|A Bumpy Biscayne Landing|
|Written by Mark Sell|
Life in North Miami’s notorious residential development is not great -- but not so bad, either
You probably know the rough story: Boca Developers dreamed up a $3 billion, mixed-use, high-end residential city-within-a-city for 6000 people on 193 acres of publicly owned land that was once a notorious toxic dump east of Biscayne Boulevard between 137th and 151st streets in North Miami.
They called the development Biscayne Landing and built two striking, 25-story twin condo towers -- Oaks I and Oaks II -- with a combined 373 units, and then executed a belly-flop spectacular even by Miami standards, defaulting on a $200 million loan at a 100-percent loss. The market and economy tanked and condo owners bailed.
After much litigation and squabbling, the City of North Miami regained control of the property and now has issued requests for proposals to find a savior with pockets deep enough to develop the remaining 183 acres, clean out the underground contaminants, and pay the city at least the $25 million required to satisfy the terms of the 200-year lease.
It’s no surprise that Biscayne Landing has a bad rap. It’s an arrested development, bounded by chainlink fences, tarps, orange semaphores, and the fenced-off Superfund site. Twice a month, if the wind is right, a flatulent, sulfurous odor wafts from the Miami-Dade sewage treatment facility just to the north during filter changes. (Alternate narrative: It’s the nutrients from the bay at low tide. In any case, the stench comes erratically and, when it arrives, generally dissipates within 24 hours.)
But what’s it like to actually live at Biscayne Landing? Well, I can tell you. My family and I live there, and all in all, it’s not bad.
People stream into the place every day in big moving vans and little U-Haul trailers, in gleaming Lexus SUVs and 1994 maroon Toyotas. Of 162 bank-owned units, 60 percent are occupied, up from a mere 5 percent this past November. The new residents speak English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Russian, and Kreyol, and come in most conceivable colors, shapes, sizes, ages, and occupations. Some are hale, some not so much. (Biscayne Landing is friendly to people with disabilities, and includes apartment numbers in Braille.)
Taken together, the population resembles a reasonably diverse jury pool, or a slice of the human parade at Hollywood Beach. Dogs are as mixed as their owners: Labs, poodles, schnauzers, bichons, pugs, boxers, and honorable mutts. One must step adroitly through the grass and mind one’s shoes in the elevator. For that reason, dogs are now verboten for new occupants.
Restless kids had indulged their Huck Finn imaginings by swerving on skateboards in front of cars, chasing each other with plastic death-ray guns, or wrapping themselves in toilet paper to play mummy by the entrance. But that, too, is fading, as the condo association and Kent Security guards clamp down. The place could use a playground and tot lot.
Palms, oaks, jacarandas, and impatiens grace the premises. It’s tough to slalom around all those speed bumps in the 563-space garage. With no guard gate, round-the-clock Kent Security guards double-team to take visitors’ names and let traffic through.
The apartments inside are huge. You can get a 1700-square-foot unit with two bedrooms and two-and-half baths on a low floor for about $1700 a month, or a 2500-square-foot penthouse with three bedrooms and three-and-a-half baths for about $2600. Not cheap, not quite luxe, but certainly pleasant enough. Singles, including FIU students, often double or triple up.
Apartments come with high-end kitchens and giant marble master bathrooms with spa bathtubs that provide the illusion of “arrival.” Outdoor catwalks keep things breezy in the front and balconies afford verdant views of protected wetland forest on the lower floors, and water views from the 11th floor up. The 1043-acre Oleta River State Park and the Arch Creek East preserve are nearby, with Sunny Isles towers in the near distance. Washer, dryer, cable, phone, and sometimes unreliable Internet are included in the rent.
Walk across 151st Street and you’re in North Miami Stadium, next to Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School. The sounds of football and soccer games played there often drift up to the balconies, as do the Haitian festivals celebrating national holidays, with compas music emanating from the PA system.
Walk a half mile down the street and past the woods and you’re at David Lawrence Jr., K-8 Center, where rotating flashing messages reflect the uplift of its namesake, the former Miami Herald publisher and child advocate. (“We are a five-star ‘A’ school” …“Prevent bullying and violence.”) Less than a mile away is the Biscayne Bay campus of FIU. Cut through Oleta River State Park’s outskirts and you are a two-mile bike or jog from the beach.
Not bad at all, and yet reminders persist that you are not in a normal area.
Next to the security guard there’s a four-foot, candy-cane-shaped white PVC pipe about five inches thick. Every so often, DERM-dispatched inspectors monitor the air for the ammonia and methane that lurk beneath the old dump. So far, so good -- or so residents are told.
Ponds dredged from the muck teem with ducks, fish, and turtles begging for scraps from passersby. Far as we can tell, no mutant mini Godzillas prowl the fenced-off woods just to the east (christened “Stephen King Forest” by our youngest daughter), but you do find lots of rabbits, and frogs can climb to fifth-floor balconies and beyond.
“Biscayne Landing needs to become a force,” says North Miami Councilman Scott Galvin. In other words, things need to improve, whether it’s the odor from the county sewage plant or the course of surrounding development.
Although the condo association calls the shots, Biscayne Landing is not yet a community, and resident-owners are in short supply. There is no clubhouse for kvelling and kvetching (the generous mailrooms don’t quite cut it), and no swimming pool, but there is a fine fitness center, where the aerobically adept and Incredible Hulks with MP3s do their business, grunt, pant, and leave.
To swim honest laps, you can pay seven bucks at FIU down the street or six bucks at the Miami Shores aquatic center. For tennis, you can try Sans Souci, less than two miles south.
Biscayne Landing works well for busy people and families with established social networks. Most people seem to like it. Some love it. But the place is dead at midday and offers no solace for the lonely. “When I moved out of here, I ran,” says Mario, a divorced former heavy-equipment operator retired on a disability, with time on his hands. He moved to an oceanfront place in Hallandale Beach with a pool and large common area. He’s happier there, but still comes back to hang out with the security guards who hear people’s joys and sorrows. Nan, one floor below from us, fled to Boca.
Yet for all the development interruptus, there is hope. Whoever takes over Biscayne Landing must agree to put in a clubhouse and pool, and provide more direct access than the long, winding road now called Royal Oaks Lane. Sooner or later, it has to happen.
In the meantime, you can watch, wait, pray for mercy on the rates at lease’s end, and lay down stakes, if only temporarily, as an urban pioneer between the old dump and the woods, greeting the sun from the master bedroom and bidding it goodbye from the front walkway with a toast to tomorrow.
Volume 12, Issue 8. October 2014
The Smithsonian honors a local documentary photographer
Sales, special events, and more from the people who make Biscayne Times possible