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Miami Beach Preservationists Battle Glitterati Over Homes

This house owned by a plastic surgeon and his wife, a cast member on <em>The</em> <em>Real Housewives of Miami</em>, is the poster child for efforts to stop runaway demolitions in Miami Beach.
Courtesy of Arthur Marcus
This house owned by a plastic surgeon and his wife, a cast member on The Real Housewives of Miami, is the poster child for efforts to stop runaway demolitions in Miami Beach.

Some of Miami Beach's quietest and most historic neighborhoods can be found in a chain of small islands connected by a causeway. On Di Lido Island, a community of homes built 50 and 60 years ago is being torn down and replaced, lot by lot. On one street alone, five houses currently are slated for demolition.

Daniel Ciraldo stands across the street from two '60s-era houses that will soon be demolished and replaced by a new home nearly double their combined size.

"We're looking at ceiling heights of around 10 foot per floor. And then a roof deck on top that's going to loom over the neighbors," Ciraldo says.

Ciraldo is a member of the Miami Design Preservation League, a group that 30 years ago helped convince Miami Beach to preserve its district of Art Deco-era hotels. Now the group is working to save historic homes in Miami Beach's neighborhoods.

As Miami Beach's real estate market has heated up, Ciraldo says, developers have discovered the neighborhoods. Homes on the water costing millions — even historic ones — now are considered tear-downs.

For years, he says, Miami Beach saw just two or three demolitions a year in residential neighborhoods. But that's changed.

"In 2012, that number skyrocketed to 24. And in 2013, we're projecting 29. And so we're looking at about eight years' worth of demolitions now happening in one year," Ciraldo says.

Ciraldo and his group are worried about the demolitions and how the new, large houses — McMansions, detractors call them — are changing the character of the neighborhoods. They're also concerned about Miami Beach's history.

A Real Battle

Star Island, a short drive across another causeway, has some of the area's best views. It overlooks Biscayne Bay and the Miami skyline. Some homes here sell for $35 million.

Ciraldo parks outside of a house that's become the poster child for efforts to stop the runaway demolitions.

"It is one of the most visible and most historic homes in Miami Beach," Ciraldo says.

It was designed and built in 1925 by one of Florida's first architects. But this is where history collides with reality — or at least reality TV. The owners of the home are featured on the Bravo TV show Real Housewives of Miami. Leonard Hochstein is a plastic surgeon who has trademarked his nickname, the "Boob God." His wife, one of the reality TV show's stars, is Lisa Hochstein.

After buying the property on Star Island, the Hochsteins asked Miami Beach for permission to tear it down and replace it with a 20,000-square-foot compound, complete with wine cellar, five-car garage, a guesthouse and staff quarters.

The city gave permission for demolition, but the Miami Design Preservation League intervened. The group sought to have the home designated historic, went to court, and so far have blocked demolition.

In the meantime, the fight has spurred Miami Beach to declare a temporary moratorium on demolitions in the city while it considers ways to update its zoning and better preserve historic homes.

At a recent city commission meeting, Dr. Hochstein said that the moratorium is aimed at him.

"The moratorium is about punishment. It's about punishing individuals. And nobody knows that more than me — because what myself and my family have had to go through since we have tried to do something everybody has the right to do, and followed the rules enacted by the city in doing so," he said.

Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower doesn't quite see it that way.

"How about he's picking on us because he wants to demolish it? And there's more people that don't want that demolished. He's picking on Miami Beach," she says.

The moratorium, the mayor points out, doesn't affect the Hochsteins' home or others that have already received demolition permits. If the court ultimately finds in the Hochstein's favor, they can tear down the 88-year-old home and replace it with their dream house.

But Bower says even if the home is lost, the battle has mobilized the community, bringing more and more residents out to city commission meetings.

"They see the quality of life changing. That's why so many people are coming, because 10 years ago, they had never seen a house — what could go next to it. Now they see it," Bower says.

The battle over the future of the homes of Star Island will play out in the courts — and also on TV. The Hochsteins angered historic preservationists recently when they spattered fake blood on the walls of the vacant mansion for a gangster-themed party. Among the guests were fellow cast members of The Real Housewives of Miami — and a Bravo TV film crew.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.