking requirements and custom setbacks.

Before they cast a final vote on Oct. 14, commissioners will seek an advisory opinion from the Historic Preservation Board. If the land-use amendments pass the commission on second reading, the developer may seek project approval from the board.

The 23-unit condo tower will be designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. Belgian architect Jean-Michel Gathy will design the new Versailles hotel, which was originally designed by architect Roy France and constructed in 1940. The developer has already demolished a 1955 addition to the hotel, removing a 90-foot-long mosaic mural designed by artist Jack Stewart that preservationists campaigned to save. The developers have offered to install the mural, which depicts Apollo pulling the chariot of the sun across the sky, at the entrance to the public 17th Street garage near City Hall, but the city opposes its placement there due to planned redevelopment to the garage site and a lack of wall space to display the mural.

At the behest of the city, commissioners said the development team must agree to a public-benefits package in exchange for the height increase and relaxation of minimum building setbacks. The city proposed that developers commit to resiliency and water-management benefits or contribute to an affordable housing trust fund.

In a statement to the Miami Herald, the OKO Group said the project would be executed with “considered and careful design,” in line with Aman’s history of developing “high-end, low-impact properties which are respectful of their physical surroundings and the history and culture of their communities — including 13 resorts bordering UNESCO World Heritage Sites.”

The project would yield the city about $3 million in property and resort taxes.

“We appreciate that the Miami Beach Commission took the time to carefully analyze how the proposed Faena District Overlay Amendments will protect historic buildings within the District and usher in compatible new development in the future,” OKO Group said in a statement. “The commission’s favorable vote at first reading reflects the widespread support that Aman Miami Beach has earned within the local community.”

Miami Herald staff writer Rene Rodriguez contributed to this report.

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