The Biscayne Times

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Oct 22nd
Biscayne, Bay of Sunken Dreams PDF Print E-mail
Written by Margaret Griffis, BT Contributor   
October 2019

Imagine if the bay had been dredged and filled to the brim with new islands

BDreams_1ack in the 1960s, when Miami resident Eric Moss was growing up on the Venetian Islands, “Pelican Island” was a short trip north by skiff.

Not to be confused with the official Pelican Island just west of North Bay Village, this assemblage of hundreds of old wooden pilings jutting out of Biscayne Bay, just south of the Julia Tuttle Causeway, can hardly be called an island. But it had earned its local nickname from the large numbers of pelicans that would roost atop the pilings each winter. And from vague memories that the posts were what remained of a developer’s shattered dream.

Traveling across the Julia Tuttle today, you can easily see post after barnacle-encrusted post, a curiosity dotting the magnificent view near the city limits between Miami and Miami Beach. But imagine, while you’re slowed during rush hour, that ring of pilings as dry land, created by fill dredged from the bay’s bottom, and topped with rows of Mediterranean Revival homes so common to Miami.

Could that have really happened?

Dreams_2_Bigstock_204557551According to the Miami-Dade County tax records, the underwater lot -- all 4,451,832 square feet of it -- is currently owned by the State of Florida. The north edge, facing the Julia Tuttle Causeway is about 1000 feet across, as is the southern edge. The east and west borders are both about 4200 feet long. The lot is not exactly a rectangle, as it is missing a tiny “chip” on the southeast corner to complete it. Most of the property is within Miami Beach city limits, with a triangular section on the northwest corner lying on the Miami side.

The property is zoned as “community facilities,” and the tax roll describes it as “coastal water (bay only) within the Biscayne Bay Urban Aquatic Preserve.” The preserve includes 64,607 submerged acres between the Oleta River and Card Sound, near Key Largo.

Perhaps taking their cues from the resident seabirds, Moss and the other neighborhood boys knew the location as an excellent place to fish, particularly for a prized snook dinner. Moss tells the BT he also heard about its disappointment as a developer’s island dream “only every damned time we crossed the Tuttle, both ways.”

Moss’s father was Harold Moss, who along with Eric’s grandfather, Erving Moss, developed residential and commercial properties as Moss & Son. They operated mostly in the Miami suburbs from the 1940s through the 1960s. Their company built the Westchester Shopping Center and a third of the homes surrounding it.

Dreams_3Like other developers, Harold Moss also nurtured an outsized dream. “He always wanted a piece of [Pelican Island] as an investment, and to subdivide and develop,” says Eric. “He would speculate about which way they would provide access to Pelican -- via the Tuttle or through Alton through Sunset Islands.” But Moss & Son focused on investing in western Miami instead.

As it turns out, Harold Moss had picked up the dream from developers who came before him.

Like so many Miami stories, the history of Pelican Island begins with the Florida land boom and involves some of the most famous names of the era, and some no longer well known -- much like Pelican Island’s original name, Isola di Lolando.

Isola di Lolando was to be a new addition to the Italian-themed residential islands comprising the Venetian chain. Connected to Di Lido Island via a new north-south causeway that was to be called Drive of the Campanili, or Campanile Drive. Isola di Lolando would follow the same pattern of Mediterranean Revival homes, but on a larger scale. And that was just for starters; four more islands would rise out of the bay pushing north along Drive of the Campanili.

Of course, the Venetian Islands are a well-known Miami landmark today. From west to east, they are Biscayne, San Marco, San Marino, Di Lido, Rivo Alto, and Belle Isle. Five of the islands were completely man-made, with only Belle Isle (formerly Bull or Bull’s Isle) existing prior to the development of the manmade islands. Biscayne Island didn’t receive an Italian name because it was only dredged to maintain the causeway. It was also used as an airfield before it was finally platted in 1936 for residences.

Dreams_4The Venetian Causeway is now on the National Register of Historic Places, as the oldest causeway in the county. Its importance as “the final phase of the development of the island communities and...a vital link to the surrounding Miami-Miami Beach areas” is noted in the 1989 application that nominated the causeway for historic designation.

According to the same application, credit for the first residential dredging project in Miami belongs to Locke T. Highleyman, a wealthy real estate developer from St. Louis. In 1914, Highleyman filled in the marshland that became the Point View neighborhood in the Brickell area, creating value not only for himself, but adding it to adjacent properties as well.

Besides providing inspiration to other developers, Highleyman later played a small role in the creation of Isola di Lolando and the Venetian Islands chain.

Highleyman loaned money to help his friend and fellow land developer John S. Collins, who built the first bridge to Miami Beach. Although he eventually bowed out of the Collins Bridge project, Highleyman introduced Collins to entrepreneur and auto racing enthusiast Carl Fisher, whose financial assistance was necessary to complete the bridge, which opened on June 12, 1913, and greatly enhanced tourism to Miami Beach.

The meteoric rise in population during the 1910s and early 1920s brought in even more developers with dreams. Among them were Hugh M. Anderson and Josiah F. Chaille, who formed the Bay Biscayne Improvement Company in 1921 in order to replace the Collins Bridge with a more substantial causeway and create the Venetian Islands for residential purposes. (Among company executives was Colonel Frank Shutts, who founded the Miami Herald in 1910.) By 1924, Anderson would partner with Roy C. Wright to form the Shoreland Company, which would take charge of the Venetian project and begin the development of Miami Shores.

The new causeway from Miami to Miami Beach opened on February 28, 1926, shortly after the filling in of the Venetian Islands. During construction, the Raymond Concrete Pile Co. of New York replaced the wooden Collins Bridge with a new roadway made of concrete and steel that still exists (thanks to frequent repairs and an extensive renovation in 1999). Most of the causeway rests on the Venetian Islands with ten fixed bridges and two draw bridges connecting the islands to the mainland and Miami Beach.

With brisk sales, the Venetian Islands project was considered a success, and plans were made to expand it with several new islands to the north.

Dreams_5In her 1995 book The Life and Times of Miami Beach, Ann Armbruster writes that each of the new islands would come with its own “Venetian-style bell tower that would be constructed at the center of each island, and bronze bells would ring at set intervals all down the way.” Hence the name Campanili, which is derived from the Italian word campanile, or bell tower.

A 1926 map of Biscayne Bay shows a chain of islands -- each isle significantly larger than the existing Venetians -- that resemble five railroad cars zigzagging up the middle of Biscayne Bay. The Drive of the Campanili would have ended in the north at Miami Shores Island (now divided into Indian Creek and Bay Harbor Islands).

The labels on the 1926 map also reveal two more names, Isola di Torcello and Isola di Capri. The remaining two residential islands were simply marked Island No. 8 and Island No. 9 at the time.

The plans didn’t end there. A June 2, 1925, article in the Miami Daily News and Metropolis mentions the new residential islands and the promise of “four wing islands...to provide the county with locations for two more causeways.” On the 1926 map, it appears that two of the “wing” islands would have been dredged about where the John F. Kennedy Causeway and North Bay Village now exist.

Despite the Venetian Islands’ huge success as a residential development, the new expansion project met with controversy, according to the Miami Daily News and Metropolis. Many Miami residents were concerned about the “mutilation of the waterway” and warned of the destruction of the bay’s beauty by overdevelopment. The new islands would have blocked most of the views between Miami and Miami Beach. Over numerous objections, the Miami Chamber of Commerce endorsed the project anyway. Hundreds of pilings were soon pounded into the bay bottom, circumscribing what would have been Isola di Lolando. Those are the posts seen today.

Obviously, these plans were not meant to be. In their 2016 book, Miami Beach: A Centennial History, Howard Kleinberg and Carolyn Klepser note that the unbuilt lots (still submerged) went on the market October 20, 1925, but sales were sluggish even before the 1926 real estate bust. The Shoreland Company was already on shaky ground, having overextended itself, so by the time the Great Miami Hurricane rolled through on September 18, 1926, the boom and all the dreams of filling in Biscayne Bay were drowned.

Well, not quite. Despite the bust and storm, one of Miami Beach’s founding fathers, Henri Levy, continued his dredging operations and filled in the Isle of Normandy, a development influenced by his French background. By 1929, the 79th Street Causeway (now the John F. Kennedy Causeway) opened to traffic between Normandy Isle and Miami. In the 1940s, North Bay Village joined the artificial archipelago within Biscayne Bay. And the Julia Tuttle Causeway eventually opened in 1961.

Although Isola di Lolando is part of a nature preserve, it’s likely that numerous developers and dreamers crossing the Tuttle still imagine raising a new island between the pilings. That dream never really dies.

 

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